It is terrible, a terrible thing to hear or tell of the death of someone you know and admire.

Yesterday evening, on February 15th, 2011, the artist Les Kossatz passed away at home; by his side were sons Yuri and Matt, and his wife, Diana Gribble. He had recently turned 68 and had been suffering from throat cancer.

By the true names and bright shapes you will know his work

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Melburnians of a certain age will have his monumental, playful sculpture, Hard Slide, (right) imprinted in their memory. It stood as some kind of wicked warning in the foyer of the NGV for many years. Or they will remember when, for a brief wonderful period, we had “art” trams: Kossatz painted his version all over with sheep — his abiding motif — so that the sheep crowded into the windows where the other morning sheep were pressed up against.

Or you may be familiar with his enormous ceremonial doors at Canberra’s High Court, or his Australian National Korean War Memorial, or his brilliant stained glass windows at the Monash Religious Centre. In 2009, Heide held a retrospective of his work which introduced many people to his compendious and unpredictable fascinations:

— filing cabinets and anthills
— war medals and religious imagery
— his wonderful depictions of grass, in paint and metal
— violin cases, and leather aprons, and immigrant luggage
— eagles and mathematics
— many sheep in their metal jackets (in the Darwin gallery I came across his long, enormous metal A-frame sculpture with its several life-sized (metal) sheep slung from the beam across the room)
— his superb prints (which he was a master at making, with George Baldessin)
— root vegetables and Hebrew prayers
— fish, and bread

Goodbye Les Kossatz

It is not yet time to reminisce, to recall … “recall”, how strange that word, as if he has left, as if his presence is past, as if this most independent-minded of men, this wild spirit and unstoppable imagination … had stopped. Alas, alas! but it is time to recognise his passing from us; and how shall we say goodbye?

I have this picture in mind, I don’t know where it comes from (maybe from “Limited exodus,” below). It is theatrical but seems to enact some kind of ritual. Les was not overtly self-dramatising but might have entertained the ritualistic element:

In a stretch of the Victorian countryside Les so loved, on a small rise stands a band of his contemporaries, his fellow artists. Facing them is a crowd of witnesses — his family and friends, and many past students. At a certain moment the artists turn up their faces and each of them raises an arm to salute the blank summer sky. It is then we can all shout, unrestrained in selfish rage and sorrow:


Les Kossatz, Limited exodus, 2005 cast aluminium, 17.5 x 29.5 x 13 cm.
The picture at top: my photograph of Les in his studio in 2006.
His website. Les speaking on ABC Sunday Arts, which features some snippets of his earlier moustachioed self. The monograph.