Inge King: Playing Seriously

Zara Stanhope talked to Inge King on 28 August 2006 shortly after the dedication of her latest piece of public art Rings of Saturn at Heide Museum of Modern Art. The interview took place at the Robin Boyd designed house where King (b. 1918) and her aristist partner Grahame King have lived for half a century. The both have small studio spaces in the buildings, which are set on several acres in Warrandyte in outer Melbourne.

Zara Stanhope talked to Inge King on 28 August 2006 shortly after the dedication of her latest piece of public art at Heide Museum of Modern Art. The interview took place at the Robin Boyd designed house where King (b. 1918) and her artist partner Grahame King have lived for half a century. They both have small studio spaces in the buildings which are set on several acres in Warrandyte in outer Melbourne.

Zara Stanhope: Inge, can you briefly review the development of your practice?
Inge King: My early career was messy because it had many interruptions. I started in Germany in 1936-7, at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, where you studied from the figure. My great inspiration was the German sculptor Ernst Barlach. I wanted to be a wood carver on account of his influence. I went to England in 1939 and won a scholarship for the Royal Academy School, London, where I spent six months until the schools closed on account of the war. I completed my studies at the Glasgow School of Art, where I made lifelong friends. The years in Scotland belong to the happiest in my life.

My early encounters with the work of Henry Moore were in London. At first, I did not find his work easy to understand but later, in Glasgow, I appreciated his work greatly. The artist who influenced me by giving me a greater understanding of sculpture was Jacob Epstein. In some ways he was the more powerful personality of the two, a Renaissance giant.

At the end of the war I was modelling and creating pieces like Warsaw (1943-45). In 1947 I returned to London and was one of the first artists to come to the famous 'Abbey'. By this time I could not see how I could do any more with the figure, so I decided to move into what I call non-representational work. I don't like to call it abstraction as my work was never abstract in concept. I was groping for my own way.

In 1949 I had my first exhibition, at London Gallery in London, run by the Belgian surrealist E.L.T. Mesens (friend and colleague of Magritte). Having come into some money I was then able to take a year off and travel. For six months I made Paris a base, and spent six months in the United States, which was formative.

In New York in 1949 I met many interesting people: through a friend I was introduced to a well known sculptor, Herbert Ferber, an abstractionist. He was a close friend of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, whom I often met often at his place – this was quite an experience. I also saw my first large Jackson Pollock show at a commercial gallery.

Newman and Rothko were both interesting company and highly intelligent. Newman was an intellectual of a first class order. I found his work and his writings interesting then and have continued to do so. I was recently struck by the power of his work Broken Obelisk (1963-69) when placed in the refurbished Museum of Modern Art in New York. I spent an exciting afternoon at Harvard with Walter Gropius, who offered to facilitate a scholarship for the Institute of Design in Chicago and gave me Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's book Vision in motion, which has always been important to me.

Back in London in 1950, something clicked between Grahame King and I and we decided to stay together. I was fed up with Europe and determined to go to America but that did not work out. We arrived here in January 1951 and it was a shock; Melbourne was almost Victorian!
Apart from the cultural change, it wasn't easy to find materials; there was no seasoned or treated timber available for carving; the only stone available was granite. We had to earn money so I made silver jewellery as I had experience in jewellery design. I enrolled in metalsmithing at RMIT (there were no jewellery courses then) and eventually got some equipment. Grahame and I set up a studio in Bourke Street. I could sell anything I made. They bought jewellery off my ears! Grahame and I had our first joint exhibition in November 1951 at Peter Bray Gallery. I exhibited twelve carvings and a case of jewellery and Grahame showed paintings. We sold all the jewellery and some paintings but I don't think anyone except sculpture students looked at my sculptures.

Wanting to settle down we bought land at Warrandyte, Robin Boyd designed a house as a one-room lock-up and in late 1952 we moved in. Our children were born in 1953 and 1955 respectively. It was not until the late 1950s that I started working in earnest again. My interest in metal had continued since the welded sculpture I had seen in America. I had used these ideas in the jewellery and in mobiles or kinetic sculptures. A turning point was in 1960 when we exchanged one of Grahame's paintings for an arc welder. A neighbour constructed arc welders and taught us to weld properly, initially for a commission for a fountain in Fitzroy Gardens organised by Robin Boyd (Dewdrop Fountain (1959-60)).

From then on I pursued the metal sculpture seriously: at first with flat, thin sheets joined together, and subsequently elements of steel. There are three aspects of sculptural work: modelling, carving and assemblage. With modelling you work from the inside to the outside; with carving you work from the outside to the inside and with assemblage you build up your work. And I eventually found assemblage suited me, it was what I had been seeking.
Getting more depth into sculpture lead to steel box or cubic non–representational forms, and the work continued to develop from there. It was non-representational until the 1990s. By 1991 I explored the use of bronze. With the bronze came the figure, and suddenly I had enough freedom to do what I liked. All my figurative works are made up of abstract shapes. They works are a celebration of life; one of the first major pieces was Joie de vivre (1989-90) for ICI. The bronzes have a freedom that is the result of many years of searching; a lifetime's involvement with forms and shapes, their relationships, tensions and juxtapositions.

How important have materials and tools been to the development of your practice?
Both are very important to me, they guide you in what you want to do. Early on I made maquettes and models and then I realised the only way to carve is to work straight into the material. The same with steel; if you force steel into something that it isn't it won't work either.

The studio has been very important in your career hasn't it? Does a lot of thinking happen down there?
Yes, it's my private haunt. It's a space for experimentation. It is a small studio but works up to three metres can be made outdoors here, weather permitting. Large works are built elsewhere with engineers. If you want to work nothing stops you.

Did you enter into the debates in the 1960s regarding the theoretical discussion of abstraction versus representation?
This was a topic Bernard Smith pursued but it's a debate I was not interested in because you work the way you have to work to pursue ideas. There is no divide as the figure is an abstraction. In any work of substance there is an abstraction of nature, you never copy nature; art is an interpretation of nature whether it is figurative or non-representational.

Did you ever suspect that being a woman affected your career?
I was not aware of it but, in hindsight, discrimination does exist. I never looked at it from that perspective because I was not interested in only selling my work; it is not the overriding motivation. It was not until I became connected with a gallery that I thought about how others saw my work.
Saying that, in 1951 when I first arrived in Melbourne I enquired whether RMIT would employ me with my Scottish teaching qualifications. At the time they said my qualifications were too good; they would have to pay me too much. In retrospect I realised they would not have employed me because: a) I was an outsider, a foreigner in Melbourne and b) a woman. There were no women teaching at RMIT for decades.
My main thought was always that my work didn't satisfy me, that it wasn't good enough. Wanting to achieve more keeps you going. If you don't have that feeling you might as well stop altogether.

How do you think of the relationship between sculpture and architecture?
I enjoy working with architects and relating sculpture to buildings. Architects have become less friendly toward sculpture; architecture took over and didn't leave space for sculpture. Forward Surge (1973-81) came into being as a maquette at an exhibition of twelve sculptures at Powell Street Gallery in 1972, called Maquettes for Monumental Sculptures. All the maquettes had a stipulated finished size should the sculpture be realised. Roy Grounds said 'I want this one' when he saw the maquette for Forward Surge. The title of the work was then Sculpture for a city plaza.
Just prior to installation I requested a plan of the site, just on instinct. The plans indicated the sculpture would be in ten feet of a yet unbuilt walkway. I was terribly upset and the sculpture was moved back as much as it could be. Although the walkway obscures it, the sculpture remains a unifying element between the buildings. Public sites necessitate not only working with architects but with city planners and many others but I would like to do more with architecture.

Since the invention of digital technologies you have architects like Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry who almost create their own sculpture. If you are going to place work in these buildings it has to be video art or the sculpture has to be quite apart from the building.

Site is not an important consideration for outdoor work?
Working with Heide Museum for Rings of Saturn, firstly we agreed on a maquette. Then when I saw the site I knew I had to enlarge the work to do what I call 'conquer the landscape'. The Australian landscape is an enormously powerful landscape; vast and with clarity of atmosphere, and you never know in advance how work will look in it.
The landscape grips my imagination – I try to measure my work against the vast spaces of this country. Conquering the landscape does not rely on scale but simplicity and clarity of form expressing inner strength and tension.
If my sculpture is outdoors or in the public domain I like it to arouse people's curiosity to explore the work. Multidimensional objects look different from every angle. The exciting thing about outdoor sculpture is the change with the light, the weather... everything is in constant flux. It becomes almost a living entity.

Does the use of colour assist in giving your sculpture a dynamism?
In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of colour was used in sculpture, Anthony Caro and the Americans led the way. I would have loved to have used colour but I couldn't do it at that time, because I thought it destroyed the form of my work, the shape of it. Then eventually I discovered that I could use colour as an accent. Not in everything but here and there in some work.

What do you find intriguing about art?
You can always find new things. It stimulates your mind and imagination.

How do you define creativity?
It's about adding things. Nothing is entirely original; we should have no illusions about that. If we can add something to the existing culture, that is a contribution.
The whole experience of life comes into creativity...

Do you think there is a relationship between art and everyday life?
Yes. Art is a part of life, it is life. You don't live apart in this world, you live in this world. To pursue any definite ideas or politics for some may be necessary for some artists but not for me because to create something worthwhile is to create an expression of the time.

What can an artist do to leave some legacy or contribution?
The work has to speak for itself. I always say artists are lucky people – they play all their lives.