The American sculptor John Chamberlain  (1927-2011) said he didn’t find his media, he chose it.

CHOICE – is very much a part of the artist’s process.

The John Chamberlain retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum (February 24-May 13, 2012) closed last week. See Museum curator Susan Davidson’s review of the show at the exhibition video.

I am so glad I got to see the show.

Chamberlain, Untitled 1961

The image above (Untitled 1961) is paper, cardboard, printed paper, crayon, paint and metal on painted fiberboard, 12 1/4 x 13 x 5 inches. Courtesy the Allan Stone Collection.

Chamberlain said fit and choice were the guiding principles in his career. The exhibition showed he was really a collage artist.

Chamberlain always used the word “chosen” over “found” to describe both his materials and art-making process.

His sculpture was 3D collage with deep folds that he created by squeezing or compressing metal and then “fitting” the various elements into complex compositions.

His materials were found in the ordinary sense but were chosen (collected, stored in the studio) waiting for the artist to choose, manipulate, paint, scrape and assemble.

His work is about juxtaposition, recontextualization, recalcitrance, fit, and chance.

Chamberlain, Delores James, 1962

The image above, titled Dolores James (1962) is painted and chromium-plated steel, 72 1/2 x 101 1/2 x 46 1/4 inches. Courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


One of the key features of the exhibition is the variety in size and mastery of scale and proportion. Chamberlain was always examining and exploring scale.

Chamberlain’s sculptures range from the size of a fist (his hand) to the span of a generous hug (he was a robust man and it would have been a big hug), to the scale of a young (and eventually not so young) tree.

Chamberlain said if you get the scale right, the size doesn’t matter.


Chamberlain was a brilliant colorist and defied the color taboo.

When his career began in the 1950s, no sculpture had color because the Abstract/Expressionists dominated the art world and had a manifesto – color is the business of painting, not sculpture.

But Chamberlain said his color was part of the things he chose because the color was manufactured. That set him apart immediately from everyone else working in sculpture.

Chamberlain, Nutcracker, 1958

Chamberlain is considered one of the great colorists in mid-20th century American art – his work is painting in 3 dimensions.

The image above, titled Nutcracker,  is painted and chromium-plated steel, 45 1/2 x 43 1/2 x 32 inches. Courtesy the Allan Stone Collection.

Chamberlain chose common materials and that tied him to Pop Art. He worked with standardized, manufactured materials and that tied him to Minimalism. His method of assembly (juxtaposition and layering to get the right fit) tied him to collage and Neo-Dada.


In the 1960s he took a 7-year break from metal and automotive parts and played with paper bags.

The image below, titled Penthouse #50 (1969) is watercolor and resin on paper, 5 x 6 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches. the Dia Art Foundation.

He called the process “articulate wadding,” He crushed paper and dripped resin into the paper creases to increase their weight and solidity.

Chamberlain, Penthouse #50, 1969

He played with urethane foam (squeezing and folding and tying).

Chamberlain, Untitled, 1966

The image above, Untitled 1966 is one of many works in foam. The exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum included a large scooped and shaped foam seating area that people sat down on. Chamberlain called these “nests.”

During the 1960s he played with steel boxes (some started as tin spice containers), and had them enlarged to the size of a cigarette pack, then opened and crushed them into new forms.

He melted Plexiglas boxes and had them vacuum-mineral coated.

In the mid-1970s Chamberlain returned to automobile steel and  he dripped, poured, scraped and spray painted his colors.

The exhibition included freestanding sculpture, floor sculpture, wall sculpture, and smaller 3D works in display cases. Some pieces are welded or bolted, but many are not.

Chamberlain, Lord Suckfist, 1989

The image above is titled Lord Suckfist (1989). It’s painted, chromium-plated and stainless steel, 83 3/4 x 57 x 56 inches. Photo courtesy The Pace Gallery.


I talked with a gallery guide at the Museum, and asked about some of the large works that were freestanding and if they were welded. He said typically the works are not bolted or welded, just fitted together and are assembled and disassembled with each exhibition with intricate plans for how they are assembled.

Chamberlain said it was all about how they fit together.

I followed a group with a private tour guide and listened to him describe how the Museum created new walls to bring the works closer to the viewer.

The tour guide made me notice how Chamberlain inserted shiny chrome metal into many of the free-form sculptures. He talked about the way the metal folds looked like folded cloth.

Chamberlain, Kiss 12

The image above, titled Kiss 12 (1979) is painted steel, 30×31 x 27 inches, Galerie Karsten Greve, St. Moritz/Paris/Cologne.


We walked around the sculptures to see them from every angle, see how the metal is compressed and manipulated, and how the colors moved. He talked about how there is a sense of the “baroque” in Chamberlain’s  work especially in terms of the look of folded and draped material.

When Chamberlain chose car metal for his media, he was playing in the transgressive field of collage.    Read more…

You can see works by John Chamberlain  in a permanent collection at the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, NY. See the Guggenheim Museum website for images and more information. Purchase the exhibition catalog John Chamberlain Choices for brilliant essays and images.

Here’s a project for all of you who want to explore collage as sculpture: Take a paper bag, blow into it, compress it, open it or pop it, pierce it, fold it around something else or attach something to it. Add paint. Experiment.

Please share your comments if you’ve seen the show. Thank you.

4 thoughts on “CHOICE COLLAGE

  1. Thanks for introduction to Chamberlain. I had not known about him before. I really like his work.

    1. Hi Carol, I knew Chamberlain’s work (seen at Dia in Beacon, NY), but didn’t know he considered himself a collagist. Thanks for your comment.

    2. I like Chamberlain’s work much more since the Guggenheim retrospective – and, if you get a chance, open the Susan Davidson YouTube link at the blog, and listen to her comments. She has so much information to share.

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