MASK, 1979

Important Australian + International Fine Art
20 April 2011


(1948 -1980)
MASK, 1979


62.0 cm height

signed and dated on base: ELENBERG / 79

initialled at base: JE

$80,000 - 100,000
Sold for $84,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 19 - 20 April 2011, Melbourne

Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, cat. 9
Private collection, Sydney, acquired from the above c.1980


Joel Elenberg: Marbles and Bronzes, Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, 30 November 1979, cat. 9

Catalogue text

With his interest in Aboriginal, Melanesian and Oceanic art, his obsession with time and evolution, and his talent for carving, Joel Elenberg represents one of the most important and original sculptors this country has produced. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Elenberg's artistic evolution is that he only turned to carving stone four years before his untimely death at the age of 32. Disillusioned with the contemporary sculpture scene which he believed 'had fallen into disrepute with too much welding, fibre-glassing and clay, '1 Elenberg thus travelled to Italy in 1976 to pursue the ancient tradition of carving marble 'a medium virtually unexplored in Australia at the time'. Making the pilgrimage to Carrara, Tuscany 'the home of marble sculpture since Michelangelo's time' he discovered a whole village of carvers, artists and Italian masons who for generations had been cutting, carrying and chiselling blocks for some of the world's greatest monuments. As he gleaned their skills and techniques, Elenberg developed such an empathy with these local artisans that he subsequently chose them to complete his final sculptures.

With its impeccable elegance and daring simplicity, the present Mask 1979 is an outstanding example of Elenberg's late sculptural oeuvre which was so successful at the time of its inaugural exhibition that one critic was prompted to exclaim, 'he has the whole Sydney art world eating out of his hand!'2 Executed in the year prior to his death, it is surely no coincidence that the piece bears unmistakable stylistic affinities with tribal African or Japanese death masks. As his close friend and celebrated artistic contemporary Brett Whiteley suggested, such final works may be understood symbolically' as a majestic attempt to pay homage to the great mysterious truth each of us in our own time must meet.'3 In its underlying conflict between medium and form, Mask also perhaps reflects the artist's self-confessed dual personality the soft and the lyrical with the tough and intellectual. The rich, variegated green marble gives the work a sense of depth and solidity which is somehow betrayed by the flat, abstract simplicity of the facial features and wafer-like form. Similarly, that the velvety marble has been polished to sensuous perfection creates a further illusion of softness belying the harsh reality.

Revealing his enduring fascination with the power of ancient votive sculpture, the 'majesty of man' and the complex tactile qualities of marble, indeed the present sculpture encapsulates Elenberg at his best dignified, serene and always mysterious.

1. Brett Whiteley cited in McGrath, S., 'Truth 'in marble', The Weekend Australian Magazine, 20 - 21 February 1982, p.8
2. McGrath, S., 'Marble star', The Weekend Australian, 14 - 15 October 1978, p. 6
3. Whiteley cited in McGrath, op.cit.