Big E, 1962 demonstrates Chamberlain's dramatic shift beginning in the late 1950s from linear, monochromatic iron sculptures to the almost exclusive use of a bending, abstract synthesis of colorful, derelict automobile parts, signaling a major development in his oeuvre and the direction of modern sculpture. His grasp of his contemporaries' vernacular, those of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism especially, as well as his respect for the material's inherent properties informs the multiplicity of his forms, the simplicity of his processes and their complex underpinnings. In sculptures such as Big E, Chamberlain balances steel's solid physical presence with its spontaneous gestures in movement through space.
As a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chamberlain entered art through the medium of painting, but his commitment was short-lived, giving way to sculpture early. He recalls one transformative moment at the Institute's museum: " ...the negative area around the Giacometti was tremendous. And that was about the same time that de Kooning won a prize there for a painting that they owned called Excavation which was very large to me; then I saw it subsequently three other times and it got smaller and smaller --it was very funny. In other words, the presence of it is only allowable in terms of your experience somehow. But with those sculptures, the presence was sustained. So in other words, there's a larger presence available in sculpture than there would be in painting, so I made a choice there in terms of the physicality of it" (Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: A Retrospective, 1971, p. 15). Chamberlain did not altogether give up his sensibilities for paint, though he did turn to sculpture, becoming much indebted to David Smith's sculptures, especially his Agricola series. In fact, his first sculpture incorporating automobile parts, Shortstop of 1957, retains frontality, even after respectfully bending his forms that stand braced by iron. While the two sculptors shared a predisposition for raw materials, welding and the investigation of void versus object, Chamberlain did not respond to the traces of the figurative or the metaphorical in Smith's oeuvre. His mature sculptures of the late 1950s and early 1960s were more in the spirit of the school of Action Painting with the same verve of gesture and emphasis on process as de Kooning and Franz Kline.
Subsequent works such as the present one completely reinvent modeling, casting, and volume. The blossoming volume of Big E and its fluctuating, bruised, dented, and amorphous roundness, matted in yellow and white, immediately engage the viewer's space, as does the seemingly casual randomness of fit and form. This notion of eschewing premeditated form is a vital underpinning in Chamberlain's art that incorporates his statement about "the idea of the squeeze, the compression and the fit". Big E (possibly a reference to Elaine Chamberlain and the first owner of this work), is spot-welded at a few strategic points, but the overall sense of the work is one of self-containment and self-realization, as the form is dictated by the process.
Large white, crumpled panels constitute significant surface area in Big E, showcasing the many ragged edges and open gaps that are apparent when the work is viewed in the round. The undisguised independence of these two clustered parts, combined with the voluble compression of the upper yellow parts, throw the surfaces into continuous movement. Just as significant as the space around the sculpture are the voids within and beneath. As his friend and fellow artist Donald Judd has commented, "Chamberlain's welters of voluminous forms swell and furl, bend and fold, in and around a hollow spatial core, limning, demarcating, and ordering it contingently rather than absolutely, provisionally rather than fixedly. Without displacing this negative inner space with solid form they create a plastic art that remains resolutely porous and airy." (Donald Judd , John Chamberlain: New Sculpture, New York: Pace Gallery, 1989, p. III). Perhaps not intentionally nor unbeknowningly, Chamberlain's sculptures bear much resemblance to Renaissance drapery studies, in particular, those of Leonardo da Vinci, that imply the underlying presence of something or, conversely, a void. They also invoke the Baroque in the twisting and turning of their structure and their evocation of emotion.
Chamberlain's automobile sculptures have long since been recognized for their significant contribution to sculpture in the 20th century. They are rendered at once with simplicity yet force and grandeur during a time when their figural counterparts consistently overshadowed sculpture. Chamberlain would fully realize the potential of sculpture in order to free it and add the dimension of volume and color to the urgent spontaneity and procedural clarity so crucial to the Abstract Expressionist painters. His artistic vocabulary, brilliantly visual and formally intelligent, is no better exemplified than in Big E, at once emboldened by its color, mass and underlying forms and voids.
Painted and chromium-plated steel
Philadelphia, Insitute of Contemporary Art, The Atmosphere of 'Sixty-Four, April - June 1964
Boston, Institute of Contemporary Art, The Biennale Eight, June - July 1964, cat. no. 1
Seattle Art Museum, American Art Third Quarter Century, August - October 1973, cat. no. 12, p. 23, illustrated (incorrectly titled Untitled, 1962)
Pullman, Washington State University, Two Decades 1957 - 1977: American Sculpture in Northwest Collections, November 1984 - January 1985, cat. no. 5
Portland Art Museum, Ed Cauduro Collection, September 2004 - January 2005
60 x 59 x 48 in. 153 x 150 x 122 cm.
Rosalind E. Krauss, "Boston Letter," Art International, vol. 8, no. 1 (February 1964), p. 33, illustrated
History of World Art: Postwar Art, Vol. 38, Tokyo, fig. no. 86, illustrated
Julie Sylvester, John Chamberlain: a Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954 - 1985, New York, 1985, cat. no. 66, p. 106, illustrated
Elaine Chamberlain, New York
Richard Bellamy, New York
Acquired from the above