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Inge King: A life of steel

Inge King is Melbourne’s most significant sculptor of the second half of the 20th century. Her status comes from being among the first modernist sculptors in Melbourne, her many public sculptures, and her longevity (she’s now 98 years old).

Inge King – Constellation is a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square. It provides an overview of 70 years of  work through 92 works and shows the point where King found her style and developed it.

Her early works bear a resemblance to various 20th century sculptors including Jan Arp, Juan Miro, Henry Moore, along with a bit of Alexander Calder. Until the 20th century sculpture was made from raw materials, clay, stone, wood, metal; then came assemblage, a particularly modern method because it required previously manufactured materials to assemble. In 1959 the Berlin-born King learnt to use an arc welder and 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 works in public spaces across the city stretch from the Arts Centre to the Eastlink freeway.  Students and graduates of Melbourne University would be familiar with King’s Sun Ribbon (1970).

Sun Ribbon (1970).
Sun Ribbon (1970).

Forward Surge (1972-74, installed in 1981) fits perfectly into the curved architecture sitting on the lawn between the Arts Centre Melbourne’s theatre building and  Hamer Hall by 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 too steep. King remarks in an accompanying video interview that although she understands why the Melbourne City Council wants to stop skateboarders using Forward Surge she is glad that skaters do use it.

Forward Surge, 1972-1974
Forward Surge (1972-1974).

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 is three, 2.5 meter diameter steel rings painted red. The human scale of the Red Rings allows for people to climb through them.

The NGV’s exhibition includes many of the maquettes for these public sculptures and includes the model for the bird form, Sheerwater (1994), in front of the Esso building in Southbank.

The exhibition gives further insight into King’s interest in reuniting sculpture with architecture. This was one of the objectives of the Centre 5 of contemporary sculptors that King belonged to in the early 1960s in Melbourne. 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 from Europe in 1951 coincides with the beginning of modern Melbourne; the emerging of an international outlook aware of developments in Europe and the USA rather than the provincial colonial view. King said that when she arrived Melbourne was “like opening a can of flat beer”.

There was little interest in modernist sculpture in Melbourne when King and her husband Grahame King moved from Europe in 1951 and she turned to jewellery design to make a living. This exhibition includes two vitrines of her boldly modern jewellery; vambrace style bracelets set with opals, necklaces and rings designed with the same geometric elegance that can be seen in her most recent sculptures.

Ring (c.1972).
Ring (c.1972).

Given Inge King’s importance in the history of Australian art it is a shame that this exhibition is so disjointed. The exhibition is located in the large foyers of each floor of Ian Potter Centre, extending slightly into a gallery on the second floor and on the landings of stairs. It begins 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 is on the ground floor. The second floor space includes a mini-retrospective of King’s husband, Grahame King, the noted print maker.

The Inge King Constellation retrospective is at the NGV Federation Square, Melbourne  until August 31. More info: Main image: Inge King in her studio, 2013. Photograph by David Hurlston. 


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