Richard Stankiewicz planned a trip to Australia in 1969 to visit the relations of his Australian wife. The Australian sculptor Robert Klippel (b. 1920), who had become a close friend of Stankiewicz while working in the United States, suggested the visit become a working holiday. Stankiewicz agreed, encouraged by an offer from Franco Belgirno-Nettis to make available the facilities of the Transfield Engineering and Construction Company's foundry and steelworks at Seven Hills near Sydney. Assistants and materials were also to be provided to facilitate the work. In addition, the dealer Frank Watters promised to exhibit the sculpture made in Australia at his gallery in Sydney.
Stankiewicz worked at the Seven Hills steelworks for six weeks during the months of June and July 1969, making fifteen sculptures. When shown at the Watters Gallery that year they were given the collective title 'Australia' and numbered one to fifteen. The last, Australia no. 15, is the largest of the group.
The configuration of these fifteen sculptures was based on the number 4. Just before his Australian visit Stankiewicz had the idea of making sculptures based on the digits from zero to nine. He started by making four sculptures based on the number 4, then made seven based on 7. Coming to the conclusion that the second group was less successful than the 4's, Stankiewicz considered the remaining options — two 2's, three 3's, and so on — and decided that they were all less interesting than the original choice. At that point he left for Australia.
'When I found myself at Transfield with machinery and assistance and a big crane and big materials available, I continued what I would have been doing at home — which was to go back to the number 4 — but now I could do it on a larger scale.'1 Australia no. 15 is made of four components and preserves the essential angles of the numeral, as indeed do the majority of the series (no. 10 and no. 12 being the exceptions).
Although he had been known for anthropomorphic 'junk' sculpture before the exhibition in Sydney in 1969 (his last New York exhibition had been in 1965), Stankiewicz had diminished figurative references in his work throughout the 1960s. 'I had been working in junk,' he said in 1969,
and I've had this funny kind of tendency of throw off 'freaks' — in the biological sense — and in the past five or six years I've come up with these non-objective abstracts more and more often until the found machine part occurred more and more rarely and I drifted into the use of structural forms like the I-beam, the angle iron, the pipe, and so on.<2
Using the standardised forms of the I-beams, T-beams and cylinders at the steelworks, Stankiewicz adopted a severely geometrical style in the 'Australia' series. Working with these materials also enabled him to give his work a heroic scale. Stankiewicz continued to use newly fabricated steel elements in his work after his Australian visit.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.400.
- Laurie Thomas, 'Iron in his Soul', Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1969.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010