On 26 February 1968 Robert Klippel’s largest Australian exhibition to date opened at Bonython Gallery Sydney in Paddington. The installation was unusually elaborate for the time: thirty-one of Klippel’s small, abstract metal sculptures had been placed on plinths of varying heights, which in turn had been positioned on a recessed platform painted the same white hue as the ceilings and walls (fig. 1). This arrangement combined with the strong incandescent lighting to stage an optical dissolution of the gallery’s architecture, effectively generating a spatial void in which Klippel’s little sculptures appeared to hover ethereally. In one respect the spectacular installation was clearly designed to position Kym Bonython’s large new space as the most advanced in the Australian art world while underscoring Klippel’s own elevated artistic status. Yet, in another way, the installation also reflected the already well-established reading of Klippel’s sculptures as a kind of ‘pure’ abstraction from which all social reference and historical particularity had been evacuated. This understanding of the works characterised most reviews of the show, such as that by John Henshaw who commented: ‘What has dissolved completely is the semblance of any connection with assemblage however much the junk pile has been ransacked – each work is self-consistent and contained within its creative idea’.1 John Henshaw, ‘Art’, The Australian, 2 March 1968, p. 27. The recent, even more spectacular, reimagining of the Bonython installation as part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Klippel/Klippel: Opus 2008 exhibition provided both a reminder of how enduring these early readings have been and an opportunity to reconsider their veracity. The task of this article is to begin the latter.2 To be clear, I am not suggesting that Klippel/Klippel: Opus 2008 was perpetuating this reading, but rather that the historical return it enacted provided both the impetus and inspiration for historical revision.

The notion that Klippel’s sculpture manifests a ‘pure’ abstraction originated, to a significant degree, with Robert Hughes. In his lengthy and influential 1964 essay on the artist, Hughes rehearsed what have since become two of Australian art history’s most enduring aphorisms. The first was that Klippel is this country’s premier sculptor. The second, a qualification of the first, was that, compared to ‘the feast of Australian painting’, Australian sculpture is but a ‘wet log turning in a backwater’.3 Robert Hughes, ‘Robert Klippel’, Art & Australia, May 1964, p. 18. It is too often forgotten that Hughes nominated Norma Redpath to share his dubious honorific. While I have little interest in addressing the qualitative nature of either of these aphorisms, I am concerned with the basis upon which they were made: namely, Hughes’s reading of Klippel’s work. In his article Hughes described Klippel’s sculpture as a kind of ‘new baroque’ or ‘involuted classicism’ before insisting they ‘imply no commentary on the machine-age, dynamic obsolescence, or the terrors of technology … They become pure forms’.4 Hughes, p. 28. The term ‘new baroque’ was borrowed from James Gleeson. More than any other, this argument provided the template for Klippel’s subsequent reception.

The interpretive tendency to treat abstract art as an essentially formal exercise devoid of socio-political reference is hardly unique to the historiography of Australian art, and the debunking of similar arguments has featured prominently in recent histories of abstraction in America, Europe and elsewhere.5 Notable examples of this revisionism include, inter alia, Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993; Michael Godfrey, Abstraction and the Holocaust, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007; Anthony White, ‘Abstract art, ethics and interpretation: The case of Mario Radice’, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 4, no. 2, 2004, pp. 43–56; and the essays collected in Kobena Mercer (ed.), Discrepant Abstraction, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006. However, neither the motivation for, nor stakes of, this tendency in the specifically Australian context is entirely clear, and it is a question that deserves closer attention than is possible within the scope of this article. It may be, as Michael Leja has noted regarding abstract expressionism, that when certain works are elevated to privileged positions in the national culture, their ‘universal’ qualities are foregrounded, just as questions regarding their specific historical or political dimensions are deflected.6 Leja, p. 5. This is clearly also a factor contributing to the historical insistence on the abstract nature of so much Australian landscape painting and especially that of Fred Williams. It may also be partially attributed to what Heather Barker and Charles Green have recently identified as the general de-politicisation of Australian arts debate during the early Cold War, along with the local focus on various forms of realism, either socialist and/or quotidian (as promoted mostly by the Left) or traditional (as promoted mostly by the Right).7 See Heather Barker & Charles Green, ‘Bernard Smith: cold warrior’, Thesis Eleven, issue 1, vol. 82, 2005, pp. 38–53. It is also likely that this insistence on ‘pure’ form was, to some degree at least, a pre-emptive rejoinder to anticipated claims that these works were not fine art at all but, quite literally, junk. In the case of Hughes specifically, it is also worth noting that his writings on Klippel coincided with his attack on the ‘arid’ and haphazard formalism of Australian art criticism in general, an attack initiated in his polemical article ‘Dog eat dog’ published in Nation just one week after his first essay on the sculptor.8 ‘Dog eat dog’ (Nation, 26 January 1963, p. 19,) prompted a vitriolic exchange in the letters page that lasted several weeks and involved both Alan McCulloch and Elwyn Lynn. For an interesting discussion that situates Hughes’s article within the broader Cold War critical culture, see Heather Barker, A Critical History of Writing on Australian Contemporary Art, 1960–1988, PhD dissertation, University of Melbourne, 2005, pp. 55–8. Of particular relevance to the present discussion was Hughes’s strategic use of Clement Greenberg’s own recent attack upon ‘social’ readings of American abstraction (particularly those by Harold Rosenberg and Lawrence Alloway) as both model for and authorisation of his own efforts to forge a more rigorous local critical practice and culture.9 The article to which Hughes referred was Clement Greenberg, ‘How art writing earns its bad name’, Encounter, December, vol. XIX, no. 6, 1962, pp. 67–71. Again, Hughes’s reception of Greenberg, and its influence on Australian art writing and practice of the 1960s, warrants more attention than is possible here.

Four decades later the historiographic status of postwar Australian abstract art, and Klippel’s sculpture in particular, has not changed dramatically. While there have been two meticulously researched monographs published on Klippel by James Gleeson and Deborah Edwards, both are essentially histories of style. While, to be fair, neither author insists on Klippel’s sculpture as ‘pure form’ as such, nor do they reveal very much about how his art might register or engage with its specific historical moment.10 See James Gleeson, Robert Klippel, Bay Books, Sydney, 1983; Deborah Edwards, Robert Klippel, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2002. Edwards, for example, characterises Klippel’s practice very broadly as a ‘subtle desire to forge a new, sometimes irrational, precarious, unforseen and ultimately delicate equilibrium between his sense of a permanent order and the flux of the modern condition’.11 Edwards, p. 17. While Gleeson’s account is, for the most part, even less particular; he was one of few to address this problem when he worried that Klippel’s turn to absolute abstraction in the late 1950s risked being read as political ignorance, naivety or even indifference, a reading he clearly thought erroneous even if he ultimately demurred on providing an alternative.12 Gleeson, p. 429.

Gleeson’s concerns were warranted, it turns out, for although a reluctant and often evasive commentator on his own work, Klippel’s private writings and infrequent public commentary do indeed hint at a more complex relationship between his sculpture and its social context than has previously been acknowledged. For example, from the very beginning of his career Klippel dwelt upon the need to develop a sculptural form commensurate with postwar society, writing in a 1947 notebook:

In this machine age of the 20th century – atomic bombs, mass production etc., should art take on a different form? Art in the past … was always related to society … Sculpture today must have use and communicate through its medium.13 Klippel, quoted in Gleeson, p. 35.

 

In another notebook entry dated six weeks later, and following several pages of abstract drawings, he added somewhat elliptically: ‘There is no such thing as abstract art’.14 ibid., p. 37. His apparent implication that abstraction may not, in fact, be entirely ‘abstract’ emerged also in an 1965 interview with Hazel de Berg. Speaking of his recent junk-metal sculpture, Klippel denied any direct correlation between his materials and social context or commentary, yet suggested both were somehow and nonetheless immanent to his sculpture. As he observed: ‘I don’t see any meaning in where it has come from or the sociological implications. I’m not trying to make any comment on our society as such, you know? Only by the way that would be in my work’.15 Hazel de Berg, interview with Klippel, 17 May 1965, Oral History and Folklore, National Library of Australia, TRC 1/93, p. 8.

It is precisely the question of how these ‘sociological implications’ would be in his work – and what precisely these may be – that I wish to address here. To do this, and to fill in a long-obscured aspect of Klippel’s practice, the interpretive emphasis will be placed on his intellectual biography and socio-historical circumstances, both in general and quite specifically. I will argue, ultimately, that, while Klippel’s works do indeed inhabit a void of sorts, this is by no means hermetically sealed off from the everyday life and culture of the postwar years. Instead, I will suggest that Klippel’s abstract sculptures manifest a horrific unreason that, in the aftermath of the Second World War and amid the tumult of the Cold War, he increasingly came to see as a void at the very heart of ‘this machine age of the 20th century’, with its ‘atomic bombs, mass production etc’.

The idea that Klippel’s sculpture is fundamentally a response to ‘this machine age’, or technological modernity, is apparent also in his most famous statement of artistic intent. Whenever pressed by persistent interviewers, Klippel would frequently relent by noting that with his sculpture he ‘sought the inter-relationship between the cogwheel and the bud’, a compact remark that in itself suggests, via synecdoche, that his work constituted an interface or interstice of technology and nature. Under these circumstances there is thus no better starting point for a reappraisal of Klippel’s junk sculpture than No. 255 (fig. 2), as it manifests this seeking of ‘the inter-relationship between the cogwheel and the bud’ perhaps more literally than any other.16 In what follows, I am discarding the convention by which the title of Klippel’s works take the form of a number prefixed by the term Opus. This was established by James Gleeson in his 1983 monograph but is contrary to the artist’s own habit of simply numbering his works consecutively according to chronology.

No. 255 consists of a central steel disc mounted on a thin, vertical shaft. It irradiates several dozen metal appendages and thereby reads more-or-less coherently as both slipshod cogwheel and, if not a bud exactly, then at least an open flower. No. 255 is also exemplary of this best known of Klippel’s various sculptural modes: it is small (just over 50 centimetres tall) and made of junk-metal pieces fitted and welded so precisely together as to impart a clear structural unity. Indeed, so much care has been taken to fit each metal protrusion into a pre-existing slot on the central steel disc that it gives the impression that the finished sculpture is some sort of functional and purposeful piece of machinery, however abstract or irrational this machine may be.

While the function or purpose of Klippel’s ‘machinery’ always remains indiscernible from their elaborate, even fussy, forms, they do convey a deep sense of menace and violent potentiality that has been strangely and unconvincingly sublimated in the literature to date. Hughes, for example, simply stated there is ‘no point’ talking about these works in terms of menace because they are completely abstract.17 Hughes, p. 24. But how then to account for so many saws, blades and pincers mounted on the tips of the irradiating metal petals of No. 255 which might, one imagines, kick into rotation at any moment to wreak havoc? Or No. 179 (fig. 3), which appears to be some sort of roving automatic macerator? Or others, such as No. 202, which resemble so many ghastly props straight from the set of a horror movie?

In one sense Hughes was correct to warn against succumbing to the temptation to pursue these works literally or icongraphically. And quite a temptation it is, given Klippel’s tendency to work so many visual allusions into his sculptures. No. 255, for example, reads not simply as cogwheel, bud and violent machine, but also as a sunflower, the burning bush, a saint’s halo or even the crown of thorns.18 The resemblance of this work to both a halo and sunflower is highlighted by the NGV’s wall text, as of 27 March 2009. To this rapidly growing list could be added a radiant sun, a lens or magnifying glass, and even a circular saw, at which point iconography collapses into fruitless iconophilia. What No. 255 irradiates most of all, then, is an iconic excess that destabilises any attempt to read this work literally but nonetheless leaves a psychological trace of horror in its wake.

This is one implication of Klippel’s famous statement: he is concerned with neither the cogwheel nor the bud per se (nor burning bushes, halos and circular saws), but with the inter-relationship between them. That is, he is concerned not with iconographical symbolism but morphological translation. This is evident also in Klippel’s notebooks where between 1947 and the mid 1950s he developed what he referred to as a ‘language of forms’. Begun in 1947 while en route to London by ship, these books were intended to function as a kind of ready-made sculptural vocabulary that could, in time, be deployed reflexively. They feature pages of serialised drawings in which various deconstructive and reconstructive graphic processes are set out: forms are devolved into basic constituent shapes, assembled from a grouping of abstract shapes or, most commonly, translated step-by-step through a variety of configurations until the original image or similar is reconstituted (fig. 4).19 Klippel’s notebooks deserve further analysis in their own right. For an interesting discussion that draws different conclusions to my own, see Megan Gannon, A Surreal Synthesis: Robert Klippel’s Language of Forms, Honours thesis, University of Melbourne, 2003.

This interest in morphological translation or structural flux was relatively common among artists of the postwar generation, as well as within the general of the period. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the nuclear technology race that followed, introduced atomic physics into the public sphere and its concepts and iconography permeated everything from home furnishings to popular fiction throughout the late 1940s and 1950s.20 Klippel himself even designed a coffee table, c.1955, that married Noguchi-esque organicism to Aboriginal iconography (boomerangs!) with a single ‘atom’ at its structural centre. The image of atoms in flux quickly became one of the most recognisable symbols of the era. Klippel never elaborated on the precise nature of his interest in this respect so to begin clarifying its specificity it is necessary to make a historical detour back to his formative artistic years to sketch his early intellectual biography.

As mentioned, Klippel began constructing his language of forms while on a ship to Britain, his expatriation prompted by dissatisfaction with the sculpture course at East Sydney Technical College. Upon arrival in London Klippel enrolled at the Slade School of Art where he quickly realised the faculty – including sculptor instructor A. H. Gerrard – was barely more progressive than its antipodean counterparts. Yet what the Slade lacked pedagogically it made up for collegially and Klippel’s class was among the most prodigious to attend the school. Among his fellow students were Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Nigel Henderson and Richard Hamilton, all of whom shared Klippel’s frustration with the Slade’s curriculum as well as his interest in morphological translation.

These students stimulated this interest with visits to the Science Museum and Natural History Museum rather than the National Gallery or Royal Academy,21 Edwards, p. 33. These activities are also documented extensively in my PhD dissertation, Eduardo Paolozzi: History is Bunk!, University of Melbourne (in preparation). as well as with the circulation of a variety of eclectic and often obscure texts and magazines on the subject. Among these were Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, 1923, and Amédee Ozenfant’s Foundations of Modern Art, 1931, both of which were concerned (however different their theses may have been) with the inter-relationship between recurring forms in art, nature and technology. Especially influential was Scottish mathematical biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s extraordinary 1917 book Growth and Form, where he cited parallels between (among other things) the skeletal structures of animals and modern engineering designs to argue for the unrecognised importance of physical stress to evolutionary theory. Thompson’s eclectic argument drew heavily upon the then little-known mathematical field of topology, itself a sort of anti-geometry premised upon the analysis of impossible physical inter-relationships called ‘homeomorphisms’. In topological space (which by definition is an abstract void) a teacup is, famously, indistinguishable from a doughnut as both are solid forms with single holes; and a sphere no different from a cube.

Of all these texts, however, the most important for Klippel was his discovery of the novel Locus Solus, 1914 (fig. 5) by the French author Raymond Roussel, whose own interest in linguistic inter-relationships and morphology was also much discussed at the Slade. In his lifetime Roussel’s work had been received with spectacular vitriol by all except a small coterie of artists associated with Dada and Surrealism and, by the time of his mysterious death in Palermo in 1933, he was all but unknown outside this milieu. But his work was the subject of a significant postwar revival, prompted by the serialisation of Franco-American critic Edouard Roditi’s partial translation of another of his novels, Impressions of Africa, in the widely read American arts magazine View in 1943, and several important essays written by the sometime Surrealist Michel Leiris, one of few to know the reclusive author personally (his father was Roussel’s accountant).

Locus Solus, like most of Roussel’s novels, features extraordinarily detailed, deadpan prose descriptions of fantastical and irrational bio-mechanical contraptions. The narrative consists simply of a guided tour of the eponymous garden estate (the ‘lonely place’) by its owner, genius scientist Martial Canterel, over the course of which Canterel shows the anonymous narrator a series of his increasingly outrageous inventions. With one chapter dedicated to each, these inventions are first described physically in frustratingly close detail which nonetheless leaves their actual function unstated. Following this, their logic-defying function is afforded similarly elaborate description to methodically account for the purpose of every last component.

By 1947, when Klippel encountered Locus Solus, Canterel’s wild inventions already had a significant history of artistic influence. Marcel Duchamp had already cited one – a gigantic aquarium filled with breathable water – as a major inspiration for The large glass, 1915–23, and Alberto Giacometti identified another – a tableau vivant populated by the undead – as catalysing The palace at 4am, 1932.22 Duchamp’s small work To be looked at (from the other side of the glass) with one eye, close to, for almost an hour, 1918, a study of kind for his glass, is a surprisingly literal illustration of the invention that inspired him, and the title was lifted verbatim from a passage in the novel. This was illustrated in Duchamp’s box of notes and studies known as the Green box, a copy of which, owned by Nigel Henderson, was also in circulation at the Slade. Giacometti referred to Roussel’s influence in conversation with the American poet John Ashbery (see his ‘Introduction’, in Trevor Winkfield (ed.), How I Wrote Certain of My Books and Other Writings by Raymond Roussel, Exact Change, Cambridge, MA, 1995, p. xviii). While Klippel never singled out one invention in particular, an especially evocative example in the context of No. 255 is the machine to which chapter two of Locus Solus is dedicated: a contraption resembling a jackhammer, of open construction and consisting of a flared-out circular piece of metal affixed with various cogs, dials and pincers with a vertical aluminium cylinder forming its main body.23 This machine is the subject of chapter two. See Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus: A Novel, Rupert Copel and Cunningham, (trans.), 2nd ed., John Calder, London, 1983, pp. 24–50. Like all of Canterel’s inventions, it is over-articulated to the point where function is indiscernible from form, and explicable only via several dozen pages of minutely detailed prose. To summarise: the machine could predict wind patterns ten days in advance and used this meteorological intuition to aerially propel itself around a lawn upon which it composed a gigantic mosaic. The mosaic under construction illustrated an episode from a fictional sixteenth-century Nordic saga and was constituted by the machine from thousands of human teeth and their bloody fibrous roots (Canterel had something of a stockpile of these, owing to his earlier invention of a painless tooth extractor).

The formal similarities between Klippel’s own abstract sculptures and Roussel’s ridiculous contraptions thus emerge readily enough. While Klippel, unlike Roussel, demurred on the exposition of his inventions, one might imagine a similarly convoluted story would be required to explicate No. 255. Klippel also directly associated his sculptures with Canterel’s machines on several occasions. Upon first encountering the novel, Klippel and his friend James Gleeson (who was also in London) immediately decided to collaborate on an artistic revisioning of Canterel’s estate. When, following chronic delays, this was finished in the early 1970s, the result – literally titled Locus Solus (fig. 6) – consisted of a three-dimensional landscape painted by Gleeson and populated with scaled-down versions of Klippel’s sculptures in place of Canterel’s inventions. Throughout his career Klippel also regularly spoke of a long-harboured desire to install his regular sculptures in an actual landscape setting and in 1961 he installed No.164 in a gallery at the Minneapolis School of Arts surrounded by foliage.24 Gleeson (pp. 388–93) relates this desire directly to their Locus Solus project in his discussion of the latter, noting also the prevalence of landscapes featuring abstract, sculptural forms in Klippel’s sketchbooks. The artist speaks at length about his landscape plans in Keith Salvat (dir.), Robert Klippel, Keisal Films, Sydney, 1975. Installation illustrated in Gleeson, p. 233. Gleeson himself would also pursue an individual artistic interest in Roussel with his remarkable Locus Solus series of small collages drawings and paintings from 1976–78. The precise nature of his own understanding of Roussel remains to be examined.

More revealing than these formal similarities, however, is the correspondence between Klippel’s and Roussel’s compositional techniques. The major distinction between Roussel’s initial reception by the Dada and Surrealist milieu, and that of subsequent generations of postwar artists and writers such as Klippel, was the publication of one final book in the interim. Roussel’s 1933 death had initiated, according to his prior instructions, the posthumous release of a compendium of short texts prosaically titled How I Wrote Certain of My Books. The eponymous essay did precisely as it promised and revealed in a matter-of-fact way the extraordinary, laboured, linguistic system Roussel employed to compose his fantastical narratives, but which had hitherto remained unknown. It is worth quoting at length:

I chose two almost identical words (reminiscent of metagrams). For example, billard and pillard. To these I added similar words capable of two different meanings, thus obtaining two almost identical phrases.

In the case of billard and pillard the two phrases I obtained were:

1. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard … [The white letters on the cushions of the old billard table …]

2. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard … [The white man’s letters on the hordes of the old plunderer …]

 

In the first, lettres was taken in the sense of lettering, blanc in the sense of a cube of chalk, and bandes as in cushions. In the second, lettres was taken in the sense of missives, blanc as in white man, and bandes as in hordes. The two phrases found, it was a case of writing a story which could begin with the first and end with the latter.25 Raymond Roussel, ‘How I wrote certain of my texts’, in Trevor Winkfield (ed.), How I Wrote Certain of My Books and Other Writings by Raymond Roussel, Exact Change, Cambridge, MA., 1995, p. 4.

While several complicated variations on this technique emerge throughout Roussel’s books, the machines of Locus Solus were generated according to the logic of this revelation. Thus although initially thought to be pure fantasy, Roussel’s narratives were in fact derived from a carefully and strictly devised system. Furthermore, narrative inventions such as the mosaic constructing jackhammer were generated in the interstices of homonymic puns such as billard and pillard. Or, put another way, Roussel’s books were a kind of narrative abstraction that constituted the linguistic inter-relationship between two chosen homonymic terms.26 Given his own subsequent linguistic experimentation, there is a chance that Duchamp may already have understood Roussel’s method, although this remains speculation. What is important is the correlation between Roussel’s generation of abstract or irrational narratives to comprise the inter-relationship between linguistic homonyms with Klippel’s own abstract or irrational sculptures composed to occupy the inter-relationship of a plastic homonym: the cogwheel and the bud.

Precisely how Klippel understood and then reconfigured these aspects of Roussel’s method is undocumented and requires some speculation. As mentioned, Klippel was but one of many artists and writers to rediscover Roussel’s books and work through their implications around this time. Paolozzi began producing lost-wax bronze sculptures using a variation on this technique from 1956, as did Jean Tinguely when creating his own intentionally dysfunctional machines. Likewise, Alain Robbe-Grillet and the authors associated with the nouveau roman were all influenced by Roussel, albeit in vastly different ways, as were those associated with the Oulipo group.27 The best surveys of Roussel’s varied reception following the publication of How I Wrote Certain of My Books are: Rebecca Graves, Writing Machines: Villiers de Isle Adam and Raymond Roussel, PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 2002, pp. 221–39; Stephanie Jennings Hanor, Jean Tinguely: Useless Machines and Mechanical Performers, 1955–1970, PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2003, pp. 83–96. While Roussel was received very differently by these highly diverse artists and writers, in this case it is useful to draw a comparison between Klippel’s engagement with Roussel with that of his French contemporary, Michel Foucault.

Foucault first encountered Roussel somewhat later than Klippel, around the time the latter first began making his junk-metal sculptures in the late 1950s. And in 1962, the same year as Klippel’s first large exhibition of these works, Foucault published his second book, and only long work of literary history, on the subject of Roussel’s method. One of the most important aspects of Foucault’s analysis of Roussel was that he was the first to comprehensively dismiss the widely held conception that the latter’s narratives were entirely abstract and evacuated of socio-historical reference.28 Foucault’s contention was inspired by and partially indebted to Michel Leiris’s own earlier, important writings on Roussel, not to mention his redeployment of Rousselian devices in his own novel Rules of the Game, 1948. See the texts anthologised as Michel Leiris, Roussel L’Ingénu: Documents sur Raymond Roussel, Fata Morgana, Paris, 1987. For Foucault prevailing accounts of Roussel’s writing as simply linguistic abstraction or pure literary form were misguided and reduced it (in Hughes-ian terms) to the ‘baroque play of an esoteric language’.29 Michel Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel, Garden City, Doubleday, 1986, p. 166. The title of the original 1962 French version was simply Raymond Roussel. Instead, he argued that the abstraction or, as he put it, ‘unreason’, of Roussel’s fantastical narratives communicated ‘doubtlessly with the reasoning of our world’.30 ibid., p. 166. At this point it is important to note that ‘unreason’ was not clearly defined by Foucault and is the subject of some scholarly contestation. This lack of clarity has also been exacerbated by the manner in which Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age, 1961, was abridged as Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1964, in which form it was then translated into English. This process essentially obscured the etymology of the term within Foucault’s oeuvre (particularly within English-language scholarship) until very recently. My own reading of ‘unreason’ here is indebted to that of Pierre Macherey in ‘Foucault reads Roussel: Literature as philosophy’, The Object of Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 211–27, the best of the surprisingly sparse literature on Death and the Labyrinth. The other notable but brief account is in Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, Athlone, London, 1988. On the disappearance of ‘unreason’ during the abridgement of Madness, see Ian Hacking’s foreword to the unabridged version of this text, only recently published in English as Michel Foucault, History of Madness, Routledge, London, 2006, pp. ix–xii. For an excellent discussion of the significance of the concept of unreason within Foucault’s earlier and later writings, see Nigel Dodd, ‘Foucault’s void’, The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 58, no. 3, 2007, pp. 477–93. It did this insofar as this method of homonymic splitting, only to fill the linguistic ‘gap’ with unreasonable narrative, revealed a void of unreason at the very heart of language itself. By constituting his unreason as a submerged linguistic inter-relationship, Roussel was revealing that this unreason was in fact immanent to language itself. And, Foucault continued, if it is via its representation in language that we recognise our own world as reasonable, then Roussel’s play on language holds up to us our deranged mirror image.31 Foucault, p. 166–7. Or, as Pierre Macherey neatly summarised Foucault’s position, Roussel’s writing ‘displays the unreason of our reasoning by indicating the price that has to be paid if we speak ‘reasonably’ about things’.32 Macherey, p. 215.

Unlike Roussel, whose life of eccentricity, privilege, depression and, towards the end, almost constant drug-induced stupor was almost as fantastical as his books, Klippel’s own circumstances were rather different. While Roussel did all he could to isolate himself from the social sphere, Klippel’s unusual itinerancy during his formative artistic years meant that he was particularly well placed (especially for an Australian artist) to recognise the degree to which Cold War culture itself enclosed a void of unreason. Indeed, and as we will see, Klippel’s first-hand experience of the aftermath of the Second World War and its socio-political consequences makes it difficult to imagine how he could have avoided – even if he had wanted to – responding to ‘the machine-age, dynamic obsolescence, or the terrors of technology’ on at least some level.

Klippel’s career, as already discussed, had begun amid the ruins and rations of postwar London, before he moved to the very different but no less difficult conditions of post-Occupation Paris, where he famously flirted with Surrealism. Or, to be more precise, where Surrealism flirted with him. Upon arrival in Paris Klippel was warmly welcomed by André Breton who, at the time, was busy trying to shore up the movement’s depleted status following its dispersal during the war. In the months that followed Breton helped arrange Klippel’s show at the Gallerie Nina Dausset while encouraging his participation in the activities of the new Centrale based at Gallerie La Dragonne. Yet Klippel soon turned his back on both Surrealism and Paris, for reasons that are not entirely clear. He may well have been among the many young artists for whom the events of the Second World War had effectively negated Surrealism, a generation for whom ruins were no longer romantic and corpses no longer exquisite. Yet Klippel’s interest in Roussel also suggests another point of divergence with Surrealism for, while Breton valorised Roussel as a forefather of ‘pure psychic automatism’, the latter’s technique in fact foreclosed upon the very free and authentic subjectivity which Surrealism sought to emancipate, an aim which, in the aftermath of the Second World War and amid the Cold War with its burgeoning culture industry, was appearing increasingly romantic and naive if not outright futile.

In 1951 Klippel returned to Sydney where the ANZUS Security Treaty would soon bind Australia to participation in all future American conflict while marking a reorientation of Australian culture from the British towards an homogenising Americana.33 Concerns that American mass culture threatened a ‘national suicide’ became increasingly common in Australian media throughout the period of Klippel’s return to Sydney. For an indicative example, see ‘Australia blamed for spread of US culture’, The Age, 11 March 1960, p. 3. Shortly thereafter a far less loudly publicised agreement with Britain brought the nuclear threat home, with mushroom clouds and atomic fallout appearing over South Australia and Western Australia. In 1958, as tensions in Vietnam were boiling over, Klippel moved to America where, via television, the unreason of war permeated domestic space and everyday life. As Marshall McLuhan observed, the ‘television war has meant the end of the dichotomy between civilian and military … the main actions of the war are now being fought in the American home itself’.34 Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village: An Inventory of Some of the Current Spastic Situations That Could Be Eliminated By More Feedforward, Bantam, New York, 1968, p. 134. It was at precisely this moment Klippel began welding small pieces of junk metal into abstract sculptures. In late 1962 the first significant exhibition of these works opened in Minneapolis just as the Cuban Missile Crisis climaxed with America and the Soviet Union pointing nuclear warheads at each other.

Klippel’s formative artistic period was thus book-ended by an all-too-real nuclear catastrophe and ongoing threat, filled out by wars in Korea and Vietnam, and underwritten by the acceleration of a globalising mass culture. This was a period when economics were restructured according to the ‘reason’ of planned obsolescence, and when international politics accorded to the ‘reason’ of mutually assured destruction. And it is this particularly unreasonable historical moment that, it is being contended, Klippel’s abstract, horrific and unreasonable little machines manifest so acutely. Put simply, works such as No. 255 register all too clearly the void of unreason that Klippel was especially well placed to identify at the very heart of Cold War culture. However if, as is being argued, Klippel’s own unreasonable sculptures manifest the unreason of their historical moment in a general sense, then so too do they manifest a more particular and more personal experience of this moment as well, as becomes clear if we return, by way of conclusion, to No. 255.

The main distinctions between Klippel’s junk works and those of the many other contemporary artists working in constructed or direct metal sculpture (for example, David Smith and Richard Stankiewicz), was the combination of their diminutive stature and precise, even fussy, construction. As with his other works, Klippel took care to affix the metal appendages irradiating from No. 255 into only pre-existing holes in the central disc, thereby giving the impression that the structure is a unified whole, or abstract machine, as opposed to an assemblage of obsolete junk. It was this method that also, no doubt, contributed to the historical tendency to read these works as a kind of ‘pure’ abstraction. Yet while Klippel also denied literal reference to junk materials (as in the above cited remark to Hazel de Berg that he saw no ‘meaning in where it [the sculpture] has come from’) he didn’t, however, attribute this impression of unity to the pursuit of pure form. Instead, he explained this aspect of his practice, along with the small scale in which he preferred to work, both more pragmatically and more evocatively by reference to his old hobby of model-making. And indeed, in terms of materials, mode of construction and scale, there is nothing these sculptures resemble so much as models.

Klippel first developed his interest in model-making as a six-year-old and continued the practice throughout his adolescence. It prepared him for a career as a sculptor when, as a teenager, he grew dissatisfied with simple construction and learnt to carve in order to replicate the intricate hull and bow ornamentation he researched in historical naval texts borrowed from the library, and the foreign vessels pictured in the photographs he would later collect from sailors. As James Gleeson has noted, Klippel became so proficient at the practice that a number of his models were subsequently acquired by museums, such as the New South Wales Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.35 Gleeson, p. 15. After leaving school Klippel studied wool classing and then spent a self-confessed depressing year working in a woollen mill, but when the Second World War began he joined the navy in what must have seemed a natural career move.36 ibid. Biographical details from this point on are drawn from the lengthy interview that comprises most of Salvat, 1975.

Following his training as an anti-aircraft gunner at the Naval Gunnery School at Woolloomooloo (figs. 7+8), Klippel was stationed as a gunner aboard a Norwegian merchant tanker that shipped continuously between Sydney and the Middle East. Nothing is known of Klippel’s time on board, of his time spent occupying, quite literally, the inter-relationship between cogwheel and bud. It is an interesting coincidence, however, that it was precisely this interface between anti-aircraft gunner, gun and target that inspired Norbert Wiener to develop the field of cybernetics, itself a theorisation of the inter-relationship between technology and nature, at exactly this time.37 Wiener worked extensively on the efficiency of anti-aircraft guns and human–technology feedback throughout WWII; work first published as Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener & Julian Bigelow, ‘Behavior, purpose and teleology’, Philosophy of Science, vol. 10, no. 1, 1943, pp. 18–24. Cybernetic theory was famously introduced into the broader public discourse by Wiener’s lay explanation in the hugely popular The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Doubleday Anchor, New York, 1950), and in which he uses the example of the anti-aircraft gunner on several occasions. To what extent Klippel may have reflected on this experience, and to what degree it may have informed his later artistic practice, remains speculative, although we do know he disliked it sufficiently to feign illness to secure a land-based, non-combat role. In 1943 Klippel was relieved of his gunning duties and returned to a new position at the Gunnery School where he had originally trained. Here his long-held ambition to become a professional model-maker was realised, albeit on hardly ideal terms, when he was assigned to spend the rest of the war making recognition models of enemy aircraft to be used in gunner training (fig. 8). Model-making, seemingly the most innocuous and rational of hobbies, became yet another implement of horror and unreason.

 

After the war Klippel gave up model-making and became an abstract artist, albeit one who did not believe that abstraction was totally abstract, but instead that it was only via abstraction that sculpture would ‘have use and communicate through its medium’ in this ‘machine age of the 20th century’, with its ‘atomic bombs, mass production etc’. In other words, he believed that it was only through abstraction that the logic of the early Cold War and technological modernity could itself be manifest. Thus while in one sense Klippel gave up model-making after the war, it was precisely the unreasonable savagery that now constituted a void at the very heart of everyday life that he continued to model with his own unreasonable and savage little sculptures.

Ryan Johnston, PhD Canditate, Art History, University of Melbourne (in 2010)

Notes

I would like to thank Anthony White and the two anonymous referees for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

 

   1     John Henshaw, ‘Art’, The Australian, 2 March 1968, p. 27.

   2     To be clear, I am not suggesting that Klippel/Klippel: Opus 2008 was perpetuating this reading, but rather that the historical return it enacted provided both the impetus and inspiration for historical revision.

   3     Robert Hughes, ‘Robert Klippel’, Art & Australia, May 1964, p. 18. It is too often forgotten that Hughes nominated Norma Redpath to share his dubious honorific.

   4     Hughes, p. 28. The term ‘new baroque’ was borrowed from James Gleeson.

   5     Notable examples of this revisionism include, inter alia, Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993; Michael Godfrey, Abstraction and the Holocaust, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007; Anthony White, ‘Abstract art, ethics and interpretation: The case of Mario Radice’, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 4, no. 2, 2004, pp. 43–56; and the essays collected in Kobena Mercer (ed.), Discrepant Abstraction, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006.

   6     Leja, p. 5. This is clearly also a factor contributing to the historical insistence on the abstract nature of so much Australian landscape painting and especially that of Fred Williams.

   7     See Heather Barker & Charles Green, ‘Bernard Smith: cold warrior’, Thesis Eleven, issue 1, vol. 82, 2005, pp. 38–53.

   8     ‘Dog eat dog’ (Nation, 26 January 1963, p. 19,) prompted a vitriolic exchange in the letters page that lasted several weeks and involved both Alan McCulloch and Elwyn Lynn. For an interesting discussion that situates Hughes’s article within the broader Cold War critical culture, see Heather Barker, A Critical History of Writing on Australian Contemporary Art, 1960–1988, PhD dissertation, University of Melbourne, 2005, pp. 55–8.

   9     The article to which Hughes referred was Clement Greenberg, ‘How art writing earns its bad name’, Encounter, December, vol. XIX, no. 6, 1962, pp. 67–71. Again, Hughes’s reception of Greenberg, and its influence on Australian art writing and practice of the 1960s, warrants more attention than is possible here.

10     See James Gleeson, Robert Klippel, Bay Books, Sydney, 1983; Deborah Edwards, Robert Klippel, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2002.

11     Edwards, p. 17.

12     Gleeson, p. 429.

13     Klippel, quoted in Gleeson, p. 35.

14     ibid., p. 37.

15     Hazel de Berg, interview with Klippel, 17 May 1965, Oral History and Folklore, National Library of Australia, TRC 1/93, p. 8.

16     In what follows, I am discarding the convention by which the title of Klippel’s works take the form of a number prefixed by the term Opus. This was established by James Gleeson in his 1983 monograph but is contrary to the artist’s own habit of simply numbering his works consecutively according to chronology.

17     Hughes, p. 24.

18     The resemblance of this work to both a halo and sunflower is highlighted by the NGV’s wall text, as of 27 March 2009.

19     Klippel’s notebooks deserve further analysis in their own right. For an interesting discussion that draws different conclusions to my own, see Megan Gannon, A Surreal Synthesis: Robert Klippel’s Language of Forms, Honours thesis, University of Melbourne, 2003.

20     Klippel himself even designed a coffee table, c.1955, that married Noguchi-esque organicism to Aboriginal iconography (boomerangs!) with a single ‘atom’ at its structural centre.

21     Edwards, p. 33. These activities are also documented extensively in my PhD dissertation, Eduardo Paolozzi: History is Bunk!, University of Melbourne (in preparation).

22     Duchamp’s small work To be looked at (from the other side of the glass) with one eye, close to, for almost an hour, 1918, a study of kind for his glass, is a surprisingly literal illustration of the invention that inspired him, and the title was lifted verbatim from a passage in the novel. This was illustrated in Duchamp’s box of notes and studies known as the Green box, a copy of which, owned by Nigel Henderson, was also in circulation at the Slade. Giacometti referred to Roussel’s influence in conversation with the American poet John Ashbery (see his ‘Introduction’, in Trevor Winkfield (ed.), How I Wrote Certain of My Books and Other Writings by Raymond Roussel, Exact Change, Cambridge, MA, 1995, p. xviii).

23     This machine is the subject of chapter two. See Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus: A Novel, Rupert Copeland Cunningham, (trans.), 2nd ed., John Calder, London, 1983, pp. 24–50.

24     Gleeson (pp. 388–93) relates this desire directly to their Locus Solus project in his discussion of the latter, noting also the prevalence of landscapes featuring abstract, sculptural forms in Klippel’s sketchbooks. The artist speaks at length about his landscape plans in Keith Salvat (dir.), Robert Klippel, Keisal Films, Sydney, 1975. Installation illustrated in Gleeson, p. 233. Gleeson himself would also pursue an individual artistic interest in Roussel with his remarkable Locus Solus series of small collages drawings and paintings from 1976–78. The precise nature of his own understanding of Roussel remains to be examined.

25     Raymond Roussel, ‘How I wrote certain of my texts’, in Trevor Winkfield (ed.), How I Wrote Certain of My Books and Other Writings by Raymond Roussel, Exact Change, Cambridge, MA., 1995, p. 4.

26     Given his own subsequent linguistic experimentation, there is a chance that Duchamp may already have understood Roussel’s method, although this remains speculation.

27     The best surveys of Roussel’s varied reception following the publication of How I Wrote Certain of My Books are: Rebecca Graves, Writing Machines: Villiers de Isle Adam and Raymond Roussel, PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 2002, pp. 221–39; Stephanie Jennings Hanor, Jean Tinguely: Useless Machines and Mechanical Performers, 1955–1970, PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2003, pp. 83–96.

28     Foucault’s contention was inspired by and partially indebted to Michel Leiris’s own earlier, important writings on Roussel, not to mention his redeployment of Rousselian devices in his own novel Rules of the Game, 1948. See the texts anthologised as Michel Leiris, Roussel L’Ingénu: Documents sur Raymond Roussel, Fata Morgana, Paris, 1987.

29     Michel Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel, Garden City, Doubleday, 1986, p. 166. The title of the original 1962 French version was simply Raymond Roussel.

30     ibid., p. 166. At this point it is important to note that ‘unreason’ was not clearly defined by Foucault and is the subject of some scholarly contestation. This lack of clarity has also been exacerbated by the manner in which Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age, 1961, was abridged as Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1964, in which form it was then translated into English. This process essentially obscured the etymology of the term within Foucault’s oeuvre (particularly within English-language scholarship) until very recently. My own reading of ‘unreason’ here is indebted to that of Pierre Macherey in ‘Foucault reads Roussel: Literature as philosophy’, The Object of Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 211–27, the best of the surprisingly sparse literature on Death and the Labyrinth. The other notable but brief account is in Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, Athlone, London, 1988. On the disappearance of ‘unreason’ during the abridgement of Madness, see Ian Hacking’s foreword to the unabridged version of this text, only recently published in English as Michel Foucault, History of Madness, Routledge, London, 2006, pp. ix–xii. For an excellent discussion of the significance of the concept of unreason within Foucault’s earlier and later writings, see Nigel Dodd, ‘Foucault’s void’, The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 58, no. 3, 2007, pp. 477–93.

31     Foucault, p. 166–7.

32     Macherey, p. 215.

33     Concerns that American mass culture threatened a ‘national suicide’ became increasingly common in Australian media throughout the period of Klippel’s return to Sydney. For an indicative example, see ‘Australia blamed for spread of US culture’, The Age, 11 March 1960, p. 3.

34     Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village: An Inventory of Some of the Current Spastic Situations That Could Be Eliminated By More Feedforward, Bantam, New York, 1968, p. 134.

35     Gleeson, p. 15.

36     ibid. Biographical details from this point on are drawn from the lengthy interview that comprises most of Salvat, 1975.

37     Wiener worked extensively on the efficiency of anti-aircraft guns and human–technology feedback throughout WWII; work first published as Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener & Julian Bigelow, ‘Behavior, purpose and teleology’, Philosophy of Science, vol. 10, no. 1, 1943, pp. 18–24. Cybernetic theory was famously introduced into the broader public discourse by Wiener’s lay explanation in the hugely popular The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Doubleday Anchor, New York, 1950), and in which he uses the example of the anti-aircraft gunner on several occasions.