ICONIC STYLE: CLEMENT MEADMORE
A new exhibition celebrates the Australian expat’s early industrial design work
By Jason Mowen
Imagine Sydney without the Sydney Opera House. As legend has it, Jørn Utzon’s design didn’t even make the 1957 architectural competition’s shortlist. It was only after arriving late to the judging table that Eero Saarinen, underwhelmed by the already shortlisted entrants, pulled Utzon’s sketches from the reject pile et, voilà, the rest is Australian architectural history.
The following decade, as Utzon was essentially being fired from the Opera House project, another 20th-century Australian paradox of sorts was unfolding in the art world. Abandoning industrial design, Clement Meadmore had just moved to New York to pursue his career as an artist. Today, he is widely considered to be one of Australia’s greatest sculptors. He just had to leave Australia, permanently, to become so.
The work he created after moving to New York in 1963 fused elements of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. In the end, it transcended both, as exhilarating — and, in most cases, monumentally scaled — homages to geometry in seamless steel, now found on college campuses, corporate headquarters and in the collections of major museums around the world. His comparatively tiny bronze maquettes, however, pack an equally powerful punch. “He was like a flower that appeared from nowhere,” says Robin Gibson, Meadmore’s Sydney gallerist since 1995. Gibson describes his work as “as simple as a piece of sculpture can get”, singling out Bent Column (1966) as an early masterwork of reductive elegance. Imbued with a similar spirit, Meadmore’s 1950s industrial design work is now the subject of a major survey, Clement Meadmore: The Art of Mid-Century Design, at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne. According to curators Dean Keep and Jeromie Maver, the exhibition’s scope is twofold. ››
‹‹ It will explore the interplay between Meadmore’s converging practices — that of designer and artist — and, ultimately, celebrate his designs as beautiful objects in their own right.
Born in Melbourne in 1929, Meadmore studied aeronautical engineering at RMIT but switched to industrial design. After leaving college in 1949, his first design was for a steel rod-and-corded dining chair, an instant hit that caught the eye of architect Robin Boyd. Encouraged by this success, Meadmore came up with an entire line of steel-rod furniture, including the highly sculptural Reclining Chair (1953). Enjoying the success was, unfortunately, to be short-lived: his simple designs attracted copyists, something that would plague him throughout his design career and even, dramatically, see him lose the rights to use the ‘Meadmore’ name. Turning his back on the business, Meadmore went to Europe, not intending to return. Despite a stint working for Terence Conran in London and making it into the Italian magazine Domus, he struggled to find enough work and, after six months, returned to Melbourne. His aesthetic, though, was decidedly more European, as seen in the Calyx range of lighting (1954) and in the interior he designed for Melbourne’s Legend Café (1955), which sported a series of fresco-like paintings by Leonard French and a terrazzo floor. Maver describes the Calyx Desk Lamp
(1954) as “arguably the best Mid-Century lighting design produced in Australia”. Important collaborations — and his first solo show of sculpture — took place later that decade, including the establishment of Gallery A with his friend
Max Hutchinson, which showcased both art and design and championed non-figurative artists. But 1959’s Antipodean Manifesto, a declaration made by a group of major Australian figurative artists of the time that praised ‘Australian national art’ and condemned Abstract Expressionism in particular, was a breaking point for Meadmore. He briefly relocated to Sydney (where, among other things, he was art director/photo editor on the first few issues of Australian Vogue), and then made his ultimate move to New York, where he would live and work — and enjoy the remarkable career he deserved — for the remainder of his life.
Modern to the core, and a proficient drummer whose Friday night jam sessions were legendary, Meadmore’s other great passion was jazz — which, like his sculptures, twists and turns in a random, almost mathematical beauty. This love was reflected in the names of works such as Perdido (1978), Night and Day (1979) and Riff (1996). The artist once said of his work: “I am interested in geometry as a grammar which, if understood, can be used with great flexibility and expressiveness.” Could he have achieved such eloquence, and greatness, had he stayed in Australia? Or was his obstacle-strewn path merely one part of his destiny? VL Clement Meadmore: The Art of Mid-Century Design runs at the Ian Potter Museum of Art from 20 November, 2018–3 March, 2019 art-museum. unimelb.edu.au.
His work is available at Robin Gibson Gallery, robingibson.net, and at Anna Schwartz Gallery annaschwartzgallery.com
His simple designs attracted COPYISTS, something that would plague him
FROM FAR LEFT Clement Meadmore, New York, early 1990s. Meditation (1974). Riff (1996), on display at the Pt Leo Estate sculpture park on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE Meadmore in Sydney, early 1960s. Reclining Chair (1953). Corded Armchair (1952). However (1998).