A new ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brates the Aus­tralian ex­pat’s early in­dus­trial de­sign work

VOGUE Living Australia - - CONTENTS -

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).

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