Without a doubt Inge King is Melbourne’s most important sculptor of the second half of the twentieth century. Her importance comes from being amongst the first modern sculptors in Melbourne, her many public sculptures and her long life.
Inge King – Constellation is a retrospective exhibition at the NGV Ian Potter Centre (Fed Square). In giving an overview of her life’s work the exhibition shows the point where King found her style and then how it developed. Her early works resembles various European modern sculptors: Jan Arp, Juan Miro, Henry Moore, along with a bit of Alexander Calder.
Sculpture was, until the 20th century, made from raw materials, clay, stone, wood, metal; then came assemblage, a particularly modern method because it requires previously manufactured materials to assemble. In 1959 King acquired and learnt to use an arc welder; it was with the welded assemblage of steel plates that she found her style. It was a style that was perfect for public sculpture. A field guide to recognising a King’s public sculpture would probably note they are assemblages of metal and mostly painted black.
King’s public sculptures are very familiar to many people in Melbourne. Her sculptures are across the city from Melbourne University, the Arts Centre to EastLink. Students and graduates of Melbourne University would be familiar with King Sun Ribbon (1970).
Forward Surge (1972-74 installed in 1981) fits perfectly into the curved architecture of the Arts Centre Melbourne and Hamer Hall, turning the horizontal curves of the buildings vertical. The curves delight small children who try to climb them only to have to slide back down when the curve becomes to steep. King remarks in a video interview that although she understands why the council wants to stop skateboarders using Forward Surge, because they have to repaint it, she is glad that skateboarders do use it.
As a member of the Centre 5 group King wanted to reunited modern sculpture with architecture. Her Red Rings (2008), located at the junction of the EastLink pedestrian and bike trail and the Dandenong Creek trail, are three steel rings painted red. The human scale of the Red Rings, 2.5 metres in diameter allows for people to move through them.
The NGV’s exhibition has many of the maquettes, at various scales, for these public sculptures. There is the maquette for the bird form, Sheerwater (1994) in front of the Esso building on Southbank.
The exhibition gives further insight into King’s interest in reuniting sculpture with architecture, one of the five objectives of the Centre 5 group that King was involved with. Her sculptures can be walls, screens and arches but they can also relate to architecture by projecting from walls or, made of aluminium instead of steal, hanging from the ceiling.
King’s arrival in Melbourne in 1951 marks the beginning of modern Melbourne; the beginning of an international outlook aware of Europe and the USA rather than provincial colonial view. King said that when she arrived Melbourne was “like opening a can of flat beer”. It was the arrival of post-war immigrants that saved Melbourne’s culture and made this contemporary, artistic city.
There was no interest in modern sculpture in Melbourne when King arrived and to make a living she turned to jewellery making. The exhibition includes two vitrines of her boldly modern jewellery; vambrace style bracelets set with opals, necklaces and rings with geometric elegance that can be seen in her most recent sculptures.
Given Inge King’s importance in the history of Australian art it is a shame that this exhibition was so disjointed. The exhibition is located in the large foyers of each floor of Ian Potter Centre, extending a bit into a gallery on the second floor and on the landings of stairs. Starting on the third floor with her earliest work, her classic black sculptures are on the second floor and her most recent work in stainless steel on the ground floor. Extending into the gallery space on the second floor allows the curator to include a mini-retrospective of King’s husband, Grahame King, a notable print maker.