Arts Curriculum

Color

I never thought of sculpture without color. Do you see anything around that has no color? Do you live in a world with no color? It never occurred to me that having color on sculpture was such a big number. I thought it was very obvious.1

Color

Lord Suckfist, 1989. Painted and chromium-plated steel and stainless steel, 212.7 × 144.8 × 142.2 cm. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Museum Brandhorst, Munich © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York

Color is one of the most important features in Chamberlain’s work. One of the attributes that originally attracted him to automobiles was that they came already colored. The color is also a reminder that these materials have undergone a transformation, once serving another purpose; the bright colors, in particular, speak to America’s fascination with consumer car culture. Chamberlain used the original color of the found materials, but would also paint them in his own emphatically expressive way by dripping, spraying, pouring, and patterning, often on top of existing hues, to wild effect.

Some would rank Chamberlain as one of the great colorists of 20th-century American art. However, Chamberlain’s use of color was initially shocking to many in the art world, violating the formalist prohibition against the use of color in sculpture. His liberated exploration of color and surface referenced Willem de Kooning, Henri Matisse (1869–1954), and Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), artists whose sense of color and manipulation of paint he greatly admired.

It may be helpful to remember that before he decided to become an artist, Chamberlain was a hairstylist and makeup artist. Critics have sometimes commented on how his work combines a monumental, aggressive, and masculine sensibility with feminine colors and decoration. Chamberlain occasionally remarked on the kinship between color in his sculpture and cosmetics: "The color on it became flashy like lipstick or eyeshadow or something for a girl. Whatever people put on as colors, they put on so that somebody sees it."2

His exuberant use of color is evident in Lord Suckfist (1989). As Dave Hickey mentioned: "The work reveals no readily identified fronts, backs, or sides. There are no emphatic beginnings or ends, so with each step you take around a Chamberlain—with each change in your angle of vision—the color distribution shifts radically. . . . The astonishing thing is that this works—all the way round."3


1. Phyllis Tuchman, "An Interview with John Chamberlain," Artforum 10, no. 6
(Feb. 1972), p. 39.

2. David J. Getsy, "Immoderate Couplings: Transformations and Genders in John Chamberlain's Work," in It's All in the Fit: 12 The Work of John Chamberlain, pp. 176–77.

3. Dave Hickey, "John Chamberlain: Steel Couture," in John Chamberlain: Choices, p. 36.

John Chamberlain

Lord Suckfist, 1989. Painted and chromium-plated steel and stainless steel, 212.7 × 144.8 × 142.2 cm. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Museum Brandhorst, Munich © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York

John Chamberlain

Lord Suckfist, 1989 (alternate view). Painted and chromium-plated steel and stainless steel, 212.7 × 144.8 × 142.2 cm. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Museum Brandhorst, Munich © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York

  • To begin the discussion, show only one image of Lord Suckfist. Ask your students to describe the work, and then create a sketch with colored pencils of what the other side of the sculpture might look like. Have your students share their drawings as well as brainstorm a list of their expectations for the reverse side.

    After brainstorming, show the second slide. What assumptions are confirmed? What are the surprises?

  • In his use of color, Chamberlain has been compared to Willem de Kooning, Henri Matisse, and Vincent van Gogh. Look at works by each of these artists and notice where you see similarities and differences.

  • The title of this work, Lord Suckfist, refers to a fictional character in François Rabelais's satirical novel Pantagruel (1532). Lord Suckfist is the defendant in a lawsuit in which both the plaintiff and defendant plead in person. After hearing the case, the judge declared: "We have not understood one single circumstance of the matter on either side."1 Nevertheless, both sides leave the court believing that the verdict was in their favor.

    Although Chamberlain's titles are sometimes at odds with his sculptures, the title Lord Suckfist suggests that we should imagine this sculpture as a person or a character. What might Lord Suckfist be like? Imagine if this sculpture were to come to life. What would it do? What might it say?

1. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and the Drama: A Revised American Edition of the Readers’ Handbook, ed. Marion Harland, vol. 4 (New York: 14 Selmar Hess, 1892), p. 46.

Lord Suckfist, 1989. Painted and chromium-plated steel and stainless steel, 212.7 × 144.8 × 142.2 cm. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Museum Brandhorst, Munich © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York
Lord Suckfist, 1989 (alternate view). Painted and chromium-plated steel and stainless steel, 212.7 × 144.8 × 142.2 cm. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Museum Brandhorst, Munich © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York


  • "You can find 1800 variations of white that are listed and there’s more, the Pepsi Cola 'white' or the postal service 'white' they are all different whites. It's amazing. So it goes from 'hot white' to 'cold white.'"1

    If you question Chamberlain's statement, spend some time collecting different whites. For a month, use a large envelope or bag to collect "whites" from magazines, junk mail, newspapers, product wrappings, or whatever else comes your way. At the end of the month lay out the contents. Are there any that are exactly the same? How many whites have you collected?

  • Although working with steel requires specialized tools, you can create your own stockpile of material from which you may create sculpture. Begin with card stock in various colors. Leave some unpainted, but on the others add paint using some of Chamberlain’s techniques, including stenciling, patterning, splattering, pouring, and brushing. You may also choose to add aluminum foil or foil papers to the mix of materials. When the paint is dry, use this supply of material to create a sculpture. Use scissors, tape, and a stapler to customize the shapes and join them together. When you are done, give your new creation a title.

  • Chamberlain said: "There is no bad color, there's no color decision to reject because everything is colored."2 Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain.

    Many people have a favorite color, but fewer have a favorite palette. Experiment with assembling a palette of five or six colors that you feel work harmoniously together. The class can mix these colors from paints or use color samples from a local paint store. Do students have any associations with the palette they chose? Does the selection suggest a particular environment or emotion? Now try this exercise again, choosing a palette of colors that they dislike. Discuss which palette was easier to formulate and why.

  • Marketing and advertising executives invent color names designed to entice consumers and make their products more desirable. Although today’s car colors are generally muted, color options for a 1970 Dodge included Go Mango, Banana, Panther Pink, Plum Crazy, and Hemi Orange, providing Chamberlain with a rich and varied palette. Cosmetic companies also use evocative names like Fatal Apple and Kissing Pink to entice customers. Mix or select some colors and create inventive names to describe them.

1. Henry Geldzahler, "Interview with John Chamberlain," in John Chamberlain: Recent Work, exh. cat. (New York: 15 Pace Gallery, 1992), unpaginated.

2. Ann Temkin, Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), p. 83.

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John Chamberlain: Choices related terms and additional resources

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