Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Cle­ment Mead­more, Up (1997). The Aus­traliana Fund Col­lec­tion. Pur­chased to cel­e­brate the cen­te­nary of Fed­er­a­tion and to com­mem­o­rate the new mil­len­nium in 2000. Pur­chased with funds pro­vided anony­mously. On dis­play, Govern­ment House, Can­berra. Open Day, Satur­day, Oc­to­ber 7. Dur­ing the early 1960s, Melbourne-born sculp­tor Cle­ment Mead­more be­came in­creas­ingly ir­ri­tated by the lack of recog­ni­tion of his work. He be­lieved that in Aus­tralia, “even if you did the best sculp­ture in the world, no­body would know about it.” His so­lu­tion was to move per­ma­nently to New York.

It was a de­ci­sion that proved ben­e­fi­cial and his ca­reer flour­ished. Af­ter his move, his sculp­ture was ac­quired for col­lec­tions such as the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, and he was sought af­ter for ma­jor pub­lic com­mis­sions, rang­ing from the univer­sity cam­puses of Prince­ton and Columbia to pub­lic spa­ces in Mex­ico, Canada, and Ja­pan. When he died in 2005 in Man­hat­tan, The New York Times and Los An­ge­les Times ran sub­stan­tial obit­u­ar­ies cit­ing his achieve­ments.

But sculp­ture was not orig­i­nally Mead­more’s first choice of ca­reer. Born in 1929, he stud­ied aero­nau­ti­cal engi­neer­ing at Melbourne’s RMIT be­fore turn­ing to de­sign­ing fur­ni­ture. In the 1950s, while work­ing as a suc­cess­ful de­signer, he made his first welded sculp­ture and he was hooked.

Af­ter he moved to New York, he was in­flu­enced by the colour-field paint­ings of Bar­nett New­man and started pro­duc­ing mon­u­men­tal, smooth, black square-sided metal beams that twisted and coiled with a sense of weight­less­ness. He was known for com­bin­ing the pure geo­met­ric de­tach­ment of min­i­mal­ism with el­e­ments of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism.

His sculp­tures have been de­scribed as sug­gest­ing flight and dance but, as he said back in 1971: “I am not in­ter­ested in metaphors of in­fin­ity or of any­thing else. I have to start with a real thing, an ob­ject, and then try to let it tran­scend its phys­i­cal­ity.”

Nu­mer­ous Mead­more sculp­tures are scat­tered through­out Aus­tralia and one of them, per­haps sur­pris­ingly, is in the grounds of Govern­ment House in Can­berra. It is there thanks to the Aus­traliana Fund, a col­lec­tion started in 1978 by Tamie Fraser with the support of her hus­band, Mal­colm. Based on how Jackie Kennedy set up an art col­lec­tion at the White House, Fraser’s idea was to raise funds to buy mu­seum-qual­ity ob­jects to be dis­played in the of­fi­cial res­i­dences of the prime min­is­ter and the gover­nor-gen­eral.

There are now about 500 art­works in the col­lec­tion and yes­ter­day a book, Col­lect­ing for the Na­tion, which doc­u­ments the col­lec­tion and its his­tory, was launched in Can­berra.

Mead­more’s Up was ac­quired by the fund in 2000 to cel­e­brate the cen­te­nary of Fed­er­a­tion and to com­mem­o­rate the new mil­len­nium, says Sonya Abbey, fine art ad­viser for the Aus­traliana Fund. She says it is ap­pro­pri­ate that Mead­more, who had a sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence on sculp­ture, should be in this col­lec­tion and dis­played in one of the old­est his­toric set­tings in Aus­tralia.

“Up is a work of in­ter­na­tional renown and it is fit­ting to have it on pub­lic dis­play in the home of the high­est of­fice-holder in Aus­tralia, the Gover­nor-Gen­eral,” she says.

“It works on a lot of lev­els. It is a very sim­ple piece in that it is monochro­matic, it is black, and yet the twisted form and the curves take on such a com­plex as­pect.

“I didn’t re­alise un­til I saw it in­stalled how well this very mod­ern piece works in this his­toric land­scape. I’m more used to see­ing works like this in a mu­seum or in a sculp­ture court­yard, but I par­tic­u­larly love it within this set­ting. Where we have po­si­tioned it at Govern­ment House is within a group of beau­ti­ful gum trees and there is a nice jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween these beau­ti­ful curves of the sculp­ture and the straight trees around it.”

Up and other Aus­traliana Fund art­works will be on dis­play to the pub­lic at the Govern­ment House Open Day in Can­berra next Satur­day, Oc­to­ber 7.

Aluminium, black paint; 262.5cm x 95cm x 90cm

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