Arts Curriculum

John Chamberlain: Choices related terms and additional resources

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I'm basically a collagist. I put one thing together with another thing. I sort of invented my own art supplies. I saw all this material just lying around against buildings and it was in color, so I felt I was ahead on two counts there.1


Dolores James, 1962. Painted and chromium-plated steel, 184.2 × 257.8 × 117.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 70.1925 © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Chamberlain's dynamic compositions of scrap metal and used automobile bodies have often been admired for translating the achievements of Abstract Expressionist painting into three-dimensional form. Like the Abstract Expressionists before him, Chamberlain reveled in the potential of his materials.

Chamberlain once described how he discovered the medium that would captivate his imagination: "I was looking for another material. I was looking for the next way to go. This was in 1957 or 1958. Then, all of a sudden, it occurred to me one day that all this material was just lying all over the place. I saw the material as other people's idea of waste. . . . I took a fender. I didn't want to use it as a fender, so I drove over it a few times to rearrange its shape, which was the beginning of what I now know as process."2

Chamberlain's approach appeared in the context of late-1950s assemblage, in which the discarded trash of our culture was being reconsidered and used to create fine art. The ordinariness of his materials made a connection with the real world. The early sculptures used anything made of steel that had color on it, such as metal benches, metal signs, sand pails, and lunch boxes. His interest wasn't in the car parts per se, but rather in their color, shape, and availability.3

"Fit" was at the core of Chamberlain's method and aesthetic. He has described this meeting between the parts of his works as a kind of handshake, one in which his forms achieve their natural stance as though the material itself had preordained its composition. Developing each structure of interwoven elements is akin to building a house of cards. As in other early works, the various elements of Dolores James (1962) initially stayed in place by virtue of careful balances; later, the work was spot-welded together to ensure its preservation.

While one may recognize the source of his materials or imagine possible connotations embedded in his titles, the sight of what he has done to them often compels you to look at the raw materials differently. His goal, he said, was "not to explain it so that you don't destroy the discovery angle."4

1. Annette Grant, "In the Studio: John Chamberlain," Art + Auction (New York) 31, no. 11 (July 2008), p. 43.

2. Julie Sylvester, "Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain," in Sylvester, John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture, 1954–1985, exh. cat. (New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), p. 15.

3. Ibid.

4. Bonnie Clearwater, oral history interview with John Chamberlain, Sarasota, Fla., Jan. 29–30, 1991, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., transcript, p. 38.

John Chamberlain

Dolores James, 1962. Painted and chromium-plated steel, 184.2 × 257.8 × 117.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 70.1925 © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

  • Describe this work. What seems familiar to you? What is unfamiliar?

  • Chamberlain describes himself as a "collagist," an artist who creates compositions made from various materials. In what ways does this work conform to your idea of "collage"? In what ways is it different? What does the word say about Chamberlain's method of working?

  • For curious viewers, Chamberlain recommended a way to discover more about his work—to dust one of his sculptures: "I sort of advise anybody who takes one of my pieces [to] clean it at least once. . . . And they find out about how the sculpture is constructed."1

Although museum rules prohibit touching the works on view, an approach to drawing, known as "contour drawing" provides a way to "touch" the surfaces with our eyes. Begin by placing your pencil in the upper, right-hand corner of a rectangular sheet of paper, and convince yourself that your pencil is touching the uppermost corner of Dolores James. Move your pencil slowly along the edges of the form without lifting it from the paper, creating a continuous outline. Keep your eyes on the artwork—not on the paper. When you have followed all the "ins" and "outs" of the sculpture, pick up your pencil and consider what you have learned in this exploration. How the drawing looks is not as important as what you have discovered by creating it.

1. Adrian Kohn, "A Look at John Chamberlain’s Lacquer Paintings," in It's All in the Fit: The Work of John Chamberlain, symposium hosted by the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Tex., Apr. 22–23, 2006 (Marfa, Tex.: The Chinati Foundation, 2009), p. 107.

Dolores James, 1962. Painted and chromium-plated steel, 184.2 × 257.8 × 117.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 70.1925 © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

  • Although some artists refer to working with "found objects," Chamberlain was always explicit in his use of the word "chosen" over "found" to describe both his materials and art-making process. Chamberlain settled on the metal from discarded cars as a ready source of material for his sculptures because it was cheap and available, but there are many other materials that can be recycled to create art.

    Create your own "chosen object" sculpture. Describe your process. What material did you select? Why did that material appeal to you? Did you run into any problems as you progressed? How did you connect the materials? In what ways is your sculpture successful? Are there things that you might change?

  • As Don Quaintance has stated, Chamberlain's "love of language, words, puns, and allusions . . . have provided a fertile outlet for him to create the multilayered and sometimes humorous . . . titles [for] his artworks. The titles arise from his readings and observations, suggestions by acquaintances, and occasionally by a process of shuffling index cards on which single words are written to arrive at nonsensical combinations that strike a visual or verbal association for the artist."1

    Try out Chamberlain’s process for yourself. For a week carry around a pack of blank index cards. When you notice a word that appeals to you, write it down on a card. After a week, lay the cards out, face down. Select two or three at time, noticing any new ideas and meanings that arise out of these random combinations.

  • The 1960s, when Chamberlain began exhibiting his work, was a time of rapid change. Americans listened to the Beatles and danced the Twist. Hippies talked about peace, love, and flower power. But the 1960s were also a serious moment in time. Across the nation African Americans took a stand for civil rights, students protested against the Vietnam War, and women fought for equality.

    Chamberlain stated on numerous occasions that his choice of materials was determined by color, form, and availability, rather than for any social commentary. Critics have nevertheless suggested various associations alluding to the violence of car crashes, and the turmoil that occurred in the United States during the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. Research some of the social and political issues of the 1960s and then develop a set of interview questions to ask someone (maybe a grandparent) about his or her experience of the 1960s.

1. Don Quaintance, "Rhyme and Reason: A Limited Lexicon," in Susan Davidson, ed., John Chamberlain: Choices (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2012), p. 230.

Visual Arts