A New Twist From An Old Jazzer

Clement Meadmore’s recent Australian visit - his first in 16 years - is hardly a homecoming. Home is fair and squarely the United States. Fifth Avenue New York to be precise. Having left Australia in 1963 to explore the rhythms of North America’s art and music scene Meadmore is, if not a colossus, a very major figure in world sculpture.

So successful and iconoclastic is his work, that generations of sculptors have falsely flattered the master by attempting to emulate what he calls his “geometry of emotion”. His tightly coiled, condensed forms spring to life like the work of few other sculptors of the abstract.

Only his second visit to Australia in almost 35 years, Meadmore’s return is far more triumphal than his departure. This time around he is honoured with centurion’s gold braid instead of the sales flop that precipitated his departure in 1963. The show won critical acclaim but failed to sell a single work. This irony was not lost and became a trigger to risk his talent and discover a broader audience.

There remains plenty of Jack Kerouac’s restless generation in Meadmore. His Fifth Avenue studio is a blur of music and sculpture. He is a part-time jazzer on drum kit and full-time sculptor surrounded by geometry in various stages of evolution and ‘emotion’. Jazz is an irresistible influence and its effect on his work is obvious with some of his titles which include Riff, Stormy Weather, ‘Round Midnight, Fidgety Feet and Wall for Bojangles.

With an inexorable, almost magnetic force, his work twists and dances like musical notes on a page. Forget the prissy detail and unsure movement, Meadmore is nothing if not precise about his intentions. His constructions carve across so much of the art world’s compost of chaos and clumsy abstractions. Within four years of landing in the U.S. his sculpture was being chased by many of the world’s major galleries, museums and corporations.

His trademark is the delicately poised contortion of heroic scale. Perhaps more than any living sculptor, his work celebrates a delicate grandeur. His cubist extrusions range from exquisite maquettes to the blockbuster, yet share a rhythmic simplicity and fluid, dynamic balance connected to art school principles adopted from Michaelangelo. “Sculpture should be able to roll down hills, and if small enough, cradled in one’s arms,” he says.

Meadmore could pass in the street without raising a second glance. He moves along purposefully and, now aged 68, is slightly stooped, but sports shoulder-length hair and full, neatly clipped beard. Meadmore’s main features are dark, piercing eyes, shining beneath bushy silver eyebrows. Dressed in dun brown pants and grey jumper he arrives from Sydney rain to Melbourne chill. His visit to both cities coincides with exhibitions at Robin Gibson and Anna Schwartz Galleries. “Both shows,” he says, “contain some of the best work I’ve done.” Buyers happened to agree with sell-out results.

His aim to become an international artist is complete. “‘International’ was once a very dirty word. “You are not easily forgiven for turning away from Australia. The provincialism that existed probably still exists, although much less so.”

These days he travels as an American citizen and Americans treat him as one of their own. No one turns down success. In an interview with Life magazine in 1963 he relates why he left Australia : “I’m in a constant state of annoyance in New York, It’s difficult just getting from one place to another. But it’s the art world that keeps me here. I don’t give a damn about any country, including Australia. I do give a very big damn about the world.”

The only evidence of his former life as industrial designer and lecturer is a rogue Australian accent which has stuck in the manner of ‘expats’ Clive James and Robert Hughes. Curiously, Hughes, a masseur or mangler of reputations, has cold-shouldered Meadmore. Apart from a piece in Time more than 25 years ago and a catalogue introduction in 1978, Meadmore says Hughes,“has never given me the time of day”.

He is not interested, however, in the obscure intellectual image practised by many artists whose work shifts in symbol and meaning in the way of cloudscapes - one moment a horse, the next a whistle. He rejects obscure art. ”If it relies on complicated catalogue notes it isn’t worth showing.”

Melbourne art and furniture consultant Bill Luke is unequivocal about Meadmore’s significance. “There’s the ‘art world’ and the real world. The gallery system cultivates its own, but there’s only one living Australian sculptor whose work I’m passionate about and that’s Clem Meadmore’s because it’s graphic and sculptural and it is on such a large, confrontational, scale. It’s very masculine, gutsy and absolutely real.”

“Can I have that in writing?” quips Meadmore. “It begins with geometry but I went beyond that a long time ago,” he declares. “I’ve finally arrived at the point where all the work has been worth it. Looking back I think ‘how did I ever do that’. The new work I’m doing is the best I’ve done. It’s the most complex but also the most expressive and emotional and it’s done in a way that you don’t even notice the geometry. That is something I’ve tried to achieve from the beginning. “I’ve used the same approach or style since about 1967, but the work itself has been going through major changes because I’ve discovered different ways to use that form. Most geometric sculpture is about geometry and is a purely geometric exercise. I’m trying to transcend geometry to make it expressive in the way of modelling and carving.”

Melbourne sculptor and lecturer Simon Jackson says that Meadmore is difficult to overrate. “A lot of people say he is a designer who supplies corporate foyer art. He has been single-minded and on a similar track for around 30 years trying to extract emotion from precise geometries. No one else has done it and Meadmore has got closer than anyone else. It’s a brilliant obsession.

“Not everyone sees it,” says Jackson,” but there is a great joy and wit in his work as well as a tremendous balance. Each one of those huge works balances on the finest axis. There is next to nothing - apart from that fantastic balance and maybe a small pin - holding them upright. I understood Meadmore made sculpture for this piazza or that forecourt, but he works from a central point on his maquette which rivets the eye. That becomes the point which is at eye level so that when it is installed it produces a very human scale, irrespective of how large.”

Meadmore declares sculpture should be about “intensity of feeling.

You can’t get that intensity in a chair for instance. If you did, it wouldn’t be a very good chair. Most sculptors who want to get an intensity of expression into a geometric form have got to be mindful of how a static, geometric object can become something else altogether.

That intensity and emotion is something I have worked at extremely hard. In my most recent work that is very obvious.”

These days its work, work and more work. His obsession with the ultimate form continues. “Sculpture is a continuous discovery,” he muses, “and now I’m finally doing something that no-one else has.” Meadmore’s biggest sculptures have a grand, almost epic quality, yet they invite a caress like no other. Deep within, they have a serpent’s strength and ballerina’s poise.

By Peter Hyatt Copyright 2001

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.