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Aspen Art Museum



Dec 15, 2023-Apr 7, 2024

In a career extending over six decades, roving across the United States, artist John Chamberlain (1927–2011) generated an experimental visual world in which color, volume, pressure, and language meet head-on in surprising and potent configurations. He is widely recognized for sculptures made from crushed automobile parts, materials the artist continually revisited throughout his career, though other bodies of work, ranging in scale from monumental to miniature, are composed of foam, foil, resin, paper, air ducts and dismantled appliances, amongst others. Curated by artist Urs Fischer (b. 1973) and developed in collaboration with Dia Art Foundation, THE TIGHTER THEY’RE WOUND, THE HARDER THEY UNRAVEL is the first institutional survey devoted to John Chamberlain in over a decade. Spanning three floors of the museum and arranged in an evocative, cross-temporal mise-en-scène, the exhibition adopts Chamberlain’s embrace of discovery and intuitive approach to scale, fit, and attachment. “The key activity in the occupation of art,” remarked Chamberlain, “is to find out what you don’t know.”

Pursuits of the unfamiliar governed Chamberlain’s life since childhood. Fascinated by aviation, Chamberlain learned to fly a plane at 11 and joined the United States Navy while underage during World War II. After a stint as a hairdresser, Chamberlain briefly enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he became acquainted with techniques of Abstract Expressionism, and later, Black Mountain College, where he began a lifelong engagement with words and poetry. These eclectic origins produced an artist who resisted categorization in an age of artistic movements, both eliding and incorporating contemporary philosophies of Pop Art, Action painting, and Minimalism. For Chamberlain, art was a means of engineering irregularities into equilibrium. With a characteristic irreverence and deadpan humor, he described his signature sculptural technique as “articulate wadding.”

These varied experiments in squeezing, folding, and compressing populate the galleries of the Aspen Art Museum. Devoted to towering late works placed in dialogue with some of Chamberlain’s rarely exhibited earliest sculptures, the museum’s second floor gallery merges a practice’s beginning and end. Across the ground floor, works primarily on loan from Dia Art Foundation mingle along East Hyman Avenue in a surreal street scene. Chamberlain’s foam works, considered a radical departure when first exhibited in 1965, congregate in an adjacent gallery. In the museum’s Lower Level, visitors are encouraged to immerse themselves in projections of Chamberlain’s psychedelic Wide-Lux photographs. Chamberlain’s camera was a near-constant companion, passively shooting panoramas from hip level. The result is a collection of disorienting quotidian scenes, as well as luminous shots of the artist’s life on the road, all of which mirror the alluring warp of his sculptures. This leads to a gallery devoted to Chamberlain’s miniatures, providing a bird’s-eye view of the artist’s material manipulations.

Urs Fischer, himself a proponent of visual collisions, has produced a new artist book titled John Chamberlain Against the World. The publication, which will be made available in the exhibition galleries, is a torrent of images that expands Chamberlain’s artistic lineage and legacy. It is a score of pictures and an art historical collapse, bridging archival imagery of Chamberlain with that of Baroque sculpture, advertisements, peers, and artists who might be “descendants.” In this way, Fischer parallels Chamberlain’s own associative logic in which proximity beckons poetry.

John Chamberlain: THE TIGHTER THEY’RE WOUND, THE HARDER THEY UNRAVEL is organized by the Aspen Art Museum in collaboration with Dia Art Foundation. The exhibition is curated by Urs Fischer, in collaboration with Nicola Lees, Nancy and Bob Magoon Director, and Daniel Merritt, Director of Curatorial Affairs.

Exhibition Guide

John Chamberlain Exhibition

John Chamberlain: THE TIGHTER THEY’RE WOUND, THE HARDER THEY UNRAVEL is made possible with major support from Bank of America. Additional support is provided by Sasha and Edward P. Bass, Susan and Larry Marx, and Crozier.

Aspen Art Museum exhibitions are made possible by the Marx Exhibition Fund. General exhibition support is provided by the Toby Devan Lewis Visiting Artist Fund. Additional support is provided by the Aspen Art Museum National Council. Aspen Art Museum admission is free courtesy of Amy and John Phelan.