Color and Finish
Sculpture as Collage
John Chamberlain (1927–2011) rose to prominence with his energetic, vibrant sculptures hewn from disused car parts, achieving a three-dimensional Abstract Expressionism that astounded critics and captured the imagination of fellow artists. Following early welded steel-rod sculptures bearing the influence of David Smith, he made his first car metal sculpture in 1958 (Shortstop). An inveterate rebel, Chamberlain indelibly transformed contemporary art by embracing vernacular materials, vastly abundant in postwar America, and his use of the industrial technique of welding. He preferred the designations of “chosen” and “recycled” to “found” and “salvaged,” inflecting chance with deliberation, and redeeming waste. Assuming forms of explosive origami, Chamberlain’s sculptures composed of crushed and sheared automobile metal inevitably attracted the wrong interpretation; where Chamberlain employed creative re-use, others saw simply car crashes. He spent the rest of his life outrunning that association. His primary concern throughout was three-dimensional abstraction. More sensitive observers noted a kinship between his works and the dramatic modeling and contrapposto of baroque art and sculptural drapery studies.
With collage and abstraction as guiding principles, Chamberlain articulated the maxim that permeated his entire oeuvre: “It’s all in the fit.” The sculptures range from the size of a fist to the girth of a generous hug to the height of a young, and eventually not so young, tree. Swelling and shrinking, in coats of multicolored, monochrome, or black-and-white paint, the works in this retrospective survey display the integrity of the artist’s gesture in diverse manifestations. Despite his commitment to abstraction, identifying anthropomorphic and zoomorphic traits in the lyrical, twisting forms is irresistible. Their playful titles are planted like red herrings: Belvo-Violet (1962), Miss Lucy Pink (1962), Rooster Starfoot (1976), Lord Suckfist (1989), and SPHINXGRIN TWO (1986/2010).
Chamberlain brazenly defied the taboo of color in sculpture, a holdover from the rhetoric of medium specificity surrounding Abstract Expressionism (materials should be true to themselves, therefore color is the business of painting), which was still influential in the 1960s and considered one of the foremost problems in sculpture at the time. He originally circumvented the controversy by picking his colors straight off the assembly lines and highways of America. Shortly thereafter, he began to apply new paint to the metal, intervening in ever more elaborate ways with its surfaces. There are examples of airbrushing from the 1960s, drips and pours from the 1970s, sandblasting from the 1980s, and freehand and stenciled patterns from the 1990s onward. Amassing a body of work that could not be ignored, Chamberlain has been clumsily shoehorned into a variety of ill-fitting categories. Perhaps the most fertile of these is the retroactive link with Abstract Expressionism. His choice to use materials derived from an iconic machine also tied him to Pop. These same materials in turn associated him with Minimalism, encouraged by the unwavering critical support of Donald Judd, while his method of assembly drew him toward Neo-Dada.
Driven by the pursuit of what he did not already know, the desire for unprecedented information and knowledge, Chamberlain experimented with other materials including urethane foam, galvanized steel, paper bags, Plexiglas, and aluminum. He ventured into film, video, and photography, notably shooting the cult art classic The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez (1968). In recent years Chamberlain worked with vintage cars (elevated from the previous status of junk) of similar stock to the materials he started out with in the late 1950s. The sculptures grew in scale and possess a newfound gravity. He also embarked on the production of monumental aluminum sculptures, based on works that fit in the palm of the hand, which Chamberlain had been making since the mid-1980s. His creations of the last five years stand as self-assured totems or sentinels at the culmination of nearly six decades of art making.
John Chamberlain was born in 1927 in Rochester, Indiana. He grew up in Chicago and, after serving in the navy from 1943 to 1946, attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1951 to 1952. At that time, he began making flat, welded sculptures influenced by the work of David Smith. In 1955 and 1956, Chamberlain studied and taught sculpture at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, where most of his friends were poets, including Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson. By 1957, he began to include scrap metal from cars in his work, and from 1959 onward he concentrated on sculpture built entirely of crushed automobile parts welded together. Chamberlain’s first major solo show was held at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, in 1960.
Chamberlain’s work was widely acclaimed in the early 1960s. His sculpture was included in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961, the same year he participated in the São Paulo Biennial. From 1962, Chamberlain showed frequently at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and in 1964 his work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale. While he continued to make sculpture from auto parts, Chamberlain also experimented with other mediums. From 1963 to 1965, he made geometric paintings with sprayed automobile paint. In 1966, the same year he received the first of two fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he began a series of sculptures of rolled, folded, and tied urethane foam. These were followed in 1970 by sculptures of melted or crushed metal and heat-crumpled Plexiglas. Chamberlain’s work was presented in a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1971.
In the early 1970s, Chamberlain began once more to make large works from automobile parts. Until the mid-1970s, the artist assembled these auto sculptures on the ranch of collector Stanley Marsh in Amarillo, Texas. These works were shown in the sculpture garden at the Dag Hammarskold Plaza, New York, in 1973, and at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, in 1975. In 1977, Chamberlain began experimenting with photography taken with a panoramic Widelux camera. His next major retrospective was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1986; the museum simultaneously co-published John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954–1985, authored by Julie Sylvester. In 1993, Chamberlain received both the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, Washington, D.C. In 1997, Chamberlain was named a recipient of The National Arts Club Award, New York, and in 1999, received the Distinction in Sculpture Honor from the Sculpture Center, New York. In the last decade of his life, the artist expanded his well-established career by undertaking a new medium: the large-format photograph. In 2007, Guild Hall Academy of the Fine Arts named Chamberlain the Visual Arts Honoree for the 22nd Annual Lifetime Achievement Award. Chamberlain passed away on December 21, 2011 in New York.
Look for the following icon on selected artworks to read the corresponding lexicon entry:
Though a friend and admirer of many poets, John Chamberlain rarely claimed to be one. However, his love of language, words, puns, and allusions, the sound of certain words, and even the typographic shapes of letterforms provided a fertile outlet for him to create the multilayered and sometimes humorous or off-color titles attached to his artworks. The titles arose from his readings and observations, from suggestions by acquaintances, and occasionally writing single words on index cards and shuffling them to arrive at nonsensical combinations that struck a visual or verbal association for the artist. While sometimes tangentially autobiographical or sourced from popular culture, Chamberlain’s titles rarely make direct reference to the form or content of the individual work. Chamberlain’s recent practice of combining words into one uninterrupted string of capitalized letters complicates defining which individual words appear in the title.
Without asserting that the lexicon entries included in this microsite are either comprehensive or conclusive, but rather created in the freewheeling spirit of the artist, author Don Quaintance offers glosses on a selection of artworks. The full lexicon, “Rhyme and Reason: A Limited Lexicon,” can be found in the exhibition catalogue. The artist acknowledged some of these connections to the artworks, while other lexicon entries are only circumstantially related or simply speculation. Individual works in series sometimes have related names; such associations are generally noted in the first reference to related works. Many titles fall into identifiable categories including acquaintances and celebrities; literature, poetry, drama, and film; popular music; mythology; geography; common sayings; commercial products; and aviation, maritime, and automotive references. Assigning specific hidden codes or establishing definitive meanings is not the intention.
This exhibition is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
The Leadership Committee for John Chamberlain: Choices, chaired by Larry Gagosian, is gratefully acknowledged.
“Probably the key activity in the occupation of art is to find out what you don’t know. To start someplace that’s curious to you and delve into it in a common way and come out with an uncommon satisfaction, an uncommon piece of knowledge—that is very satisfying to your nervous system.”Chamberlain’s self-declared approach to art was the pursuit of unprecedented knowledge. During a seven-year period beginning in 1965, which he called his sabbatical, he set aside car metal and turned his attention to other materials. The principle of fit continued to rule, but the vocabulary of forms grew. A series of urethane foam sculptures emerged as the first successful experiment in 1966. He cut, rolled, folded, and tied the soft material. Out of this engagement came the celebrated couches and their later variations as cradles and nests (an elevated version with scaffolding). He then applied methods of crushing and compression to galvanized steel boxes he had fabricated at the enlarged dimensions of a cigarette pack, starting in 1967. In 1969, he made paper bag sculptures using a technique he called “articulate wadding.” The next year had him heat-warping and mineral-coating Plexiglas boxes. In 1971, Chamberlain took up aluminum foil. For the next few years, these works developed little beyond faceted mounds. However, he would periodically return to aluminum, as he would to foam, and by the mid-1980s he embarked on a series of foil sculptures that fit in the palm of his hand. Their forms were more elaborately articulated, taking on zoomorphic and anthropomorphic qualities, projecting ungainly protrusions. One of Chamberlain’s final bodies of work recast these miniature aluminum sculptures in monumental scale.
Chamberlain is recognized as one of the great colorists of mid-century American art, often aligned with the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, whose own handling of color traces back to Henri Matisse. Color is treated arbitrarily, unnaturally, and in the service of abstraction. According to art historian Irving Sandler, “Chamberlain chooses to assemble fenders because of the fresh palette built into them. It enables him to compose directly in the ready-made enamel and lacquer hues and, later, in sprayed hot-rod colors, or as the Fauves liked to say, to orchestrate color. The color does not render the shapes solid, even though they are space enclosing, but acts as painting in three dimensions, articulating the impacted complexes of forms, their rhythms and the flow of space.” Drawing from a palette of ready-made hues, bearing the signature of industrial manufacture, Chamberlain violated the formalist discouragement of color in sculpture still dominant in the 1960s. Medium specificity determined that materials should be presented in their given state and that color was the business of painting. While the already-painted car metal provided a loophole in this logic, Chamberlain eventually added his own colors: airbrushing, pouring, and patterning to elaborate effect. He applied these to the parts prior to assembling them in the final sculptures. His striking employment of color in forms, which gesticulate and forcefully occupy their stances, gained Chamberlain the reputation for successfully realizing Abstract Expressionism in three dimensions.
Scale is distinguished from size by the difference between relative proportion and absolute measurement. An object that is three feet tall is considered short when situated next to a six-foot object but simultaneously towers over another object that measures only three inches. The internal proportions of a given form can also convey the values of something that exists in a different size: a three-foot tall sculpture of a man still represents its six-foot-tall model. Scale is also experienced in the context of space (highly variable) and in relation to the body (for the most part fixed). The experience of an object is mediated through our bodies, so scale tends to be measured against our own height, arm span, and length of stride. No matter the size of Chamberlain’s sculptures, the bent, compacted, sheared, torqued, and welded metal forms communicate the scale of the industrial machinery and power tools used to disassemble them. Chamberlain endowed a signature dynamism, fluidity, and sense of movement to his steel constructions that frequently “outsize” their measurements.
Two of the artist’s own experiences with scale shed light on his mastery of this property. The first links scale to the achievement of aesthetic expression, where his awestruck encounter with an Alberto Giacometti sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago augmented the proportions of the 29-1/2-inch-tall work: “You could almost measure the whole place by looking at this sculpture. There was a weird kind of feeling of looking at this sculpture and how it instantly related this whole, large marbleized area, you know, from another time. [The rotunda] was very elegant and everything, and it sort of like withered away by the side of [the Giacometti].” The second correlates scale with familiarity: “When I saw [Willem de Kooning’s Excavation, 1950], I swear, I thought it was like the whole universe. I saw it again a couple of years later and it got slightly smaller. And this went on for about four more years before I could really see this picture at this real size, which wasn’t this, it was much larger. . . . Every time I went to look at it, it was different. But it wasn’t different, I was different.” The push-and-pull between the relative and the absolute, subjective and objective experience, the rational and the aesthetic, made scale a popular ground of analysis and exploration for Chamberlain.
Collage—the juxtaposition of heterogeneous materials, most frequently collecting and combining elements from the domains of refuse and disuse—underpins Chamberlain’s approach to sculpture. He identified himself as a collagist and, in the same vein, a recycler. When he salvaged car metal for art material, he enacted the transgressive spirit of collage, which undermined the separation between art and life, high and low, and various formalist enclosures. This sensibility culminated in the artist’s emphasis on “fit,” in particular good fit, whose achievement could be evaluated in the poetic presence of a finished sculpture. As Chamberlain describes his process: “One day something—some one thing—pops out at you, and you pick it up, and you take it over, and you put it somewhere else, and it fits, it’s just the right thing at the right moment.”
Collage fragments—scraps of newsprint, torn fabric, mangled automotive metal—are haunted, not altogether unpleasantly, by their origins. Despite their recontextualization, they can’t seem to shake off their worldly associations. As critic Elizabeth Baker once noted: “There are some important physical qualities that his materials generally share: a major one is recalcitrance. Unlike most traditional sculptural mediums, the substances Chamberlain favors cannot be entirely acted upon. There is a high degree of predetermining factors and also of chance.” The artist’s gestural interventions transformed unyielding found—Chamberlain preferred the term “chosen”—materials into lyrical, animated, dynamic forms.