Arts Curriculum

Scale

I feel that’s like the old picket fence or gate you had when you were a child; when you grow up and look at it again, you can’t believe the scale. That’s how scale becomes known.1

Scale

Untitled, 1961. Painted tin-plated steel, 12.7 x 10.2 x 8.9 cm. Private collection, courtesy Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Chamberlain has created very small and extremely large sculptures. Over the years, he worked in a variety of scales, but his smaller works were never considered models for his larger sculptures. He considers them all full- blown sculptural works. Although much of his work is roughly human height, among his best works are some that are small or even minute in size. His sense of scale is so successful that size can become unimportant.

Handheld pieces like this untitled sculpture, made in 1961, have been central to his practice since the beginning. In the 1960s, patrons of the famed artists’ bar Max’s Kansas City, in New York, would watch Chamberlain casually make intricate sculptural compositions out of crushed cigarette packs. During his career he investigated the relationship between the intimate, tactile, and handmade composition as well as works of monumental scale. For Chamberlain, everyday tasks—such as crushing an empty container, wadding paper before throwing it away, or twisting aluminum foil—suggested ways to work with materials and generate new sculpture.2

In 1980, aided in part by a significantly larger studio space in Sarasota, Florida, Chamberlain dramatically increased the scale of his work, and in recent years, the artist embarked on the production of a new body of work, producing some of the largest pieces that he ever made. These confident, monumental bonfires of metal, with their stacks of mostly horizontal and vertical crushed and rolled metal, are drawn from a supply of 1940s and 1950s automobiles. C’ESTZESTY (2011), one of the works from this series, rises to nearly twenty feet in an unfolding tangle of black, gold, and silver metal.

Whether large-scale or miniature, Chamberlain’s works possess a formal equilibrium that ranks him among other sculptors whose masterful manipulation of space and volume appears effortless. As Chamberlain remarked on moving between small and large works, "if the scale is dealt with then the size has nothing to do with it."3


1. Julie Sylvester, "Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain," in Sylvester, John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonne? of the Sculpture, 1954–1985, exh. cat. (New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1986), p. 20.

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

3. "Excerpts from a Conversation Between Elizabeth C. Baker, John Chamberlain, Don Judd, and Diane Waldman," in Waldman, John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1971), p. 18.

John Chamberlain

Untitled, 1961. Painted tin-plated steel, 12.7 x 10.2 x 8.9 cm. Private collection, courtesy Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

John Chamberlain

C'ESTZESTY, 2011. Painted and chromium-plated steel and stainless steel, 604.5 × 170.2 × 170.2 cm. Private collection © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Robert McKeever, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York

Show: Untitled, 1961

  • Looking at this artwork, what do you notice? What size do you believe this sculpture is? What clues determined your answer?

  • As any sculptor knows, not all compositions or ideas that work in a miniature form can survive a transformation into monumental scale. Do you think this work would be more successful in a different size, or does its current scale seem suitable? Explain.

Show: C’ESTZESTY, 2011

  • What can you see in this artwork? How large do you think this sculpture is? What clues determined your answer?

  • How would it feel to encounter this work? Describe what your reaction might be.

  • Chamberlain was more than 80 years old when he created this work. He was no longer able to lift, manipulate, or weld heavy metal pieces, but he was able to direct workers in his methods. To get a better sense of how these sculptures were created, Gagosian Gallery has a video on its website, viewable at Gagosian.com, that shows Chamberlain as he directs the assembly of one of his works.
Untitled, 1961. Painted tin-plated steel, 12.7 x 10.2 x 8.9 cm. Private collection, courtesy Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
C'ESTZESTY, 2011. Painted and chromium-plated steel and stainless steel, 604.5 × 170.2 × 170.2 cm. Private collection © 2012 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Robert McKeever, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York


  • Chamberlain stated: "I've wanted to take pictures of pieces that I've done, I've always wondered if you could make it so that you wouldn’t know what size it was. I figured that it was the best way that I could ever define what scale was: when you can’t tell the size of it."1 Experiment with this idea. Create an abstract sculpture from any material, such as wood pieces, clay, cardboard, or Lego. Can you photograph it so that it looks much larger than its actual size? Which photos are the most successful in creating an illusion of a larger scale? Explain how this was accomplished.

  • In the quote that introduces this section, Chamberlain describes how your sense of scale can change. Things that you may remember as being very large when you were younger (and smaller) may seem dwarfed in comparison when viewed again from an older (and taller) perspective (Chamberlain was 6'4"). Have you ever had an experience similar to Chamberlain's? If yes, describe the shift in scale that you experienced.

  • The Saint Louis Art Museum has a short video on its website that examines scale in sculpture. To view this video, visit slam.org/sfysculpture/scale.html.

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

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