Arts Curriculum

Gesture

It just can’t be a blob sitting there. It should be doing something.1

Gesture

SPHINXGRIN TWO, 1986/2010. Aluminum, 490 × 420 × 370 cm. Private collection © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy More Gallery, Giswil, Switzerland

Chamberlain described his sculptures as "self-portraits," but his notion of portraiture had nothing to do with capturing a likeness. For him sculpture was about balances and rhythms. His work always brings you back to the body in relationship with the world: "The definition of sculpture for me is stance and attitude. All sculpture takes a stance. If it dances on one foot, or, even if it dances while sitting down, it has a light-on-its-feet stance."2 The fact that his work exudes a sense of humanity is all the more astonishing when considering its origins.

Chamberlain brought a sense of spontaneous gesture to the world of sculpture. His early works allude to gesture or Action painting and have often been related to Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, who used gestural brushstrokes to imply power and motion. Chamberlain was taken with the roughness, muscularity, and energy of this approach, which gave him permission to use smashed car parts that seemed to be in constant motion. But he was not satisfied with Action painting’s two-dimensional form, and instead, translated its flat forms into volumetric sculptures. In the process, Chamberlain transformed Action painting, achieving an original style.3

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Chamberlain created a series of small sculptures from aluminum foil. He made these works by rolling the foil into long tubes, which he would then bend, twist, fit, and weave together. These early works provided inspiration for the monumental aluminum sculptures that he created in the last few years of his life.

It took decades to find a fabrication process that could successfully convey the compositional complexity of his handheld models and allow him to adapt these small compositions into the superhuman size of SPHINXGRIN TWO (1986/2010). This dramatic pose is partially made possible through Chamberlain’s canny choice in materials. SPHINXGRIN TWO was created from an industrially produced material, which was then crushed to make an animated surface. These compressed tubes were then twisted around each other, knotted into a composition that takes on a personality of its own, resulting in a unique, occupied space. When one stands before this sculpture, it is impressive to consider the improbably balanced parts, wondering just how they remain upright.


1. David J. Getsy, "John Chamberlain's Pliability: The New Monumental Aluminium Works," Burlington Magazine (London) 17 153, no. 1303 (Nov. 2011), p. 743.

2. Chinati Foundation Newsletter (Marfa, Tex.) 11 (Oct. 2006), p. 35.

3. Irving Sandler, "The Sculpture of John Chamberlain: An Ugly Beauty," in John Chamberlain: Recent Sculpture, exh. cat. (New York: PaceWildenstein, 2005), pp. 5–6.

John Chamberlain

SPHINXGRIN TWO, 1986/2010. Aluminum, 490 × 420 × 370 cm. Private collection © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy More Gallery, Giswil, Switzerland

  • As a class, brainstorm a list of words you would use to describe this work.

  • Chamberlain said: "It just can't be a blob sitting there. It should be doing something."1 In your opinion, what does this sculpture appear to be doing?

  • If SPHINXGRIN TWO were to come to life, how would it move? Act out the gesture that this work suggests.

  • What type of music might best suggest this gesture? Try out various musical selections until you find one that seems to fit the style and tempo of the sculpture.


1. David J. Getsy, "John Chamberlain's Pliability: The New Monumental Aluminium Works," Burlington Magazine (London) 17 153, no. 1303 (Nov. 2011), p. 743.

SPHINXGRIN TWO, 1986/2010. Aluminum, 490 × 420 × 370 cm. Private collection © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy More Gallery, Giswil, Switzerland



  • Chamberlain was able to impart movement and even personality through the gesture of his abstract sculptures. There is an approach to drawing (known as “gesture drawing”) in which the goal is to grasp the essential movement or disposition of a person almost immediately. You are not drawing the person, but rather the individual’s action, and in just a few quick lines you may be able to suggest what is happening. Sitting in a park, in the cafeteria of your school, or even in front of the television, you can practice capturing gestures. Then use these gestures as the basis for an experiment, by creating handheld sculptures from aluminum foil, just as Chamberlain did, that also convey a strong gestural quality.

  • Chamberlain admired the paintings of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Research the work of these two artists. What attributes does Chamberlain’s work share with theirs? How is their work different from his?

  • The Marshmallow Challenge is a design exercise that encourages teams to experience lessons in collaboration, innovation, and creativity. The task is simple: in 18 minutes, teams must build the tallest freestanding structure out of twenty sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top. Surprising lessons emerge when you compare each team’s performance. Who tends to do the worst? Why do you believe that is? Who tends to do the best, and why? What improves performance? What changes it? What hampers it? For more information about how to conduct a Marshmallow Challenge in your classroom, visit the Marshmallow Challenge Talk on TED.com.

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