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THE ARTISTIC IMPULSE OF ONE OF AUSTRALIA

Sydney Morning Herald 14/8/2017

Linda Morris

Like the sons of many artists, Andrew Klippel grew up knowing he was second in his father's affections to the creative impulse.

Robert is regarded as Australia's pre-eminent sculptor of the 20th century, having exhibited with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Rene Magritte and Lucian Freud. In New York he walked among the giants of the contemporary art scene as a member of the 10th Avenue Club, an artist group founded by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Had he stayed in the US, Klippel could have gone on to great international celebrity and wealth. Instead, the artist returned to Australia, took up residence in a harbourside home in Birchgrove and continued his life-long preoccupation with sculpture, taking found objects, parts and moulds and reassembling them into man-made mechanised creations, what friend James Gleeson described as "sonnets of form".

And this was where his only son would find him on weekend visits, sitting among the clutter of his living room, peeling wallpaper and dust, surgical glasses on, surgical knife in hand.

"Metal and junk, that's what the house smelled of," Klippel recalls. "It hadn't been cleaned in 40 years, he wouldn't allow anyone to clean it; there was a guy who would come in to mop the floor once every six months.

"The house had 25 rooms, each one of those dedicated to something. You had your plastic room, the plaster room, the metal rooms – plural, paper rooms, cardboard rooms, wax rooms." 

One of Klippel's abiding memories is accompanying his father to gallery exhibitions on a Saturday or "going in his truck to piano lessons".

"That was a great, exciting thing. My parents divorced when I was young. Mum got the worst of it all, that classic thing. I would be on my best behaviour with dad because I knew dad couldn't handle me being out of control or running around. If I'd be running around, pulling sculptures down as a kid, that couldn't happen."

It's been 16 years since his father's death and it has fallen to Klippel to keep building his father's international reputation.

After the Art Gallery of NSW staged a posthumous tribute to Klippel in 2002, the son placed his father's prominent works with Galerie Gmurzynska in Switzerland. 

The first Australian exhibition of estate works by Klippel in more than a decade is to be presented for sale by Olsen Gallery at Sydney Contemporary next month.  

Colour and Form: Works from the Estate of Robert Klippel will include a number of major sculptures that have never appeared on the art market, the piece de resistance of which is a rare work, a field of 93 tiny collage cardboard objects measuring no more than a metre high laid out across a wooden table.

The sister to this conceptual work, 18 miniatures with the same colours, sold for $558,580 at Christie's in 2006, a record price at auction in Australia for a sculpture and a record price for a work by the artist.

Gallerist Tim Olsen knew Klippel as the quiet, selfless "man at his family's dining table". Olsen's father, the artist John Olsen, introduced Andrew's parents to each other. 

"It's a valuable piece, too special to go to auction," Olsen said. "We are chasing an institution to acquire it, and we are pricing it, accordingly, to make it affordable for an institution, but still it is a good price – a big price."  

Klippel had the sensibilities of a "watchmaker", Olsen said. "My father said the wonderful thing about Klippel was he worked with such intensity that at the end of the day he'd go and dance on a pin's head." 

That persistence and patience were present from an early age when Klippel would carve wood into the likeness of ships, making miniature scale models of actual vessels.

An indifferent student at Cranbrook and Sydney Grammar School, art played no role in his life until after the war, when he began formal training at the East Sydney Technical College – but he quickly became dissatisfied with the school's traditional focus and left for Britain a year later.

Klippel's father Alec was a Polish Jew who had arrived in Australia at 11 and founded a flourishing textile business. The father did not exactly approve of the son's preoccupation. 

"His dad was a tyrant, he'd throw phones out the window. If dad had to do sculpture, which he thought was terrible ... then he would ask why isn't he doing figurative things to give away to [help] the plight of Israel? He couldn't understand what dad was doing," says Andrew.

Klippel went on to spend a year in Paris drawing and became interested in the works of Picasso and other modernist artists with whom he exhibited.

He returned to Sydney but, unable to sell work or find a teaching position, left for the Minneapolis School of Art before moving to New York where sculpture was undergoing revolutionary change. Klippel began experimenting with machine parts and a variety of rejected industrial materials which he reconstructed into abstract, often finely wrought shapes. His aim was to "express the workings of nature in its broadest sense".

But his practice and the breakdown of his first marriage began to take a toll on his health. Losing half his stomach in two operations on a perforated ulcer, he packed up and returned to Sydney, a divorced man.  

When the National Gallery of Australia opened in Canberra, its director James Mollison brought Klippel's 1966 junk-metal sculpture, an assemblage of wayward wheels, to keep company with Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles.

Eight bronzes by Klippel, specially commissioned in 1980, were installed in the gallery's outdoor sculpture garden alongside standing figures by Rodin. 

The years from 1980 until his death in 2001 were a period of great output, Andrew Klippel said, during which his father rapidly established a reputation for exhibitions of integrity and innovation. While fellow sculptors and contemporary artists became celebrities, Klippel never stopped toiling in service of his aesthetic convictions.  

This was the time when the very nature and definitions of sculpture were changing from object form to installation and performance-based art, said Denise Mimmocchi, Denise Mimmocchi, senior curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW.  

"The last 20 years of his life he did something like double the amount of work in the first 40 years of his art," Klippel's son says. "He just wanted to keep inventing, really."

Klippel held more than 50 public and private exhibitions and died on his 81st birthday with an exhibition under way at Sydney's Watters Gallery.

In her obituary, curator Deborah Edwards asserted that Klippel had neither peer nor imitator and was comparable to some of the most important sculptors of the 20th century.

The Art Gallery of NSW's holdings date back to Klippel's most significant early surrealist-inspired wood assemblages in 1948 through to arguably his last great series of 87 miniature polychromed sculptures from 1995.

The gallery would always be interested in adding exceptional examples of works to its existing, important collection, Mimmocchi, said.  

Klippel the younger is a successful music writer and producer, having founded the pop dance trio Euphoria and produced 27 Top 10 hits – seven of them No.1s – with the likes of the Vines and the Veronicas.

He regards himself as lucky to have found a way to be creative without living the solitary life of an artist. His father sacrificed much for his art, relationships, friends, and financial stability.   

"That was all you would do is art and you'd express that in the most pure and distilled way possible, and that was dad's quest.

"I used to work with him, that's the way I would get his attention. We'd talk as he put pieces on. Through that, he was incredibly encouraging to me as a musician and on so many levels, and a beautiful person," he says. "His eccentricity was never at the cost of his manners. He was an artist and his work came first but you were very much left with the feeling you were very important to him."

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