Arts Curriculum

Other Materials

I really don’t make an attempt at doing something to things that they don’t want done to them. The things should tell you by one means or another.1

Other Materials

Mannabend Ra, 1966. Urethane foam and cord, 69.9 x 132.1 x 121.9 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 75.2191 © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Although he was best known for his sculptures made from recycled metal, over the years Chamberlain has also used brown paper bags, foam rubber, wood, iron, Mylar, colored glass, mirrors, Plexiglas, tin, aluminum foil, and both paper and cloth towels. Chamberlain believed that "common materials are the best materials."2

In 1966, Chamberlain began "to experiment with other kinds of materials, many of which were far more immediate. . . . Instead of crushing metal with machines, he used his hands to compress foam as well as wad paper [and] aluminum. . . . He started with common household sponges, which he cut up and then tied using nylon cord. He could vary the form by the amount of pressure exerted on the cord, which compressed the sponges into soft and sensual shapes. They could be made so quickly that he dubbed them 'instant sculptures.'"3

Chamberlain has "investigated other sensory perceptions, including a never-realized work that has been described as an 'olfactory-stimulus-response environment.'"4 In 1969, he was invited to participate in an art and technology program that brought together artists with corporations engaged in developing new technologies. Chamberlain's idea was to create a participatory work, comprising more than one hundred packaged odors, which he called SniFFter. The odors that he wanted to create included coffee, a newly lit match, dill, and gasoline. He explained: "I’m initially interested in anything I don’t know about. I’m interested because I need something to lean on. And any material or physical contact, mental contact, whatever has possibilities for lessons."5

In 1969, fascinated with the childhood practice of blowing up paper bags and popping them, Chamberlain became intrigued by the possibility of capturing this act in freeze-frame. Named after his living quarters at the time—a penthouse apartment in Manhattan—the Penthouse series appear as delicate and feminine as roses, frozen by the resin that Chamberlain carefully dripped into their creases both to preserve their materiality and to increase their weight and solidity.

Throughout his career, Chamberlain was highly attuned to his materials. In so doing, his work encourages us to see what these materials can become and, ultimately, how we may think more openly about the objects that surround us.6


1. Phyllis Tuchman, “An Interview with John Chamberlain,” Artforum 10, no. 6 (Feb. 1972), p. 41.

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

3. Donna De Salvo, “Nerves of Steel: John Chamberlain’s Extra-sensory Expressionism,” in John Chamberlain: Choices (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2012), p. 58.

4. Ibid., p. 59.

5. Maurice Tuchman, ed., A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967–1971 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971), p. 71.

6. David J. Getsy, "John Chamberlain's Pliability: The New Monumental Aluminium Works," Burlington Magazine (London) 153, no. 1303 (Nov. 2011), p. 744.

John Chamberlain

Mannabend Ra, 1966. Urethane foam and cord, 69.9 x 132.1 x 121.9 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 75.2191 © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

John Chamberlain

Penthouse #50, 1969. Watercolor and resin on paper, 12.7 x 16.5 x 11.4 cm. Dia Art Foundation © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Show: Mannabend Ra, 1966

  • Look carefully at this sculpture. What do you notice? What adjectives would you use to describe it?

  • Why do you think foam rubber might have appealed to Chamberlain as a material to explore?

  • Describe, step-by-step, how you believe Mannabend Ra might have been made.

  • Chamberlain started with common household sponges, which he would cut up and then tie together, using nylon cord. He was always looking to learn about the natural properties of new materials. Try some of your own sculptural experiments using either foam rubber or sponges. What did you learn?

Show: Penthouse #50, 1969

  • Look carefully at this sculpture. What do you notice? What adjectives would you use to describe it?

  • According to Chamberlain: "The paper bag sculptures developed out of an idea I was trying to do. You know when you blow up a paper bag and you pop it? I was trying to catch the pop."1 Blow up a small paper bag and then pop it. Do you think Chamberlain's sculpture captures the moment? Explain. Develop your own approach to "catching the pop."

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

Mannabend Ra, 1966. Urethane foam and cord, 69.9 x 132.1 x 121.9 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 75.2191 © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Penthouse #50, 1969. Watercolor and resin on paper, 12.7 x 16.5 x 11.4 cm. Dia Art Foundation © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York


  • In order to form his sculptures, Chamberlain used many industrial tools, but the basic actions on materials such as twisting, rolling, crumpling, looping, ripping, and stacking can be experienced using everyday materials like cardboard. In this online video, a Guggenheim teaching artist demonstrates a way to introduce students to these sculptural possibilities.

  • Chamberlain liked to experiment with words as well as materials, frequently through the use of puns. A pun is the usually humorous use of a word that implies two or more of its meanings, or suggests another word that is similar in sound. Some examples from titles of his sculptures include: Doorful of Syrup (1988), Endzoneboogie (1988), RADISHRIPPLE (2009), and Whirled Peas (1991).

    First, work on figuring out Chamberlain's puns, then try creating a few titles of your own. Start by thinking of words or phrases you know that have more than one meaning, finding a word or words that sound similar. When you are done, share the puns that you have written with the class.

  • According to Chamberlain: "Every material has a different density, different weight. . . . Every hand squeezes differently. In finding your place in sculpture, you need to find the material that offers you just the right resistance. As it turns out, car metal offers me the correct resistance so that I can make a form—not overform it or underform it. At one time, hair offered me the right resistance. I think I probably learned about resistance when I was cutting hair."1

    Chamberlain has created sculpture from many diverse materials and felt that "common materials are the best materials."2 Have students select a common material that could be used as a sculptural material and spend time experimenting with it and exploring its resistance. Create a sculpture and then discuss the experience of creating it.

1. David J. Getsy, "John Chamberlain's Pliability: The New Monumental Aluminium Works," Burlington Magazine (London) 17 153, no. 1303 (Nov. 2011), p. 740.

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

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John Chamberlain: Choices related terms and additional resources

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