In 1968 the textile businessman and art collector John Kaldor invited Jeanne-Claude and Christo to Australia to wrap the rocky coast of Little Bay in Sydney. However, Little Bay isn’t little: it took a year, 95,600-square metres of fabric and 56 kilometres of rope to cover the two-and-a-half kilometres of coastline, making it the biggest art work ever created, and one of the most important early examples of environmental art. It became the first of the Kaldor Public Art Projects that would unfold over the next four decades. To date, 23 new works have been commissioned in public spaces around Australia from artists including Gilbert & George, Jeff Koons, Richard Long, Urs Fischer, Bill Viola, Tatzu Nishi and John Baldessari.
I wasn’t in the country at the time of Wrapped Coast – in fact, I wasn’t even born – though I do have a primary source who describes Australia in the 1960s as ‘plagued with provincial philistine pygmies’. Initiating the Public Art Projects foundation was certainly a visionary and influential move on Kaldor’s part; it was before the first Biennale of Sydney and the establishment of the Australia Council for the Arts, and long before the inauguration of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The second Kaldor Public Art Project in 1971 saw Harald Szeemann curate shows in Sydney and Melbourne; featuring his pick of young Australian artists, they were the first major exhibitions of conceptual art in the country.
More recently, Kaldor has donated his family’s personal collection of more than 200 works to the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) in Sydney. A new wing was built to house the works alongside the museum’s existing contemporary collection, and it opened in May amidst a flurry of rapturous praise for the patron. The collection is strong, and the New Contemporary Galleries mark an exciting addition to the city that is especially welcome at a time when the Museum of Contemporary Art is closing for 12 months of refurbishment.
Given that the acquisitions were made over almost 50 years, it’s not surprising that the early choices were often more adventurous than the later ones. The collection’s crowning glory is a cluster of works by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Frank Stella. LeWitt is particularly well represented with many examples of original wall works and three-dimensional structures spanning several decades of his career. There’s also a focus on Pop art and a strong thread of German photography including some excellent works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gurksy and Thomas Demand.
Three sculptural pieces featuring television sets by Nam June Paik recall the artist’s visit to Australia in 1976 for Kaldor Public Art Projects, where he held a series of controversial performances with his collaborator Charlotte Moorman. Countless artists have since carried on from Paik’s pioneering works with closed-circuit cameras and live feeds. He is, for example, an obvious precursor to the contemporary Australian artist Ian Burns whose shrewd assemblages – some of them currently on show upstairs at the AGNSW – confuse the relationship between a thing and its screened image.
The series of wrapped objects by Christo might be seen as a challenge to his oft-cited claim that his works of art were designed to disappear upon completion. Indeed, the clear preferences for 1960s and ’70s Conceptual, Fluxus and Land art in the Kaldor collection serve as a reminder of the now defunct illusion that the dematerialization of the art object equated to its decommercialization. What soon became evident was that live, ephemeral, cheap, reproducible and unseen art could be bought and sold, and decommodification would itself be commodified.