ESSAY: Anna Schwartz on Elenberg’s Totem
As part of the Gallery's digitisation project, Australian gallerist Anna Schwartz reflects on the creativity of Australian artist Joel Elenberg (1948–80) and their shared life together, with a focus on QAGOMA's commanding marble sculpture by Elenberg, Totem 1979.
Joel Elenberg was an extraordinarily imaginative, intelligent, wildly unpredictable person, so I can’t begin to speak for him. I first met Joel in 1970. I was 19 and he was 22. I think from the day we met each other, we didn’t spend a day apart. We were married, we had a child who was born in 1973, and Joel first went to Italy, to Carrara, in 1977. It was only three years later that he died, and all his marble works were made in that time. In Italy, where Joel worked with the artisans, they used to say, ‘Joel has magic hands’.
Totem was made in 1979, but I think it comes from a much more distant past when sculpture had a talismanic force and position in terms of society and culture. And it has that, but it comes also from the future where it’s projected beyond our imaginings. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about art and about a work like this. It’s a late work in the life and the career of Joel Elenberg, given he died at age 32. It seems extraordinary to me now to think that such a young artist could have produced work of this maturity.
Anna Schwartz with Totem 1979 (White carrara marble, with porfirico inlays / 220 x 52.5 x 52.5cm / Purchased 1979 / Collection: QAGOMA / © QAGOMA), September 2022 / Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA
Joel never really had an education; he left school very young. His art teacher at high school said to him, at the age of 14, ‘Elenberg, I’m going to say something to you that I don’t want you to tell anyone I told you: Leave school and be an artist’. So he actually did leave school and lived a wild, rebellious youth, but was totally dedicated to art and to being an artist. He went to art school for one day and had a fist fight on the front lawn with the director, who had told him something he had done was wrong. From that point on, and even before that point, he was totally self-educated. He was a voracious reader and stealer of books. He worked in many different materials, from drawing and painting to various sculptural [mediums]. But when he found stone, he found his medium.
Before commencing his sculpture, Joel would undertake many preparatory drawings, and one remains in the Gallery's Collection. This is a really beautiful, first-order drawing — absolutely beautiful. This is his thinking; this is his working-it-all out, the technical specifics of it. It’s so interesting because, every artist has their own particular hand, and they write in a way that flows through to the drawing.
This sculptural form comes from that process of ‘de-grossing’, of taking away what’s not necessary, but a lot of it is assemblage. And that’s what you see here.
He made this work in Carrara, in Torano, which is the village above Carrara, in a studio called SGF that was run by three local artisans — Silvio Santini, Paolo Grassi and Mario Fruendi. When Joel went there, he immediately fell into his real milieu, which was working in marble, and all the kind of tools and technologies were there at his disposal. He met artists from all over the world working in the same medium and was able to develop very quickly because of what was available to him. So Totem is really the pinnacle of this achievement. There were other works that were perhaps more lyrical and handmade, but this is certainly a very important work.
Anna Schwartz with Totem 1979, September 2022 / Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA
Joel was deeply influenced by all art that he saw, particularly empathetic to First Nations people and fascinated with early African art and art from the deep past. In terms of the twentieth century, he was drawn to leading postwar European artists Alberto Giacometti (1901–66) and Constantin Brâncuși (1876– 1957). Brâncuși was the most influential artist on Joel’s work. You can see strong influences in this sort of form of Brâncuși and this base is very Brâncuși-like. There is no artist from whom you can’t draw some supporting connection to another artist, it’s all a kind of river through time. And nobody’s uninfluenced, but the voice of an individual artist is, I think, what’s so fascinating. I think Joel Elenberg has a very strong individual voice.
Totem is a wonderful combination of stones. The pure white statuario marble, which is the very best marble, has the fewest veins in it so that you can actually cut it in any direction – like butter. It's now very rare. The other is this lovely deep oxblood Rosso di Portogallo, red stone from Portugal. It invokes blood, and the human body.
Totem is a work that shows incredible virtuosity in his creation. The round forms were turned on a lathe. And the inlay was done by hand afterwards with a diamond wheel. It’s an interesting combination of carving and assemblage. The various forms are made separately and put together. Working with marble, you can’t really afford to make a mistake.
The title is not particularly descriptive. It denotes something of central spiritual importance to a culture, so I think naming it ‘Totem’ is a kind of signal to ‘make it your totem’, but it’s open to interpretation. What I see is something made so fastidiously, and the virtuosity of the shaping of stone. It gives great confidence to the viewer that you’re looking at something which is beautifully made, which has been arduously fabricated over a long time with great attention to detail. I think it’s such a wonderfully provocative work of art and I've loved the opportunity to be with it again.
Anna Schwartz spoke with Simon Elliott in September 2022.