The 1960s and 1970s were significant decades in the development of Australian sculpture. Hard Edge: Abstract Sculpture 1960s–70s focuses on abstract forms produced during this period by local artists such as Tony Coleing, Inge King, Clement Meadmore, Lenton Parr and Ron Robertson-Swann drawn from the National Gallery of Victoria’s permanent collection. The works’ burnished, polished, often brightly painted and welded industrial forms marked a departure from preceding trends in sculpture, signalling a new period of experimentation.
While practised consistently in Australia since the nineteenth century, until the postwar period sculpture was often eclipsed in this country by developments in painting. Artists had traditionally carved in stone or wood, and cast in bronze; however, the liberation felt after the Second World War and increased time spent by Australian artists in England and the United States were rejuvenating forces. Many sculptors began to employ constructive techniques mirroring advancements in technology and engineering to create works that incorporated regular geometric forms and smooth curves. When painted, their experimental formalist sculptures were in flat, even colours; when left unfinished, the forms were often industrial in appearance.
Among the earliest artists to produce works of this type in Australia were Lenton Parr and Inge King. After travelling to England in 1955, Parr worked as an assistant to the sculptor Henry Moore and began making his first welded sculptures. Created in Melbourne on his return, the vividly painted Daedalus, 1965, and Marina, 1965, form part of a group of important works by Parr that marked a major conceptual and stylistic change in his style and technique.1 Geoffrey Edwards, ‘Introduction’, in Lenton Parr: Vital Presences, Beagle Press, Sydney, p. 12. While his earlier sculptures are typically figurative and feature textured surfaces, Parr’s later works are characterised by a smooth, streamlined finish and often take the form of abstract circular and semi-circular steel plates and strips, reminiscent of agricultural machinery. As the artist explained, ‘I saw a possibility of a different kind of composition, one in which two or three forms or clusters of forms might be linked together by rods or bars’.2 Lenton Parr, ‘Retrospect’, in Lenton Parr: Vital Presences, p. 33.
German-born King has worked and exhibited for eight decades, and arrived in Melbourne in 1951 following studies in Germany and Great Britain. Two years earlier she had visited New York; an experience which saw her adopt steel as a medium and begin a new phase in her art-making.3Jane Eckett, ‘Binary star: Inge and Grahame King’, in Inge King: Constellation, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, pp. 13–14. In Winged image, 1964, fragments of steel appear to take on the weightlessness of feathers. Positioned atop two tapered legs, the jagged form is poised to take flight in a manner which belies its physical weight.
Coated in jet black enamel paint, Black sun, 1974, marked a directional shift in King’s practice. As in Winged image, King imbues her materials with a romanticism at odds with their industrial quality; subtle curves and shifts are coaxed out of uncompromising sheet metal, softening the geometry of the disc. The form is slit vertically, allowing light to pierce through it depending on the angle of viewing.
By the beginning of the 1960s the growing interest in contemporary sculpture was being reflected in major exhibitions. The Mildura Sculpture Triennial, the first comprehensive Australian event dedicated to large-scale sculpture, was established in 1961 (it continued until 1978), and in 1964 the NGV’s Recent Australian Sculpture toured nationally.4 This important exhibition was proposed by the conference of Directors of State Galleries and sponsored by the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. The exhibits were assembled at the NGV and travelled to all state capitals, as well as Newcastle. This exhibition included the work of twenty-four contemporary sculptors, many of whom were represented by abstract works.5 Gordon Thomson, Recent Australian Sculpture, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1964. The NGV’s The Field exhibition of international colour field hard-edge painting and sculpture in 1968 was also deeply influential on the development of local sculptural practice. Sculptures in The Field reflected contemporary trends in international abstract art and were a revelation to Australian artists and audiences.
One of the largest works in Hard Edge is Tony Coleing’s Frondescence, 1968. Coleing was included in The Field exhibition on his return to Australia after five years spent studying and travelling in England and Europe. Although his practice covered a range of mediums, including painting, drawing and prints, Coleing was represented in The Field by three large-scale sculptures. While not included in the 1968 exhibition, Frondescence was produced in the same year and featured in his debut solo exhibition at Gallery A in Sydney and Melbourne in 1969.6 Ken Scarlett, Australian Sculptors, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, pp. 122–3. The meaning of the word frondescence – to bear or appear to have an abundance of leaves or fronds – encapsulates the sculpture: its biomorphic fronds move organically and naturally, resembling delicate branches caught in a breeze.
By the final years of the 1960s many Australian artists were embracing a new style of abstraction which originated in the United States, and throughout the 1970s the most adventurous Australian sculptors’ work tended towards the minimal or conceptual style seen in New York City. Among these artists was Clement Meadmore who moved to the United States permanently in 1963. There he began to explore what would become the central theme of his practice for the next four decades: variations of elongated, squared metal forms with understated surfaces painted matt black, left raw or allowed to rust. In the mid 1970s the single forms of Meadmore’s sculptures started dividing, with elements moving in multiple directions. Unwinding, c. 1973, was created immediately preceding this change and bears the influence of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism.
The smallest work in Hard Edge is perhaps also the most infamous; a 1978 maquette for Ron Robertson-Swann’s public sculpture Vault. Few Australian sculptures have generated as much debate as Vault, installed in Melbourne’s City Square in 1980. Swann is well-regarded for his minimal and often rhythmically beautiful abstract metal sculptures; however, criticism stemmed from the perceived incompatibility of Vault’s large scale, bright yellow colour and angularity with its intended site. After an aggressive public campaign played out in the media, Vault was relocated to Batman Park in 1981. There it languished for two decades until being transferred to a prominent position at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in 2002 – a contemporary setting more sympathetic with its angular forms and striking colour.7 See Geoffrey J. Wallis, Peril in the Square: The Sculpture That Challenged a City, Indra Publishing, Briars Hill, 2004.
Although initially marred by the controversy surrounding its display, Vault belongs to an important lineage of Australian abstract sculpture stemming back to the late 1950s. Hard Edge presents sculptures produced during a significant period of artistic development when abstraction came to the fore. Casting off traditional materials and methods, Australian artists in the 1960s and 1970s adopted innovative techniques and a bold international aesthetic, ushering in a new era in local sculpture.
Geoffrey Edwards, ‘Introduction’, in Lenton Parr: Vital Presences, Beagle Press, Sydney, p. 12.
Lenton Parr, ‘Retrospect’, in Lenton Parr: Vital Presences, p. 33.
Jane Eckett, ‘Binary star: Inge and Grahame King’, in Inge King: Constellation, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, pp. 13–14.
This important exhibition was proposed by the conference of Directors of State Galleries and sponsored by the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. The exhibits were assembled at the NGV and travelled to all state capitals, as well as Newcastle.
Gordon Thomson, Recent Australian Sculpture, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1964.
Ken Scarlett, Australian Sculptors, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, pp. 122–3.
See Geoffrey J. Wallis, Peril in the Square: The Sculpture That Challenged a City, Indra Publishing, Briars Hill, 2004.