Even within the spacious museum, Grant has had to be tactical in her selection. The result is Assembled: The Art of Robert Klippel, which emphasises the working method Klippel employed: deftly assembling his works piece by piece. Grant has drawn the work into three strands, beginning with the Surrealist-inspired sculptures and drawings made in London and Paris during the late 1940s, then the assemblage-style ‘‘junk’’ sculptures of the 1960s-70s, finishing with the later timber works that boast brightly coloured machine pattern-parts.
Klippel’s work was well-known in Sydney, less so in Melbourne, but he had a lively and long career, spending time overseas with sculptors and artists such as Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi and Andre Breton in the late 1940s. In 1950s New York, he became a member of The Club, an influential artist group founded by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
More than 100 works have been included in the TarraWarra show, including what is considered Klippel’s masterpiece, No. 247 Metal construction, comprising thousands of ‘‘junk metal’’ typewriter bits. It was made over three years and finished in 1968. As with most of his work, while the individual parts might have industrial, mechanised origins, the overall effect is one of organic vitality.
Amid Grant’s selections there is a strong theme illustrating Klippel’s belief in a ‘‘language’’ of forms – a sort of personalised vocabulary, expressed through his selection of components, which he developed through his life. Geoffrey Legge, who exhibited Klippel at Watters Gallery in Sydney, describes this language in the exhibition catalogue as a ‘‘vast compendium of shapes’’ from which he could draw intuitively for his sculptures.
‘‘This would engender in him a voice of his own with which to bring to light his vision; a voice that would give a freshness to all his sculptures and ensure he never repeated what he had already done.’’
As a child, Klippel’s son Andrew would watch his father rove between artworks, working on several simultaneously over differing lengths of time. Some of their moments of greatest connection occurred when they would sit together making little sculptures, drawings or collages. ‘‘We’d have lots of conversations about many things – but art was 80 per cent of what we would talk about,’’ he says.
The Sydney house began as a family home but, inevitably, Klippel’s collections took over. While the family stayed there for a while, they moved when Andrew was about three. ‘‘[Dad] wanted to use the house as a workshop,’’ he recalls. Weekend visits became the norm with this unconventional arrangement.
As the art materials took over, the only rooms that were clean were the kitchen and the area around Klippel’s desk. ‘‘He basically had this tiny room at the front that he would use when guests would come over,’’ Andrew says. ‘‘It was so small – only three chairs could fit in it. If you came to visit, that’s where you’d be. Every other room was for his work.’’
All of this points to the artist’s serious dedication, which Grant describes as ‘‘a very singular vision distinguished by an energetic drive to create new artistic forms that were both of their time and wholly original’’. Andrew says his father’s commitment was ‘‘a calling, like a priest’’ and that he was a ‘‘true master’’ of his craft for whom there was little compromise.
‘‘He would work at it all the time. If he had a problem with one sculpture or couldn’t find a solution to something, then he would just leave it and move on. There were works there that took 20 years to complete.’’ In his last exhibition before his death, one work displayed for the first time had been in production since 1968.
Grant says that even though Klippel’s work was strongly abstract, we always get a sense of familiarity because the components (bits of cash registers or typewriters) are recognisable. ‘‘But he wanted to just use them to make a good sculpture,’’ Grant says. ‘‘Volume and linear form were his language and what he was interested in.’’
Andrew Klippel remembers his father’s great appreciation for beauty – often expressed when he found some detritus in the street or a falling-down warehouse or decaying harbourside scene. He would be captivated. And he was always searching for new materials: Grant describes a deal he reached with IBM to pull apart redundant computers, as well as arrangements with a cash register manufacturer.
‘‘He found another junkyard, with mountains of rusted steel pieces,’’ she says. ‘‘He had a team of people who would alert him to caches of material, so he had a large collection to work from.’’ For the late timber works, an artist friend stumbled across an old engineering firm with a basement packed with pattern parts. They took away truckloads.
After Klippel’s death (on his 81st birthday), unfinished works and materials were disposed of. ‘‘The initial gathering of those things was absolutely to do specifically with making those sculptures,’’ Andrew Klippel says.
The legacy of the work speaks volumes about this process. But the individual sculptures are far more than the sum of their identifiable parts, taking those who look closely into a very unusual world. In that world of Klippel, the language ‘‘spoken’’ might be mysterious and half-familiar, but it is full of intimate detail and lively character.
Assembled: The Art of Robert Klippel is at TarraWarra Museum of Art, November 23-February 16, 2020. twma.com.au