John Chamberlain: Choices

14:29 | Published on February 24, 2012 | 1,769 Views

Senior Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Susan Davidson discusses John Chamberlain: Choices, a full-career retrospective of the sculptor’s output from 1956 through to his passing in 2011. The title refers to Chamberlain’s discerning working process and to the curator’s role in choosing works for a comprehensive retrospective. Davidson explains Chamberlain’s selection of diverse material throughout his career, including automobile parts, foam, paper, Plexiglas, and galvanized steel, and cites the sculptor’s unique ability to produce exemplary work in any scale. The exhibition is designed to enable visitors to view the collaged, skillfully manipulated surfaces of Chamberlain’s work in the round and aims to re-present Chamberlain to new, younger audiences.

For more information, visit John Chamberlain: Choices.

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Susan Davidson, Senior Curator, Collections and Exhibitions: I’m very pleased to present the John Chamberlain: Choices exhibition. This is a full-career retrospective of the American sculptor, John Chamberlain, who sadly passed away on December 21st of last year.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically along the Guggenheim ramps, beginning with the very earliest sculptures, first created soon after he moved to New York in 1956, and continues up until works that he made within months of his passing last December.

The title of the exhibition comes from a conversation that I had early on with Chamberlain, regarding how one might organize an exhibition of this nature, by choosing the pieces that interest you, that you like. But also, because “choice” is very much part of Chamberlain’s working process. He chose the materials that he worked with, and he chose how they “fit” together. And I, as a curator, then was able to choose those sculptures to put in the exhibition.

“Fit” and “choice” have been the guiding principles in Chamberlain’s working method throughout his entire career. And in assembling the various parts that make up the sculptures that you see on the ramps, you will begin to understand that in fact he is a type of collagist. And I think this is one of the most important aspects of his work. And it was that aspect that really astounded the critics when he first came on the scene in the ‘60s, and really captured the imagination of many of his fellow artists.

1960s in New York was an interesting moment. Minimalist art was coming to the fore at this time. Artists were very involved in reducing the kinds of materials that they worked with. And they saw in Chamberlain that same ability that was informing their art. Because he worked with a particular type of material—meaning the automobile, which was a symbol of American consumerism—that he became associated with Pop artists whose focus was on the object.

Chamberlain was always in between these two pillars in a way. The work, which was so much based in collage, really has its own moment in art history and it’s much more singular than people give it credit for. Despite the singularity, you cannot help but feel that Chamberlain’s work is a kind of three-dimensional Abstract Expressionism. The gesture of the materials, the color that he uses, these very much inform the underpinnings of the sculpture.


He was extremely interested in science, and he wanted to find a new way to take the lessons that he’d learned from the metal and apply it in different forms.

I think he was very attracted to the softness of this foam. And so he started carving it, cutting it, wrapping it, twisting it, and tying it into these kind of almost “instant sculptures” that he called them. And that became part of an exhibition that he did at Dwan Gallery in 1966, which, of course, blew everybody away because it was so different from what he’d been doing, and yet you could still see the properties of the metal sculptures in this very soft material.

Foam was something that he continued to work in his whole life. He ultimately made very large couches, sometimes even cradles, sometimes even “nests” as he called them, from these large blocks of foam that he carved with a butcher knife. And this he did throughout his career.

So during the ‘60s, when Chamberlain had this hiatus from his metal sculptures, he made two bodies of work: the galvanized steel and these Plexiglas boxes.

With the galvanized steel pieces, they were based on the proportions of these early cigarette packs, which he then took to a baler, a crusher, and had them compressed in this machine, and then assembled them from that. They’re really very beautiful works and this is the first time that Chamberlain is working with manufactured materials. Same is true of the Plexiglas boxes, which are fabricated to a particular size. They’re then put into a heat chamber and melted at a certain temperature. And it was that combination of the melting and the mineral coating of the Plexi that produced this kind of iridescent quality.


When Chamberlain first started making sculpture, he was influenced by the welding techniques of David Smith. And as was typical of sculpture of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, there was no color in that work; it was just the material.

What set him apart immediately when he first showed his work in New York, was the fact that it included color, and this was something that astounded everybody. Of course, he was working with automobile parts, so he was working with manufactured color in a way. And his color sense, which he is often credited to Van Gogh and perhaps to a greater degree de Kooning, is that ability to take these very disparate colors found in automobiles, and to combine them in a way that creates a rather colorful palette of the sculptures.

What’s also interesting about Chamberlain’s work and his use of color is that, when he starts back into working with metal in the ‘70s, he decides to start painting the automobile parts that he’s found. And he tells stories about he just would go down to the hardware store and buy the cheapest colors that he could get, and he would just throw them onto the metal. This was done before he actually “fit” the sculptures together. Then he started scraping it, and sandblasting it, and trying to remove the color that he had applied on top of the already existing color. And I think this is very much in evidence in the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s with the works he was making.


One of the great pleasures of organizing the exhibition at the Guggenheim is that it’s a round building, and Chamberlain’s work is very much meant to be seen in the round. One of the aims of the show is really to present the sculptures so that one can walk fully around them.

I think that the visitor, once they start into that, they’ll start to see the deep folds and the way that the metal is compressed, and manipulated, and twisted in a way that could remind them of Renaissance drapery, or even sometimes a kind of Baroque quality to some of the sculptures that look as if they’re about to move or to take off into flight.

I feel that Chamberlain wasn’t purposely looking to art historical references like that. I think that this was a natural outgrowth of just how he was manipulating the materials. And yet, as an art historian and someone familiar with art, you can’t help but see those parallels.

One of the key aspects of the exhibition that I was interested in showing to the public was Chamberlain’s ability to work at any scale. He said that if you got the scale right, the size never mattered, as long as you understood how the pieces “fit” together. Size is simply something that’s large or small. Scale is actually about proportion. This ability to work in proportion at any size is one of Chamberlain’s great achievements.


One of the fun things about doing the exhibition wasn’t just choosing the works that were going to be included, but learning the titles of many of the pieces. He collected common phrases or various words in different languages. He sometimes would just choose words because he liked the way that they looked or the way that they sounded. And sometimes they, in fact, are obscure literary references, or films from the ‘20s. And I think, too, that the title of the work, that kind of poetry that they are imbued with is something that is very much a part of Chamberlain’s working process, that the sound of the words is just as important as the sound of the metal as it’s fitted together.


I worked at the Menil Collection in ‘87 when we opened the museum, and Chamberlain was the inaugural exhibition. He came to install the show with Walter Hopps, who was my mentor, and the two of them were like old friends coming together, walking around in the gallery, smoking, touching the sculptures, just living with them the way that one does.

It really informed my sense of the work, and my sense of the man and of the artist. And I knew when I came to the Guggenheim, in 2002, that I was really struck by how people in New York knew Chamberlain, but they hadn’t seen the work in a long time. And then I learned that we’d done the show in 1971, and it just seemed to make complete sense to me that we needed to reposition Chamberlain and re-present him to younger audiences.

Chamberlain was a collagist. He had this ability to work in a variety of scale. These were two things that I very much wanted to demonstrate in the exhibition, and I hope that the visitor sees that as clearly as I was able to experience it in assembling the show.