Progression of Art
In his twenties while living in Chicago, Chamberlain discovered the sculpture of David Smith at the Art Institute. About Smith's work he said, "I liked it a lot because it wasn't representing something else...and it was a very strange looking thing...and because I hadn't seen anything like that before." Explaining the making of his early pieces he said, "I found myself working with a certain spontaneity. I was trying to attach the top part of (a sculpture) to the lower half, but when I put it in the right place, it connected up in three different places, so it told me how to put it together."
Chamberlain's first steel sculptures emphasized the linear "drawn in the air" quality of Smith and other 1950s sculptors, but in Cord the steel rods and fittings have been clustered and massed into shapes with physically greater volume. Notice that Cord is a tangle of metal rods and fittings elevated by several short posts and perched over a pedestal base. In his future works Chamberlain eliminated the pedestal and placed his sculptures directly on the floor. Eliminating the pedestal was a goal of the 1960s sculptors, many of whom sought this more emphatic and less precious mode of presentation. When placing work directly on the floor it became incumbent on Chamberlain to make the metal parts fit together so as to be weight bearing. He continued to use spot welding to reinforce the structure as was done in Cord but when his pieces became larger, freestanding, and more complex, an armature within their mass was a necessity. With the contrasts of its sharp-edged vertical and horizontal elements, Cord predicts the look of his art to come.
Formerly Allan Stone, New York
Shortstop launched Chamberlain's career as a major artist in the mid-20th century; his subsequent works with car parts stemmed from this initial breakthrough piece. Made entirely from "found" materials - the fenders of an abandoned antique Ford - Shortstop reinvested the French Surrealists' use of "found objects" with American virility.
Chamberlain was building on the Surrealists' techniques of collage and assemblage that had relied on chance juxtapositions, and which were still in vogue with poets, painters and other sculptors. It was frequently their goal to shock readers and viewers by unlikely combinations of words and images. In addition, Marcel Duchamp - inventor of the "readymades" - was the acknowledged grand master of the visual arts contingent of Surrealists and lived in New York City at this time.
To make Shortstop, Chamberlain altered the fenders he had found by driving over them with a truck and then joined them together by a process of trial and error, accepting cues from the way the pieces themselves suggested their fit. After this piece he went to scrap yards deliberately to search for discarded auto parts suited to his creative inspirations. Recognizing his sources critics were swift to observe that their power as abstract art might come from tragic accidents. Although he would reject their allusions to a car wreck, Chamberlain surely knew that the poetry of his work came from the unexpected vigor of tortured metals contorted visually into the afterimage of a crash.
Painted and chromium-plated steel and iron - Dia Art Foundation, New York, New York
In the post-World War II cultural atmosphere automobiles were an important symbol of American recovery and industrial leadership. Materials for metal sculpture had always been expensive: the fact that Chamberlain discovered a source in discarded metals brought him recognition for his ingenuity. And the colors he found were a bonus, for there were few artists making colorful sculpture at this time. But his forays into junkyards did not focus exclusively on car parts. Zaar was composed chiefly of a steel bench with a red stripe.
Chamberlain's art succeeded on several levels. To some viewers the sculptures made a statement against a progressive consumer culture that embraced the new and rejected the old. In addition, he titled his works with a self-indulgent humor. Since his college years Chamberlain had written poetry and read widely so he wasn't above using sly allusions to popular culture. Zaar was a popular hair treatment used to make permanent waves: Chamberlain must have dealt with it when he worked as a hairdresser in Chicago, before becoming an artist. The curvy outlines of Zaar might have reminded him of that product.
Welded steel, painted - Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Dallas, Texas
Miss Lucy Pink
Chamberlain described Miss Lucy Pink as his response to the critics who called his work violent. In this sculpture he deliberately emphasized the softness and malleability of the steel and the gently overlapping shapes. These features were noted by his friend the sculptor Claes Oldenburg who commented on the contrasts of rounded volumes that softened the impression of jagged metallic edges. An openly feminine sculpture, Miss Lucy Pink has clear affinities with the Women paintings of Chamberlain's good friend Willem de Kooning. He also used a pink and flesh-toned palette reminiscent of the works of Pablo Picasso, an artist de Kooning admittedly admired. Miss Lucy Pink's bosomy contours project beyond the base, giving the sculpture the illusion of a woman balancing on high heels.
In later comments Chamberlain also drew attention to the fact that she, the sculpture, has a front and a back. He said, "I look at the piece every now and then and sometimes it reminds me of somebody who's putting on a good front, but you take a look around the back and her ass is hanging out." He also revealed that he had accumulated a lot of pink painted metals in his studio and had welded the various parts only to better preserve the unbalanced structure. This technique of intuitive, non-predetermined creation closely connects to the Abstract Expressionists painters' use of gestural, instinctive brushstrokes. Like them he wanted to throw off the influence of the School of Paris painters and participate in the birth of a new American modern art.
Painted and chrome-plated steel - Collection of the artist: Sarasota, Florida
In 1963, Chamberlain and his family left New York for California where he began a series of experiments intended to broaden the range of his materials. Three years later while living in Malibu at the home of his art dealer Virginia Dwan, and with one month to go before a show at her gallery, he made three-dimensional sketches for sculpture using common household sponges that he squeezed and tied. Of this time he said, "I wanted to do a sculpture that was quick...and instant sculpture was the result." Pleased with the small pieces he had created, he enlarged the concept using large blocks of foam rubber carved with a knife. His assistants lassoed the foam around the middle with rope: they pulled while he folded and tucked the foam to get the look he wanted. If the sculpture didn't please him, Chamberlain untied the rope and repeated the process. A critic praised the work saying: "The simplicity of the form, the uninflected, porous smoothness of the surface and the generosity of the curves gave all these pieces a monumentality belied by their size."
Chamberlain made two significant groups of urethane foam and cord tied sculptures in 1966 and 1967. These humorous anthropomorphic pieces were popular with private collectors but many have not survived because the material is not stable and museums tended to avoid them. But Chamberlain continued working with foam and made several room-sized couches for museums and gallery installations as well as for private collectors. The Guggenheim Barge was made for the rotunda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum as a major feature of his 1971 retrospective. On this occasion, a Milanese furniture-maker proposed an edition of Chamberlain couches. One example of this "Flintstone Furniture" was equipped with TV sets at either end.
Urethane foam and cord - Dia Art Foundation, New York, New York
Norma Jean Rising
Chamberlain periodically abandoned the colorfully painted crumpled steel that had made his reputation. In 1967 he decided to investigate what he could do with the more prosaic surfaces of galvanized steel. Was he courting the approval of the artists associated with Minimalism who were his contemporaries and drank with him at Max's Kansas City? There he amused his buddies by making miniature sculptures from discarded cigarette boxes and gifting them. Galvanized steel is typically used for duct work and venting systems and has the mottled industrial surface the Minimalists desired for their work. Chamberlain ordered it pre-fabricated in standard dimensions of 42 x 28 x 18 inches. There was a compactor near his studio, and he took the boxy pieces there to be crushed and contorted into objects with jutting angles that resembled his car parts sculptures but with monochromatic surfaces. He took them back to the studio for further refinement, coating some with aluminum paint. The works matched his previous sculptures in scale and authority.
The first group of sculptures in this new material were popular with collectors. Andy Warhol acquired the six-foot-high Papagayo (1967), one of Chamberlain's largest galvanized steel sculptures: Norma Jean Rising is just a bit smaller. Many of these works were titled after constellations, that is, groups of stars, but Norma Jean was a star who had risen to fame as the movie star, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe died in 1962, but she continued to be celebrated in the arts. Norma Jean Rising was shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in an exhibition titled Homage to Marilyn Monroe (1967). In 1981, Chamberlain decided to remake and paint the sculpture and retitled it Norma Jean Risen. Another group of galvanized steel sculptures made in 1969 found the same strong reception. In the interval, Chamberlain made movies in the style of Andy Warhol and experimented with alternate materials that included aluminum foil, Plexiglas, and brown paper bags.
Painted galvanized steel - Dia Art Foundation, New York, New York
In 1974, Chamberlain returned to automobile parts as his primary material, after acknowledging that these steel scraps had become his signature medium. Three years later, he purchased a home in Essex, Connecticut, that had a studio and spacious garden where he planned to install his sculptures in an outdoor setting. He had just received a second Guggenheim Fellowship, and at the age of 50 his career was well established internationally. By this stage in his career Chamberlain had gathered a group of gallerists and collectors in Germany and visited there frequently. Luftschloss, literally translated as "air castle," may be a tribute to these friendships and experiences.
As if wanting to rival the trees that surrounded it in his garden, Luftschloss reaches for the sky. Over twelve feet tall, the principal steel elements look like they must have come from sides of trucks or buses to make an A frame structure within which other fragments are sheltered. No doubt there is an armature concealed within the massed fragments and yet there is visual tension in the contrast of the solid crimson red side and the more slender white slanted panel around the back that props up one side. These are minimal footings for the base of such a tall sculpture. The effort to understand its "stance" encourages an exploration of multiple vantage points. Chamberlain frequently compared the "stance" of his sculptures to the positions and attitudes of the human body.
For three more decades Chamberlain worked with the colorful steel and shiny chrome that made his work instantly recognizable worldwide. The works grew both larger and taller spreading out against walls or freestanding like Luftschloss. He once bought at auction a number of vintage 1940s and 1950s American car models to replenish his supply of hoods, fenders, bumpers, and doors: they came from a car collector who was closing his museum in Switzerland.
Painted and chromium-plated steel - Dia Art Foundation, New York, New York
Gondola Charles Olson
Abstract sculpture is judged for the stance and attitude it can achieve in private or public spaces. Chamberlain rapidly mastered the ability to intrigue viewers and make a lasting impact. The sculptures compelled a confrontation. So why, after two decades, was this artist still making a statement using carefully configured car parts? The material simply worked the best for Chamberlain. As the scale of his sculptures increased, he confronted the need for armatures to hold the many and varied pieces of painted steel upright. A 1981 commission for the City of Detroit was an example of the need to foot the upright parts securely. Long pieces of channel steel were being prepared and Chamberlain later recalled, "They looked so nifty the way they were (scattered on the floor) that it reminded me of some other direction." For a period he would make horizontal sculptures so reminiscent to him of boats that he first titled the series Armada. Later as the series increased he called them Gondolas and named each for his favorite American writers and poets, a virtual who's who of his literary favorites. Typically about three feet high, the gondolas extend horizontally for as many as twenty feet. Long before, Chamberlain's sculptor contemporaries had abandoned pedestals and made art for the broad expanses of studio and gallery floors, but frequently their works had a strongly industrial edge. In contrast, Chamberlain's gondolas were the most metaphorical statements he ever made from salvaged metals.
Painted and chrome-plated steel - Dia: Beacon
Seagram Building Installation
The last decade of Chamberlain's sixty-year career was overshadowed by his poor health, but his art did not suffer. No longer able to manipulate large sheets of steel, he nevertheless retained all his haptic powers and shaped household aluminum foil with his hands to make models that could be enlarged in his studio by assistants while he watched from a nearby chair. The group included PINEAPPLESURPRISE (2010), MERMAIDSMISCHIEF (2009), ROBUSTFAGOTTO (2008), and FROSTYDICKFANTASY (2008).
Longtime observers of his sculpture offered critical comments and interpretations of these ALL CAPS titles based on his well-known fondness for wordplay, nonsense, and sexual innuendo. They also remembered Chamberlain's love of music, especially jazz, that might be recognized in the resemblance of the sculptures to comical woodwind instruments. It was also noted that this was Chamberlain's second appearance in Park Avenue Plaza, where in 1984 he showed his monumental automotive steel piece American Tableau (1984). American Tableau was thought to resemble a line of pedestrians or the surrounding skyline done in his signature style.
The rigidly geometric architecture of Park Avenue Plaza was the ideal background to show off this cavorting band of colored industrial aluminum forms torqued, tangled, and towering to heights of up to fifteen feet. The aluminum surfaces of the pieces had been highly textured so that the forms reflected light that emphasized their biomorphic shimmer: some observers thought they saw sea anemone and remembered his love of the ocean. More frivolous and more endearing, the second Seagram Building installation would have delighted the boy from Indiana who had made it really BIG in New York City.
Colored aluminum - Estate of the artist, Gagosian Gallery