Documenting Margel Hinder’s Contribution to Australian Modern Art

Earlier this year, Grimwade Centre Masters of Cultural Material Conservation students had the chance to work with Denise Mimmocchi, Senior Curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in connection with a retrospective on the works of pioneering Australian-American artist Margel Hinder (1905–1985). 

The upcoming exhibition Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Heide Museum of Modern Art was originally scheduled for June 2020. Conservation Assessment and Treatment 2 (CUMC9005) students worked on Hinder’s sculpture Construction with Perspex Corners (Flight of Birds) from the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, continuing the Grimwade Centre’s ongoing collaboration with the regional gallery. This significant work was identified as needing treatment by Bathurst Regional Council staff. Its inclusion in the Modern in Motion exhibition is a timely reminder of the important role that regional galleries play in caring for collections of national significance.

The treatment was focused around ensuring the sculpture was structurally safe for suspension to allow its free movement. Discussions also covered more traditional conservation questions such as in-painting areas of loss, reattaching a piece of original Perspex and maintaining safe levels of exposure to light. Working together with Denise Mimmochi, the students gained insights into the significance of Hinder’s influence on Australian modern art. The task also required them to grapple with the challenges involved in handling art works incorporating movement and plays of light, space and form as essential elements. In this interview, Conservation student Paul Coleman talks with Denise about the project.

This is the first solo exhibition of Margel Hinder’s work. What prompted this current exhibition?

I’ve admired Margel Hinder’s work for a long time and feel that she’s an artist that deserves to be more widely known and to have a greater presence in our galleries. She made a very significant contribution to the movements of modernism in Australia. I’m intrigued by the changing dynamics of sculpture throughout her career; how she took on formal challenges, worked on them for a while and then moved onto something new. I’m also interested in how she explored new materials as a way of reinventing and revising her sculpture practice.

Overall, Hinder developed a distinct and vital language of sculptural abstraction and she created works of highly engaging forms. For these reasons a Hinder retrospective would make for an alluring exhibition experience and her work would be a revelation to many.

In the past, Margel Hinder’s work has been paired with her husband Frank Hinder in exhibitions (for example, the excellent exhibition on the Hinders curated by Renee Free in 1980). There was a logic to this as the pair represent one of the great artistic partnerships in Australian art, and many ideas behind their respective practices intersect. However, it is also time for a singular focus on Margel’s work, and to focus on the innovations of her practice and to remind of the role of sculpture in the broader narratives of mid-century modernism in this country.

Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation students (L to R): Paul Coleman, Georgia Emslie, and Isabelle Legg during treatment of Margel Hinder’s Construction with Perspex Corners (Flight of Birds). Photographer: Emma Morrison

Could you tell me a little bit about the artistic landscape of Australia when Margel Hinder first started practicing art in Australia and her role in it?

Margel Hinder was born in the United States. She had studied sculpture and modern art theories before migrating to Australia in 1934, following her marriage to Australian artist Frank Hinder who she had met there. While in America Hinder, had become deeply influenced by the movements of modern sculpture and seen works in museum in Boston, where she lived. By comparison, she found the initial experiences of Sydney’s artistic life sadly lacking. And she noted that it was even more challenging for a sculptor as there was “little understanding or the desire for the three dimensional”. However, Hinder quickly banded with a group of like-minded artists, including Grace Crowley, Ralph Balson, Eleanore Lange and Margo and Gerald Lewers, who, like Margel and Frank, were deeply talented and committed modernists.  

Grace Crowley ran the Crowley Fizelle School in central Sydney when the Hinders first came to Australia. It was the only modern art school in Sydney at the time and a lonely hub for progressive ideas on art in the city. The school was considered by the Hinders to be the cultural centre of Sydney and, through it and its activities, Margel became connected to a wider network of likeminded people. They held exhibitions together, and over time taught at art schools, published articles and lectured on modern art. So there was a firm drive on Hinder’s part to promote the ideas behind her work as well as present her own distinct version of an avant-garde sculpture. She was important in creating and developing modernist culture in Sydney.

Hinder’s career spanned many decades and her practice evolved through different styles. How does Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion showcase her dynamic output?

A curatorial aim of this exhibition is to showcase that dynamic diversity of her work that I mentioned. In many ways, I’m letting the work speak for itself, as it does this very powerfully. But the exhibition will also be divided up into four different rooms and each one will present a different sculptural experience as we move through the decades of her career.

During the 1960s, Hinder began to work predominantly on large scale sculpture and public commissions for outdoor work. In order to have these works have a presence in the exhibition, I have been collaborating with Dr Andrew Yip (currently at iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research at the University of New South Wales but soon taking up a position at the University of Coventry, UK) on an immersive digital installation that simulates, at 1:1, two of Hinder’s fountains in their historical context – the Civic Park Fountain in Newcastle, and Northpoint Fountain which is no longer operational (the ‘body’ of the latter is now in the collection of Macquarie University, but the water features, and the rotating central component of this sculpture no longer work).

Margel Hinder’s Construction with Perspex Corners, 1955 (rebuilt 1979). Photographer: Isabelle Legg

Hinder has been acknowledged as an early pioneer of incorporating movement and plays of light in her works placing her alongside other artists exploring kinesis such as Naum Gabo and László Moholy-Nagy. What goes into preparing an exhibition with a heavy focus on non-material aspects of works as well as material ones? Were there any special considerations taken into account or any challenges encountered?

Sculpture exhibitions, or those of three-dimensional art works, are always more involved (and costly) to curate, but Hinder’s work has produced its own unique set of challenges. Much of her work, including the kinetic works you mention that involve the play of light and movement, are so precisely elegant in their construction; there are a few that are almost like spider webs, and are inherently fragile. As many have not been exhibited for some time, they have required some intense conservation work. In fact the conservation component has been particularly crucial in realising this show and for that I acknowledge AGNSW conservator Melanie Barrett who performed some incredible feats of conservation on her many treatments of Hinder’s sculptures. I’m also grateful for the team at Grimwade for their work on Construction with Perspex Corners, which is a work that is crucial to this exhibition.

From a curatorial point of view, I have done extensive research on how Hinder wanted her work to be displayed and the role of light and shadow in her work. From this I have worked on an exhibition that would showcase the force of her work and the interplay of the immaterial within object form, as closely as the artist intended it.

I’m also working particularly closely with AGNSW lighting technician Kane Hancock to ensure we get the correct lighting and achieve these outcomes. The expertise of Gallery’s install team, headed by Nik Reith and John Freckleton in this instance is also central, as is the work of exhibition designer Sharne Fielder.

The show as I envisage it would not be possible without the financial support of AGNSW’s WAGS group (Women of the Art Gallery) as well as the Conservation Benefactors Group.

My work on this exhibition is very much part of a wider team of professionals, and I name many of those involved (but not all!) to give a sense of the work involved in a project of this type.

It was an amazing opportunity for students to work on an artwork set to be displayed at a major Australian institution. What has AGNSW’s experience collaborating with postgraduate conservation students?

I was really pleased to have had the opportunity to visit Grimwade earlier this year and meeting the postgraduate students working on this incredible sculpture. Great to see such interest and the enthusiastic response to Hinder’s work and rewarding to see the involvement of a new generation of conservators take on the challenge of her work.

The exhibition Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion will take place at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Heide Museum of Modern Art in early 2021.

We would like to thank Bathurst Regional Art Gallery Director Sarah Gurich and Bathurst Regional Council Collection Manager Tim Pike, who are long term partners of the Grimwade Centre and have provided object based and work integrated learning opportunities for graduates.

Feature image: Frank and Margel Hinder, c1939–1945 (detail). Photographer: Albert Tucker. State Library of Victoria, H2008.98/242