Robert Klippel

In an exhibition of Robert Klippel's works at Annette Larkin Fine Art, perhaps the best-known Australian sculptor of the twentieth century is shown at his most puckish.

James Gleeson’s expansive 1983 monograph on friend and sometimes-collaborator Robert Klippel opens with an except from the young artist’s journal on 23 October, 1945. The excerpt comprises a list of questions about the function and purpose of art, ending with one statement: “I want to build on a firm foundation – step by step I have started to find out what [art] is all about.” 

The senses of exploration, curiosity, and play that the twenty-five-year-old Klippel expressed in his journal drove his work throughout his career, even into the end of the twentieth century. In part, these are attitudes inherited from the modernist climate in which Klippel learned and worked. As Gleeson writes, “Klippel belongs to a generation of artists who were born into a time when it was possible to accept the results of the tremendous artistic upheavals of the early twentieth century as a firm ground on which to build their art.” With periods spent living in London, Paris, and the US through the forties, fifties, and sixties, ripples of many Euro-American modernist movements move through Klippel’s work, refracted and re-constituted by an artist with a devotion to his forms and materials, and with the unique perspective of a Sydney-born former model-maker, traveller, and father.

Klippel’s early career was as a wool-buyer; he joined the Navy when World War II broke out. Here, from 1943 to 1945, his skill at carving miniatures saw him employed to make model ships and planes to be used in recognition training. By all accounts, Klippel did not think of these early carvings as “art” objects, or of his activity in carving them as an artistic one. Nevertheless, this origin story is almost too neat to be believed when taking in the sculptural and collage works of his later career, where mechanical and machinic forms pervade, and where ideas of automation, implications of movement, and use of practical, “everyday” materials abide. 

The current presentation of Klippel’s works at Annette Larkin Fine Art, In Colour – Robert Klippel: Sculpture and Works on Paper 1962–1998, includes small-scale assemblages, collages, other works on paper, and one significant large sculpture. These date from the period that Klippel spent largely back in Sydney after his stints around the northern hemisphere. The works are formally diverse, making use of materials from plastics and found pieces of metal to wire, wood, and paper itself. 

Notable works in the exhibition grapple with a number of principles of modern artmaking. Klippel’s interventions in this field often crossed the borderlines of specific media, with sculptures responding to his peers’ innovations in painting, and vice versa. No. 234, 1976, for example, sees a sequence of transparent plastic boxes bought from a gift shop stacked in a tower, their different colours and heights providing variation in an otherwise streamlined, minimal construction. Gleeson observes that this work has “an intense vitality not unlike that achieved on canvas by painters like Nolan, Newman or Rothko. Klippel was certainly aware of these artists and others like them, and it is not unlikely that some lingering memory of that experience is enshrined, in adaptation, in his painted works of the period.” 

In No. 876 – Standing Mobile, c. 1967, we can see Klippel considering again the precedents set by forbears and peers globally. The work demonstrates what Deborah Edwards has identified as a key concern of Klippel’s: the idea that well-constructed sculptures might all imply the movement of their parts through their own achievement of formal resolution, without being “kinetic sculptures” in the traditional sense. Edwards writes that “Klippel once said that he couldn’t see any point in kinetic sculpture; that there wasn’t any necessity to have parts move. In contrast to the kinetic works of Jean Tinguely and Alexander Calder for example, which imply movement as a product of an interrelationship with the sculpture’s environment…Klippel’s sense [was] of latent or inherent kineticism.” 

Significant as this intervention is, though, the work seems highly personal, as well as art-historical. It was made around the time that Klippel’s son was born, and has clear connections to the delight and open-eyed wonder of childhood, and to the construction of “non-art” objects found around the home. The inclusion of this work is a replenishing reminder that we might wisely take the fun in Klippel’s works at face value, and simply enjoy their humour, their invention, their ordinariness. A vitrine holding many of Klippel’s miniature constructions at the back of the gallery presents perhaps the most joyous opportunity to do this; there are so many little characters to be found here, so many tiny gestural lines and delicate moments of delight, and so many reminders that toy-like objects – like the model ships with which Klippel began his work as a maker – can have real bearing us, from our psychic lives to the battles in which we still find ourselves today. 

In Colour – Robert Klippel: Sculpture and Works on Paper 1962-1998
14 October – 3 December 2022
Annette Larkin Fine Art, Sydney

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