An encounter with John Chamberlain’s sculpture

Dolores James, 1962

In my recent trip to New York City, I had the opportunity to see the showing of John Chamberlain’s work at the Guggenheim museum.  Some of the work blew me away.  This is a description of my experience at the exhibition:

John Chamberlain is considered one of the (if not the) only artists to translate Abstract Expressionist concepts into 3-d.    On the surface, one can see the relationship of AbEx painting to his sculptures. Chamberlain plays with texture, color, and composition like many of his peers.  The large pieces of metal from salvaged car body parts are forcefully molded and combined to express emotion, immediacy, and the artist’s gesture. The monumental scale of the objects engages the body of the viewer into the drama of the 3-d composition. Perhaps the association with the material (from cars) also plays a role in how our mind’s body interacts with the pieces.

Untitled, 1966

The works interact with the body in a phenomenological sense.  The 3-d pieces act on the body in the way we (my painting teachers, peers, and I) describe in paintings. The sculptures have pockets of space for our eyes (and bodies) to enter.  There is Hofmann-esque “push and pull” created by color and by texture. The contrast he shows juxtaposing cushy urethane foam sculptures with hard car parts creates a visceral reaction. One really gets a feel (literally) for the material when looking with the eyes, an effect that expressionist painters strive to create in paintings.

In addition to using color for a painterly composition, his color defies convention. Helen Hsu writes, “Chamberlain brazenly defied the taboo of color in sculpture, a holdover from the rhetoric of medium specificity surrounding Abstract Expressionism (materials should be true to themselves, therefore color is the business of painting), which was still influential in the 1960s and considered one of the foremost problems in sculpture at the time.” This medium specificity also held that paintings were defined by their flatness, another convention Chamberlain defies.  In this decade (right now) one thing I notice is the active search to defy boundaries, not just in art but in many types of newly-minted interdisciplinary studies.  It seems to me that Chamberlain may have been ahead of his time.

Untitled, c. 1961

My favorite individual pieces of the show were small collages with paper that superimpose smaller pieces of scape metal onto the collage.  For me, these pieces show a shocking change in emotion based purely in the material. They also impressed this feeling of “no boundaries” when it comes to 2-d and 3-d work. The 2-d collage starts to jump off the page in an almost bas relief, an interesting middle space between painting and sculpture.

Based on my experience at this exhibition, it seems that Chamberlain does one better than the AbEx painters.  I left thinking about how I can open up my painting practice, the way he did, to defy conventions of my time.

Devon Midori Hale

Untitled, c. 1961

For further reading on the exhibit and other perspectives, visit the Guggenheim’s website for this exhibition: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/on-view/john-chamberlain-choices

This entry was written by Sarvey and published on February 29, 2012 at 5:25 pm. It’s filed under Influences and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “An encounter with John Chamberlain’s sculpture

  1. Thanks for the post – this is super interesting.

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