John Chamberlain, 'Gondola Hart Crane', 1982. Photo: Jamie Woodley
29 Nov – 8 Feb 2015

John Chamberlain: Gondolas

This resource has been produced to accompany the exhibition, ‘John Chamberlain: Gondolas’, at Hauser & Wirth Somerset.

This resource has been produced to accompany the exhibition, ‘John Chamberlain: Gondolas’, at Hauser & Wirth Somerset.

About John Chamberlain
John Chamberlain lived from 1927 to 2011, he was an American sculptor who lived mostly in New York. Chamberlain has been represented by Gagosian Gallery since 2011. In 1961 his work was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1961 group exhibition, ‘Art of Assemblage’, this was an important survey of 2D and 3D collage. Chamberlain exhibited in the São Paulo Biennial and the Venice Biennale. He died in Manhattan on 2011.

What does his work look like?
John Chamberlain’s work is vibrant and colourful. He makes sculptures from crushed and twisted car parts. His sculptures can be wall reliefs and small sculpture as well as those on a monumental scale. The colours of the sculptures refer back to their original painted surface, and yet they look twisted and faceted into new intriguing forms. The sculptures shown at Hauser & Wirth Somerset are part of his ‘Gondola’ series (1981-85); they are elongated sculptures that rest directly on the floor and each one is named after a poet.

What are his main themes?
Although his materials may hint at car crashes because of the shape and form of their previous life, he wants his audience to look at his work aesthetically – as sculpture. He is not interested in cars as the subject matter but the colour, shape or form of the materials that come from the cars. The everyday objects or car parts take on new meanings and may both appear abstract as well as alluding to other objects or forms. This abstraction is endorsed by the titles of his works such as, ‘Flufft’ (1977), or ‘Hano’ (1970) a made up word, which prevents it from being referential. The titles of the work here are: Gondola Hart Crane, 1982 and Gondola Marianne Moore, 1982. The naming of the Gondolas are tributes to his favourite writers, whose work he first encountered whilst a student at Black Mountain College. Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was an American Modernist poet, whose poetry was noted for its precision, descriptions, and observations of people, places, animals, and art. Hart Crane (1899 -1932) was an American poet who was inspired by T S Elliot and who writes about the American experience.

How does he make his work?
From 1950 onwards, Chamberlain mostly worked in metal, using metal car parts to make over-sized sculptures. In order to work with metal Chamberlain had to weld, but he is also known for carving and modeling. There are particular car parts that he preferred to work with such as: fenders, bumpers and the car chassis. However, he has worked with other materials and in paint, his paintings are made with car paint and his other sculptures often with urethane foam.

Does he work in any other ways?
From 1963 Chamberlain made abstract colour paintings. He made several films, such as ‘Wide Point’ and ‘The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez’, in which he appeared along with the same actors used by Warhol such as Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet. Towards the end of his life Chamberlain worked in large-scale photographs.

What other artist’s work does it relate to?
John Chamberlain comes from a period of time in America when the art scene was dominated by the work of the American painters, known as the Abstract Expressionists. In many ways his work can be seen as instinctual and gestural, like three-dimensional interpretations of Abstract Expressionism. However, the use of industrial materials and sense of space also indicates early characteristics of Minimalism such as the work of Donald Judd or the welded constructions of David Smith.

John Chamberlain, 'Gondola Marianne Moore', 1982. Photo: Jamie Woodley


Abstract Expressionism
Is the name given to the developments in abstract art, particularly painting in America in 1940-50s which was characterised by gestural brush marks, spontaneous mark making and a large format. Other artists to consider: Joan Mitchell.

Three-dimensional art made by one of four basic processes: carving, modeling, casting, constructing. Other artists to consider: Subodh Gupta.

The term was first used in Russia in the 1920s to describe art, architecture, design, literature, music and film, which moved away from representing the object to a more abstracted and constructed appearance. The avant-garde, often working with contemporary materials in new formats, adopted constructivist methods across Europe. See Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky or Aleksandr Rodchenko.

Gestural describes the application of paint or the assemblage of materials in a free sweeping motion. An interesting artist who uses materials in a gestural way is Takesada Matsutani.

Minimalism is an art movement that developed in New York in the early 1960s. Many artists began to create objects, which often blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and started to employ industrial materials in order to be interpreted as neutral rather than expressive.


Suggested Activities During Your Visit

Note: you will need to bring pencils and a sketchbook.

Activity 1
We learn about sculpture by considering the following: shape, material, scale and texture. Can you find a different way to draw the same sculpture four times, the first drawing must focus on shape, the second – material, the third – scale and finally – texture.

Activity 2
Chamberlain take parts of one thing to make another, make a drawing of one of his sculptures, fill the whole page. Then tear it into at least 8 pieces, swap with someone else and stick their pieces together to make a 3D sculpture/collage drawing.

Activity 3
Look at a Chamberlain sculpture and list all the words you can think of to describe it, pick out all the verbs. For example: to tear, to crease, to twist, to crumple. Can you think of a way to draw using body actions, to illustrate your verb? E.g. crumple the paper first or put it high on a wall and jump up and draw on it.

Activity 4
Chamberlain’s Gondolas relate to poetry. Look at one of his sculptures and imagine how it relates to your senses. Write down words for the following and use them to help you construct your own poem. Sight – What does it look like? Big, small, ugly, beautiful, shiny, dull? What colour is it? Sound – What do you imagine it sounds like? Loud, quiet, gentle? What does the sound remind you of? Smell – What do you imagine it smells like? Food, fresh air? Is the smell horrible or pleasant? Taste – What do you imagine it tastes like? Spicy, sour, cold? What does the taste remind you of? Do not forget to give your poem a title.


Practical Activity Prompts & Ideas for Discussion Following Your Visit

Key Stage 1 and 2
Making something from something else: Collect empty cardboard containers of various shapes and sizes, deconstruct them and remake them into a recogniseable object such as a car, a truck, or a boat.

Key Stage 3
Make a cardboard structure that you can either sit or lie in. Try to use as many different processes as you can, such as: ripping, cutting, and wrapping. Your structure must be strong enough to hold your body.

Key Stage 4 and beyond
Research other artists who reuse items to make sculpture. How do you feel about their work? Does material matter? How do you define sculpture? Do you feel that Chamberlain’s work fits into a specific movement? If so what movement and why?


Supplementary Research

John Chamberlain, Gagosian Gallery

John Chamberlain, Guggenheim

Bill Woodrow is a British sculptor who transforms objects into sculptures and often works in metal, see his website.

Richard Wentworth

New Art Centre, Roche Court

Poetry exercise



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