Robert KLIPPEL, Number 751 Enlarge 1 /1


Potts Point, New South Wales, Australia 1920 – Sydney, Australia 2001

  • England, France 1947-50
  • USA 1957-63, 1966-67

Number 751 [No. 751] 1989 Place made: Meridian Foundry, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Creation Notes: cast 1997 by Meridian Foundry, Melbourne
Materials & Technique: sculptures, bronze Edition: number 1 from an edition of 6

Edition Notes: cast by Meridan Foundry, Melbourne
Dimensions: 160.0 h x 149.0 w x 61.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: In memory of Michael Lloyd. Purchased with the assistance of his friends and colleagues.
Accession No: NGA 97.1294

While sculpture has been traditionally associated with carving or modelling, the twentieth century saw the emergence of one of the most liberating sculptural concepts—that of assemblage. Assemblage is the construction of works through the bringing together of pre-existing elements, often found objects. It is within this realm of sculpture that Robert Klippel made his major contribution to Australian art.

While Klippel’s earliest works were woodcarvings, in the late 1950s he began making welded metal sculpture assembled out of discarded pieces of machinery. In the mid 1980s he embarked on a series of monumental works assembled from a large stockpile of cast-off wooden patterns used for casting machinery parts in metal. Some of these, including Number 751, were later cast into bronze, although most remained in their wooden state.

Klippel never attached a sentimental or emotional value to the pieces he used, and while the individual components of his constructions were mostly derived from industry, he assembled them in such a way as to suggest organic vitality rather than the functional characteristics of machinery.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

I am slowly going ahead with the machine-organic form relationship piece. I feel that it symbolizes that inter-relationship of all nature and the material aspect of this age – the cog wheel is but an abstract section of a plant (or flower, roots of trees like pipes etc.). For the machine form I am drawing on … all the things I have absorbed in our machine age and machine exhibitions I have been visiting.
Robert Klippel1

With these comments written by Robert Klippel in London 1948 it was as though he was both taking stock and setting down a template for much of what was to follow in his later development. The interest he expressed in the inter-relationships between the structures of mechanical and organic forms – intensely observed, distilled and transformed – is as relevant to the works of the 1940s when he was on the threshold of his artistic journey, as it is to those undertaken decades later.

From the start, Klippel set himself high standards. Intensely self-critical, he was constantly pushing beyond the boundaries of the mediocre and parochial. His inquiring mind was like a radar, seeking out ideas from a range of sources; art from different cultures, the natural world, forms observed under a microscope and the variations of machine parts. Although he never set out to create surrealist sculptures he met many of the Surrealists in Paris and was clearly aware of the significance of the unconscious and subconscious in relation to the creative imagination. He was also intent on developing a philosophical basis in his art, inspired in part by Hindu mysticism and Zen Buddhism. Ultimately he was interested in the profound inter-connectedness of things – in the integration of seemingly disparate aspects of the world and in the paradoxical complementary nature of opposites.

Several important shifts took place in Klippel’s work between the late 1940s and 1970. His sculptures gradually evolved away from the human form and from carving in stone and wood to more abstracted, open-ended configurations in metal and assemblages of found materials. During the 1960s, first in America and then in Sydney, Klippel accumulated stockpiles of discarded machine-parts to incorporate into his sculptures. A vital aspect of the process was the transformation that occurred within the sculptures. As James Gleeson wrote: ‘Machine parts ... have been sifted through the artist’s creative imagination ... and from this metamorphosis has emerged, like a butterfly from a dull chrysalis, a dazzling work of art’.2

Klippel’s Number 250 Metal Construction represents the culmination of a phase in his development. After creating sculptures of considerable complexity, he moved towards a greater sense of distillation, exemplified in this remarkably precise, intricate sculpture. On one level the spiky forms suggest a certain danger - a quality apparent in earlier works encompassing a sense of threatening aspects of machines and nature (with titles such as Electric germinator and Lethal machine monster). Along with a certain stillness in his own work, there is also a sense of the internal rhythms, of potential energy, as though at any moment the forms might become kinetic and rotate and spin on their axis, cutting into the air.

The extent of Klippel’s inventive spirit of inquiry is revealed in a substantial body of work, including thousands of works on paper and a monumental series of assemblages from the mid- 1980s into the 1990s.  In Number 751, a work cast in bronze for the Sculpture Garden of the Gallery, the careful selection and placement of elements are ‘arranged into a study of brooding monumentality, like a mantlepiece of odd unusable machines’.3 Along with Number 250 Metal Construction, this thoughtfully conceived work provides clear evidence of an artist who continually developed, honed and tested his skills and inventive ideas, and who, through his depth of commitment and achievement, earned the reputation of being one of the pre-eminent sculptors of the 20th century.

Deborah Hart

1 Robert Klippel, quoted in James Gleeson, Robert Klippel, Sydney: Bay Books, p.49.

2 James Gleeson, ibid., p.228.

3 An Introduction to the Collection, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1998, p.19.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002