Portrait of Penelope Seidler with artwork by Fiona Lowry in the background. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Grand Designs

Penelope Seidler

Also available in:  Chinese

Protruding from a wall in Penelope Seidler’s Sydney penthouse is a three-dimensional painting by American minimalist Frank Stella. With its vivid colors, curves and jagged aluminum layers, Midnight Aloft (1988) complements the winding staircase next to it, and dominates the otherwise blank surface. If the design seems fortuitous, it is because the piece had been developed specifically for the home by Stella, a longtime collaborator of Seidler and her late husband. The artist had first worked with the couple under the Harry Seidler & Associates firm, who were pioneers in bringing Modern and Bauhaus-principled architecture to Australia. Established by Harry in 1949, the firm is currently led by Seidler herself, who as CEO manages public and private architectural projects in her brutalist-style office. This space, and the adjacent penthouse, which oozes a film-noir glamor, houses a collection of artworks that testify to a life enmeshed with art and architecture, and the Seidlers’ roles in transforming what was once an insular Australia into an active site of international cultural discourse.

The Seidlers’ collection of American Modernist art encompasses work by Stella and other established, blue-chip artists. A geometric tapestry, Homage to the Square: Full (1967) by Josef Albers—Harry Seidler’s mentor at Black Mountain College—hangs in the office, while abstract expressionist artists Helen Frankenthaler and Sam Francis, as well as color field painter Kenneth Noland, are all represented at the Seidlers’ family home in Killara, Sydney. The other key component to the collection is the inclusion of Australian and Aboriginal contemporary works, many of which were originally commissioned for significant festivals and exhibitions, such as the Biennale of Sydney (BoS). This includes a portrait of the couple by Petrina Hicks, a self-portrait by Christian Thompson, an etching by Danie Mellor centered around Indigenous identity, Tracey Moffatt’s “No 1” series of 1989, and a 1990 ocher canvas by Rover Thomas Joolama, the first Aboriginal artist to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

As an avid art collector, Seidler has a refreshingly eclectic approach. There are no “-isms” involved, no underlying conceptual philosophy and no art advisor intervention. It is all predicated on a simple formula, which she explained as being purely instinct-based. “I buy what I like. I’m an impulsive buyer and I have no idea how many pieces I have,” she admitted. Besides amassing artworks, she has granted generous donations to museums and educational institutions, and is a recognized patron of the arts—theater, visual art, performance and architecture all slip into her portfolio of interests. In 2008, she was honored for her contributions to these disciplines with a Medal of the Order of Australia award, “for service to the preservation of cultural heritage . . . to visual arts organizations, and to architecture,” as the statement reads.

In 2014, after seeing a crop of architecture spring up in Sydney, much of which she disapproved, Seidler donated AUD 1 million (USD 800,000) to the University of New South Wales for the establishment of the Seidler Chair in the Practice of Architecture. “The Chair was to reinforce the necessity of having practice emphasized. Too many teachers of architecture have little experience of actually building,” she said. Two years later, she put AUD 750,000 (USD 600,000) toward the creation of an art gallery at her alma mater, the University of Sydney. There is also a yet-to-be disclosed sum pledged to the University, to establish a visiting professorship in the history of architecture. Seidler explained of this particular donation: “Buildings, over history, have developed as they defied gravity, and as building techniques developed, so did the architect’s response. Architectural history is fascinating and provides a framework for design philosophy.”

Seidler also sits on the BoS board, where her involvement in Sydney’s art scene over several decades provides valuable insight into the developments and history of the harbor city. Seidler has attended every BoS since the first one in 1973. The inaugural biennial, she recalled, was “very stiff” compared to subsequent iterations such as the one in 1979, which was controversial for its inclusion of Aboriginal artists. Current editions, she explained, have softened in their radical approach. “Now, it’s become quite acceptable. There are no surprises anymore. There doesn’t seem to be that controversial edge. I miss it,” she added with a laugh. Seidler also brings to the board an international purview, which she has cultivated by being a member of the International Council at the Museum of Modern Art in New York since 1973, a board member of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation and the Venice Biennale Commissioner’s Council for Australia from 2005 to 2013.

Mention the 2018 BoS and Seidler instantly becomes animated, speaking enthusiastically of the 21st edition’s artistic director Mami Kataoka—the first Asian figure to occupy the role since the biennial was established. Seidler played a part in the selection process and was thrilled when Kataoka was appointed. Kataoka’s iteration will feature Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who is slated to present an inflatable, 70-meter-long life raft—meant to evoke the refugee crisis—in the turbine hall at Cockatoo Island, a keynote address at the Opera House and his documentary film Human Flow (2017), which proved to be a particular draw. “Tickets sold out in two hours,” Seidler stated.

When she is not fulfilling her duties as a member of numerous boards, Seidler is focused on her architecture firm. “Most days I’m at the office by 11,” she told me. As to why she decided to study to be an architect, she explained, “I wasn’t an architect when I married Harry but I refused to be seen as just his wife. So I studied architecture at the University of Sydney and qualified in 1964.” When they married in 1958, she was just 20 years old. Her husband’s reputation was in its ascendancy, having studied with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Cambridge, Massachussets, and working briefly in Brazil with Oscar Niemeyer. Seidler lapsed into talking of Harry as though he were sitting behind her, looking over her shoulder. “We still live in the Killara house we built in 1967. Nothing in the house has changed,” she said before correcting herself. “I still live in . . .” her voice trailed away. “Harry died from a stroke in 2006, two years before our 50th wedding anniversary,” she clarified, reflectively. Much of what Seidler does is in her husband’s memory—in 2010, she donated one of his favorite works, Theo van Doesburg’s Space-time Construction #3 (1923), to the National Gallery of Australia, and the importance she places on education is due, in part, to Harry’s experiences as an architecture professor.

Life for the 79-year-old Penelope Seidler is still to be lived, however. For her, art and philanthropy are indivisible. “I don’t think of myself as a patron. I see myself as an observer of the arts. For me, art is crucial for life. Why keep your money when you can give it away and enjoy the good that it does? If you are going to do something with your money, do it while you are alive.” It is a simple, unadorned philosophy—one that has enriched many lives.

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