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Five Reasons Why: Chamberlain and Gottlieb

Five Reasons Why:  A look at how and why curators arrange works the way they do, Part 1

John Chamberlain (1927-2011) "Swannanoa/Swannanoa II," 1959-1974 Painted and chromium-plated steel with wood and metal base

John Chamberlain (1927-2011)
“Swannanoa/Swannanoa II,” 1959-1974
Painted and chromium-plated steel with wood and metal base

Crystal Bridges Curator Chad Alligood was the driving force behind the reinstallation a few months ago of the works in the Museum’s 1940s to Now Gallery. There are a number of factors that go into the decisions curators make regarding where artworks should be hung in the gallery and how works should be grouped or arranged to enhance the guests’ experience of the work or to tell a story about the history of art in America.  We’ve put together five blog posts that will guide you through the curators’ thought process in arranging specific groups of works in the gallery, beginning with the juxtaposition of John Chamberlain’s sculpture Swannanoa / Swannanoa II, 1959-1974, and Trinity, 1962, a large painting by Adolph Gottlieb.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974) "Trinity," 1962 Oil on Canvas

Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)
“Trinity,” 1962
Oil on Canvas

The Chamberlain is a fairly recent addition to the Crystal Bridges collection, and had not previously been on display before the redesign of the gallery. Its placement is intended to draw guests’ attention to a connection this work has with the large Gottlieb nearby: the W-shaped top line of the Chamberlain sculpture almost eerily mimics the black calligraphic brushstrokes that are so prominent in the Gottlieb. And from a particular point in the gallery, they line up remarkably in the viewer’s field of vision.

Gottlieb Chamberlain compare“You see this kind of curving expression of line?” Alligood said as he pointed it out:  a wave-like shape at the top of the sculpture, with a semi-circular upward curl at one end. “It’s not capricious. Chamberlain was working with found car parts, bending them, modeling them, and using their color in an expressive way that is a direct analog of painting in the moment. The expressive form of this metal is a direct correlation to the expressive brushstroke of Abstract Expressionists like Pollock, Mitchell, and Gottlieb. And the placement of this work in the gallery is meant to demonstrate that.”

Of course Chamberlain was not building his steel sculpture in 1959 with Gottlieb’s 1962 painting in mind. But the alignment of the works draws attention to their gestural similarity:  the relationship between the Abstract Expressionist painting of the time and the abstract approach of Chamberlain’s work.

“Because Chamberlain is working with the materials of everyday life and affluent mid-century stuff, he could have just as easily gone in the Pop gallery,” Alligood said. “But when I was standing there, the first time I saw the Chamberlain, and I saw the way that wavy line at the top was expressing itself, I thought that this form is the same shape in the Gottlieb. So when we position it in the gallery so you can see both of them, the argument—even if you don’t consciously recognize it—you absorb it visually. You know it without knowing it. And that’s when you’ve done something really special.”

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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