Conservation Treatment of John Chamberlain's Roxanne Loup, 1979
Born in Rochester, Indiana, American artist John Chamberlain (1927–2011) created a large and diverse body of work that included drawing, painting, sculpture, film, and photography. He is probably best known for his abstract three-dimensional work in metal influenced by assemblage art, Abstract Expressionism, and the distinctive modern art form of collage.
When Chamberlain became interested in oxy-acetylene welding, he began to explore the idea of filling three-dimensional space by drawing in it with scrap metal. This experimentation yielded two welded-steel sculptures exhibited in a 1954 group show in Chicago. His first solo exhibition in this genre occurred in 1957 at the Wells Street Gallery, also in Chicago. Chamberlain was inherently mobile and spontaneous in his practice, and throughout his career, he moved his studio from Chicago to New York City, Los Angeles, and various locations in New Mexico, New York State, Connecticut, Florida, and Texas.
Artist’s working methods and implications for Conservation
By 1972 John Chamberlain was a well-established artist with a major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. He took a seven-year break from working with colorful automotive materials from about 1965 until 1972, breaking that recess with the creation of a body of work known as the Texas Pieces on a ranch near Amarillo, Texas. All but two of them are in Chinati’s collection, which also includes others created in the late 1970s to early 1980s during his long-standing and productive relationship with the Dia Foundation.
Chamberlain’s works at Chinati were created in his most successful mode: by fitting pieces together without preliminary planning or intermediates such as drawings or maquettes. The material was chosen from an assortment of the ubiquitous scrap metal found in construction sites and junkyards.
To shape and fit the parts together, Chamberlain cut, crumpled, and crushed them in graceful folds and billowing curves. He attached them together spontaneously as the substrate dictated with tack welds, sometimes in combination with fasteners. Chamberlain’s welding was executed speedily; the process was convenient to hold a part in place before quickly moving on to the next. Concerns for neatness and technical accuracy were secondary. Evidence of reworking can be seen throughout the sculptures by the presence of broken tack welds with no corresponding part. This body of work has no underlying armatures and instead relies upon automotive bumpers and double-walled parts such as hoods and car doors to serve as the structural elements.
The basis of the color palette was generally inherent to the source materials, but Chamberlain would sometimes spray, dribble and splatter paint onto them before assembly. The materials were not significantly cleaned before use and some still contain remnants of bumper stickers, chromed trim, seatbelts, rubber gaskets, insulation materials, and pinstriping. Existing damage and wear could have just as easily resulted from forming the parts in the studio or been acquired during the original object’s life-cycle.
Conservation Approach for John Chamberlain sculptures at the Chinati Foundation
The images presented here demonstrate the general treatment model for Chinati’s collection of John Chamberlain sculptures. The rationale behind this conservation approach is extensive. It respects the artist’s concept, fabrication methods, and individual history of a particular work. The conservation treatment exhibited here for Roxanne Loup, 1979 addressed the sculpture’s structural stability, which relies solely upon the integrity of its welds.
John Chamberlain created Roxanne Loup in 1979 in his characteristic collage technique, with scrap material he formed, fitted, and held together by quick tack-welds. Before executing the stabilization repair in March 2018, thorough archival research was done to understand how it evolved over 40 years into its present condition.
This treatment approach is based on a pilot project conducted by Chinati’s Conservator in 2011 at the Menil Collection in Houston. That project set the treatment parameters and documentation protocols for eleven other sculptures of the same era by John Chamberlain in the Menil’s collection.
Because the artist used discarded materials, it is essential to differentiate the various types of inherent damage or deterioration. These may include weathering or phenomena that occurred before production, events during production, and extensive travel for exhibition. Some of the works in Chinati’s collection, including Roxanne Loup, were displayed outdoors for five months in 1983.
To Weld or Not to Weld: The Conservation Treatment of Roxanne Loup, 1979
Two broken welds discovered in March 2018 were photographically documented before, during, and after the repair via TIG welding. Reinforcing is only done when needed by adding filler rod to failed welds contaminated with slag, oxidation, and corrosion. The overall goal is to repair broken welds using the original weld material, and to avoid where possible welding onto the base metal that would create new heat-affected zones in the substrate. In some instances, it is necessary to gently tap off excess slag with a hammer and chisel to clean the failed welds in preparation for re-welding.
Chinati’s Conservator did not want the new welds to be larger or longer than the originals. An unwanted result of new welding is the creation of a bright, shiny spot. Disguising new welds by inpainting or flash rusting with a dilute acid was considered and discussed among conservators and curators during the Menil project, but eventually ruled out as an option. Susan Davidson, Senior Curator of Chamberlain’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, did not like the idea of disguising new welds, spacers, or fasteners. She felt it important for one to be able to recognize it as a later repair.
Guido Schindler, a Swiss-born and trained master metalworker, was on the original Menil project and visited Marfa in 2018. He, along with Chinati’s Conservator, performed a series of repairs to its collection of John Chamberlain sculptures. Schindler identified the original welds as oxy-acetylene, many of which were weak because of poor penetration of heat and filler rod into the base metal. This condition, known as cold shut, creates a cold join held together by mechanical rather than molecular means. A common cause of broken or popped welds in Chamberlain’s works also results from the pressure applied by adjacent parts.
Schindler recommends using TIG welding for repairs because of its precise heat control. TIG also utilizes a relatively smaller sized handpiece with small interchangeable nozzles delicate enough to fit into tight spots. TIG welding is difficult to master, and when working on John Chamberlain sculptures is further complicated by the artist’s working techniques. The primary goal for repairing Chamberlain’s messy welds is to create a strong join yet retain the same casual appearance with minimal contrast with the originals. It is a psychological leap for such a highly skilled and disciplined craftsman, such as Guido, to create a strong but ugly weld!
The decision to weld or not to weld is complex, and in each instance involves a discussion between the craftsman and Conservator. Our consensus has been that completely broken or separated welds that can be well matched by their break edges are repaired. In contrast, some weak welds with cracks and slag broken out are left as is when possible. Each weld is examined several times before making the final decision to weld or not. In some cases, weak welds with poor penetration, even though visibly cracked, are left alone if the area is well supported by other parts.
The loose part on Roxanne Loup was at high risk of becoming detached from the top of the sculpture. Fortunately, the two broken welds keyed in perfectly to the part beneath it. The welds were photographed with positions noted before and after welding.