The first room of a new exhibition of works by American–Australian sculptor Margel Hinder is mesmerising. Dark, with blackened walls, it shines spotlights on her hanging wire mobiles that highlight the geometry of their forms, which turn and turn brightly, mirrored by their quieter shadows.
Her wall sculptures, made of wire and Perspex, are even more exciting. Superimpositions of differently sized triangles – scalene, isosceles, equilateral, acute, obtuse – and rectangles, which, from a distance, appear twice as large as they really are. Approach them, and half the lines resolve themselves again into shadows of the material reality.
Hinder was a Modernist sculptor whose fame did not survive the heyday of her working life. Although the unveiling was in all the Sydney papers in 1964, city workers passing the rugged, metres-high copper and steel sculpture that fronts the Reserve Bank building in Sydney probably couldn’t tell you now who the sculptor was, let alone that it was a woman.
Differently sized maquettes of the Reserve Bank work, and a video showing its assembly in place, are part of Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion, an eye-opening exhibition of Hinder’s work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Four spacious rooms track the divergent paths she took throughout her life as she absorbed developments in science and technology, spiritualism and social change and incorporated them into her art.
Maquettes of her sculptures fill showcases with her small-scale practice runs for both craggy monoliths and lace-like depictions of atomic structures. For all the monumentality expected of sculpture, Hinder’s reflects the Modernist preoccupation with light, movement and time, the influence of Constructivism and Brutalism and indigenous art – from the block-like curves of Pueblo people in New Mexico to Australian Aboriginal use of raark, both of which show up in her work – and the abstract philosophies that fed her interest in transcendentalism.
The second room shows her work in smooth, polished wood, including an almost life-size Mother and Child (1939), first shown at the David Jones Gallery in Sydney, that harks back to her absorption of the fecund shapes she found in Taos, New Mexico. Taos was and remains a dynamic artists’ colony, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe among its famous alumni. Mother and Child is both intensely physical and spiritual in mood. On a nearby wall hangs a cedar relief, Man with Jackhammer (1939), borrowed from the National Gallery of Victoria, which shows the multiplicity of her interests. It was developed from designs submitted for the 1939 Sydney Water Board Competition.
In the final room are two sculptures, Six Day War, 1967 and 1973, which are juxtapositions of solid metal and space. They are entirely abstract yet somehow resonant with her pacificism. In 1953, she won an international sculpture prize from the Institute of Contemporary Art in London for The Unknown Political Prisoner, beating such exalted competition as Alexander Calder and Barbara Hepworth. The work was exhibited at the Tate the following year. It was hardly reported here and at the time she told a British reporter that “abstract artists have a hard time in Australia” and that their work was “neither liked nor understood”.
The prize marked a turning point from domestic-scale sculpture to the wider address of public art. By the 1960s, she said, “I had left all my lovely wiry things ... from all [that] luminosity and light and space, I began doing these great big heavy sculptures.” Her first public art commission was for the Western Assurance building in Pitt Street, by its architect Peter Johnson in 1959.
Hinder was born in New York in 1906 and, encouraged by her parents, was interested in art from childhood. As an adult, she claimed that “the beginning of it all” was seeing Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1932) in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when she was an art student. It echoed the ideas she was already developing about abstraction and her interest in Cezanne and Gauguin and the post-revolutionary Russian Constructivists. Her pencil landscape sketches are entirely different to Cezanne’s formulations – vertical instead of horizontal, triangular instead of square – yet clearly show his influence.
From liberal arts at Boston College, Hinder enrolled in the influential artist Emil Bisttram’s lectures, where she absorbed transcendentalism soaked in the “vitalism” of French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bisttram linked ancient Greek concepts of proportion, such as the Golden Mean, and the “natural forces of change inherent in all organic forms”, as AGNSW curator Denise Mimmochi puts it in her catalogue essay.
Hinder met her husband – the Australian artist Frank Hinder, who had gone to America to study art and commercial design – while still a student. They married in 1930, had a child in 1931, and decided to move as a family to Sydney soon after. She was dismayed by the lack of a serious avant-garde in Australia but soon made friends with Grace Crowley, Eleonore Lange, Ralph Balson and other local artists interested in abstraction. Crowley said that the arrival of the Hinders brought “a special stimulus to the nucleus of interest in abstract art”. Margel Hinder soon found her place.
One of the sadnesses of women’s place in art history shows up in Hinder’s case. It’s not simply that her name was soon lost to the public – which wasn’t helped by the relative lack of interest in sculpture compared with painting – but that some of her most beguiling works have fallen into ruin. In the final room of the exhibition are two wall-sized videos, reconstructions of beautiful fountains she made. One was the Civic Park fountain in Newcastle. Its circles within circles – the outer, a fat concave copper frame holding Hinder’s trademark slim rods forming a turning ball that houses the running water – is soothing to the eye and the ear. The turning of the maquette of it nearby, sans water, is equally elegant.
Joint retrospectives of both the Hinders’ work have been shown in the past, including one at the AGNSW in 1983. This is the first singling out of Margel Hinder’s works to rehabilitate her in the Australian pantheon. As well as her works, it contains display cases full of newspaper clippings and old photographs and other paraphernalia bringing her life and times back from the historical vaults.
While I was there, a visitor remarked that Hinder’s mobiles reminded her of Alexander Calder’s, but that she preferred these. Comparison is invidious, but there is a pedigree of moving sculpture in the 20th century: Calder, Duchamp. Giacometti, Tinguely, Munari, Le Parc. Hinder’s output was relatively small and local, but she can hold her head up among them.
Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until May 2.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Abstract pleasures".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial