Melbourne

Inge King

National Gallery of Victoria

Inge King’s sculptures are an intensely cosmopolitan revision of Modernist abstraction. Her recent bronze constructions connote the body in a weirdly literal montage of cubist space and anthropomorphic silhouette. Until 1989, it seemed that King would continue to embellish the signs of high Modernism—impersonal surfaces, industrial materials, and geometric forms. In parallel with the reductive teleology of Modernism, she had simplified her sculptures. From the evidence of this retrospective, however, it is clear that her work always embodied a contrary tendency towards narrative complication. The most severe, resistant materials had therefore been King’s license to fetishize absolute constraint. In bronzes like Joi de vivre, 1989, extravagant gesture becomes the metaphor for mutable thought.

Despite a lifetime of manufacture outdoors, King’s sculptures are museum objects par excellence. The works since 1989 show that the artist was aware of how institutionalized this monumentality was, and how bureaucratic the spirituality of Formalism. King’s sculptures have always suggested the quirky interchangeability of assemblage. Despite an obvious austerity, her consistent preference for unstable figurative metaphor suggests improvisation more than reduction.

Because of the breadth of her career at a time when similarly ambitious women sculptors were a distinct oddity, King has been an impressive role model for younger women artists. She is also a contradictory figure, because of her apparent unequivocal projection of uncompromisingly Modernist virtues like formal purity. The Women’s Art Movement, as it developed in Australia in the ’70s, often criticized the valorization of power inherent in Modernist purity—King’s sculptures of the ’70s and ’80s tread a tightrope: her sculptures persist as part of an intellectual climate that privileged spatial effects over interpersonal discourse. For King there are obviously considerable implications in the equation between cultural power and Formalist abstraction, so she always subjects her formal language to deliberate dysfunction. Heavily worked surfaces, overactive weathering, and excessive accumulations of metal at welded joints testify to a specific idea of the purpose of finish, which range from the scarred edges of Oracle, 1966, to the absolute impersonality of the matte-black nonreflective surface of Silent gong, 1989. King valued signs of personality even if her own proved enormously mutable. Smooth, clean, and nonexpressive, Black Sun, 1975, was coupled with a dramatic, portentous title that actively advertised the power of industrial process.

Exemplary emblems of resistance to conservatism during the ’50s, by the ’70s King’s sculptures had become a paradigmatic illustration of urban control. However, her valuation of the monumental was provisional. King’s bronze dancers of 1990–91, in which formal instability replaces monolithic forms, broke with the bland language of neo-Plasticist sculpture. These figures look like simplified metal Matisse cutouts or large model airplanes: smooth flat angular limbs are jointed together ready for take-off. The mercurial presence of Daedalus, 1991, is also inflected by a painterly bronze patina and polychrome detailing. At absolute odds with her earlier works’ static monumentality, Inge King is quickly moving away from the immobile forms of architectural commissions. In her latest sculptures, she retrieves Modernism’s earliest fantasies of plenitude to locate herself within a type of alternative, utopian reality—that of art history. King populates a space where nature is represented by resonant, glancing surfaces and figures are hybrid constructions.

Charles Green