Perched on a slender column, which in turn rests on a cinder block, Australia’s steel parts resemble an energetic creature whose springy bounce has been arrested in midair. At the time of its completion, the work was Smith’s largest sculpture to date, and it was also the first of his large-scale works that did not rely on a frame-like contour to define its physical relationship to its environment. Although we know that Smith sketched the sculpture’s structure in advance, its open and linear qualities feel spontaneous and dynamic, characteristics that signaled a departure from contained sculptural form and aligned Smith with the contemporaneous generation of abstract painters.
Smith had never visited the continent of Australia and made the sculpture with no conscious thought of the place or its natural features in mind. In a letter to an Australian art critic in 1952, he explained that his choice of title was intuitively inspired by the structure of the work: “After completion,” he wrote, “I realized that elements of purely imagined kangaroo anatomy, leaves that I imagined koalas would eat, memories of bushman art, and unidentified flora and fauna of Australia assembled in a more or less dream form, all contributed to the finished work which to my mind had no possible title except Australia.”
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
"I do not recognize the limits where painting ends and sculpture begins." So said Smith, who, in making Australia, used thin rods and plates of steel—simultaneously delicate and strong—to paint in space. Like a painting, Australia must be seen frontally if its form is to be grasped. It has been identified as an abstraction of a kangaroo, and its lines have that animal's leaping vitality. Though he began his career as a painter, Smith was inspired to make welded metal sculptures in 1930 when he saw those made by Pablo Picasso and Julio González.
Gallery label from 2007.
At the time of its completion, Australia was Smith’s largest sculpture. By welding together thin rods and plates of steel he created a work that is simultaneously delicate and strong, a masterpiece of tension, balance, and form that he described as a “drawing in space.” Sculpture has traditionally been defined by volume and mass; Australia is, in contrast, built of lines. In what might be described as an allover sculpture, the linear activity is greatest at the perimeters, while the center is nearly empty. Because of its title, the work is sometimes read as an abstracted kangaroo, its lines capturing the spring of the animal’s leap.
Gallery label from Abstract Expressionist New York, October 3, 2010-April 25, 2011.