Whitehot Magazine

The Softer Side of John Chamberlain

Installation view. Courtesy of the Aspen Art Museum. 



What a lark, a balm, to encounter the dozen humble, odd, flecked and yellowed forms that are John Chamberlain’s polyurethane foam sculptures on display at the Aspen Art Museum (itself a remarkable work of art).  Rarely seen, they are currently on view as part of a larger retrospective show that runs until April 7, 2024. The Tighter They’re Wound, the Harder They Unravel was curated by Urs Fischer and includes some 50 Chamberlain works in multiple media. 

From a distance, the foam sculptures in the exhibition may look like mushrooms, flesh-colored blooms, raw cinnamon rolls, or Play-doh spritzes.  Anti-precious. On closer inspection, some are a tad creepy in their overt agedness like a mattress a great-grandmother might pull out for a visit. But no matter how unseemly or befuddling, these sculptures are deeply intriguing and wholly original. And most important to this viewer, their intense engagement with material, form, and process demonstrate a love of materials and making that vastly overrides commercial and even aesthetic concerns.

In his life time, John Chamberlain (1927-2011) created a large and vibrant body of work. He crossed and eluded art movements without care: Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Process Art, Earthworks. He worked in multiple genres beyond sculpture, including painting, still photography, film and writing, fueled by a restless curiosity.

Chamberlain is best known for what was once lazily referred to as “car crash” art. As reported in a 1993 New York Times piece by Carol Strickland, “[In 1957], Mr. Chamberlain ripped two fenders off a 1929 Ford at the home of Larry Rivers in Southampton and welded them into an abstract sculpture called Shortstop. In so doing, he invented a method and medium for which he is well known.” 

These metal sculptures made from discarded car parts continued and evolved for the next decade as his reputation grew. By the mid to late 1960s, Chamberlain reportedly felt he was being pigeon-holed by these signature pieces. Wanting to expand beyond steel, he experimented with a variety of materials that included everything from paper bags and foil to acrylic, lacquer, and polyurethane foam. The story goes that he was at the home of collector and gallerist Virginia Dwan in Malibu when he had the thought to cut up household sponges and manipulate their shape and tie them with string to make “instant sculptures.”

Installation view. Courtesy of the Aspen Art Museum. 

In 1966, Dwan mounted the first show of these foam works at her Los Angeles gallery;  two other foam work exhibitions followed in Germany. In the U.S., nothing sold and all were returned to Chamberlain. According to Marianne Stockebrand, he sold a few for pocket money and gave the rest away.

Polyurethane foam came into wide use by 1957, some 10 years before Chamberlain started using it. This flexible and highly adaptable material was in high demand for furniture upholstery and car seats and later gained a large share of the mattress market. 

In addition to being ubiquitous (and largely free of cost for Chamberlain), polyurethane foam’s physical properties were highly unusual, especially compared to common sculpture media. Manufacturers’ literature contains a laundry list of its assets: easy to pigment, resistance to mold and mildew, resistant to extreme temperatures, an ability to bond to other materials, good shock absorption, insulative, resistant to water, oil and grease, tear resistant, high tensile properties, abrasion and impact resistant, high load capacity, etc. And notably, it will return to its original shape once load is removed with very little permanent compression. 

For an artist interested in the intersection of form and material, polyurethane foam seems heaven-sent. 

In an essay, Stockebrand details three distinct periods of production of foam sculptures with his most prolific production in the early years. At first, Chamberlain used a single small-to-mid size piece of foam tied about the middle. The tightness and location of the cording were determinants of shape.  In 1967, he began incorporating additional pieces of foam, collaging them as he did in his metal sculptures.  Color became a more frequent element as his process evolved.  Chamberlain would either drip or even throw watercolor paint onto the foam pieces before tying them. 

The first display was met with amusement as viewers tried to assess their artistic worth. Stockebrand says they were seen as “a playful, experimental venture by the artist which could possibly lead to something further but which was not significant in itself.” Said Chamberlain, “Everyone thought I was frivolous when I made the foam sculptures; everyone thought that they were too easy.” 

The foam sculptures remained out of view for decades.  A 1971 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City featured 13 of the foam sculptures.  Nearly 40 years after the initial Dwan show, the Chinati Foundation exhibited 31 pieces in October 2005 in a show entitled Foam Sculptures 1966-1981. A few years later came John Chamberlain, Squeezed and Tied:  Foam and Paper Sculptures 1969-70 at the Dan Flavin Art Institute, Dia Center for the Arts, Bridgehampton NY (2007). His foam pieces were also part of the 2012 Guggenheim retrospective that was mounted in 2012 shortly after the artist’s death.

Their critical acclaim has grown since the Dwan days when viewers and reviewers were a bit flummoxed.  Because polyurethane foam is a light cream color when new, most people at the Dwan perceived human flesh. There was frequent mention of the works’ sexual connotations, with one critic referencing their “bilabial configuration.” Said Klaus Kertess, “The porous, soft tactility and flesh-like tone of the urethane heightens what often appears to be a slow motion eruption of flesh.” 

In a New York Times review of the show at the Flavin Institute,  Benjamin Genocchio wrote, “The sculptures are remarkably nimble and nifty, matchless in their originality. I would even go so far as to describe some as beautiful. I can also see how others may view them as garbage, especially the “Stuffed Dog” series of pieces made from irregular chunks of dense, spongelike urethane foam. They read almost like scrap material left on the factory floor.”

Installation view. Courtesy of the Aspen Art Museum. 

Genocchio was on to something, however. Throughout his life, Chamberlain would utilize found and common materials which contributed to the lack of pretense and spontaneity in many of his works. 

Polyurethan foam as a material also leans toward being ephemeral. Chamberlain knew that exposure to oxygen and light would degrade the foam, making it vulnerable to cracking and crumbling, and notably changing its color from its original near clean creaminess to shades of deep yellow and tan. In fact, he theorized that this visible “aging” was what unsettled viewers, saying “the material evokes a relativity so that humans reject it if it deteriorates faster than they do.” 

While for the most part they’ve kept well, several are as Chamberlain foresaw: cracked in places, a goldish brown like tanned hide, and a few with crumbles and pock-marks. This is especially true with the larger ones entitled Lop Nor and Soopad. 

So what is the persistent appeal? These pieces are clearly alive. They embody the struggle between artist and material, with the laws of physics watching from the wings.  A fender can’t uncrumple itself.  Put a string around bronze or clay and watch nothing happen. But this foam desperately wants to spring forth, escape its artist-imposed bounds and reclaim its original form. Even the larger ones cited above have not given up the fight. 

Unexpectedly, many of the works have delicate detail—the fine-knife cut edges around the base of Stuffed Dog 1 that evoke spatula marks on a butter-creamed cake.  Fine dots of red and green in Stuffed Dog 6 bring to mind minced maraschino cherries in raw batter. But despite these culinary evocations and Chamberlain’s comical, inscrutable sculpture names (other are called Badshan, Kootan, A, etc.), it is his commitment to abstraction that stands out and that differentiates him from other artists of his time who experimented with “soft sculpture” such as Claes Oldenberg, Yayoi Kusama, and Eva Hesse (the latter two were certainly abstract but seemed to have a more anthropomorphic sensibility).   

In these works, Chamberlain has somehow exploded the potential for planar possibility.  When trying to match my exhibition photos to the dozens of foam works in his catalogue raisonné, I was often stymied:  The catalogue shows each sculpture from at least four perspectives. In many cases, my mind couldn’t interpolate how these multiple views formed a whole with  no obvious symmetry or preferred orientation.  But like his signature metal pieces, the foam works contain movement and balance.  Their shapes, while invented,  feel entirely natural. 

I fell a little in love with the multiplicities of polyurethane foam. Its bright resistance. Its inherent insouciance. John Chamberlain once said, “The definition of sculpture to me is stance and attitude.”  New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer said of Chamberlain’s work on display at the 1971 Guggenheim retrospective: “[His] work is not only brazenly carnal, but brazenly comical in its enjoyment of its own low-ness.”  Stance. Attitude. WM


Kristina Andersson Bicher

is a poet, translator, and essayist. Her work has been published in AGNI, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Brooklyn Rail and others. She is author of She-Giant in the Land of Here-We-Go-Again (MadHat Press 2020) as well as a translation of Swedish poet Marie Lundquist’s I Walk Around Gathering Up My Garden for the Night (Bitter Oleander Press 2020).  

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