Metal health and weld being: Conservation strategies for a collection of sculpture by John Chamberlain

Shelley M. Smith and Catherine Williams


Complex contemporary sculptures composed of re-used materials present numerous practical challenges for conservators in regard to description, documentation, conservation treatment, handling, and long-term condition tracking. In addition, these sculptures illuminate biases about reused materials that generate incorrect assumptions about structural stability or long-term preservation. Such sculptures also present philosophical dilemmas that are familiar in the context of conservation of contemporary art, such as unorthodox treatment methods that challenge traditional conservation ethics, but are most suitable for the stability of the sculpture and maintaining the artist’s intent.

This paper addresses the practical and philosophical issues faced by conservators while developing short- and long-term preservation strategies for a collection of 12 John Chamberlain sculptures in the Menil Collection. John Chamberlain (1927- 2011) created abstract sculpture out of salvaged auto parts and reused sheet metal from industrial and commercial sources. In addition to taking advantage of his raw materials’ used condition, the artist worked in a collage-like manner, spontaneously spot welding or fastening pieces in place. The resulting sculptures exemplify the rough history of the raw materials and exuberance from the artist’s working methods that belie the complexity and fragility of the sculptures’ materials and structure.

Research into Chamberlain’s fabrication techniques and the industrial manufacturing processes of the materials used in his sculpture are described in the paper, as well as research and consultation with curators and specialists, and past conservation treatments. Two interviews with the artist over the course of 13 years informed the decisions made throughout the duration of the treatment. These interviews illustrate the value of interviewing artists directly, and how their memory and perception of the work may change over time.

To solve problems of documentation and condition reporting, a new standard methodology of documentation was developed specifically for this collection of sculptures. This standard documentation, which included a descriptive report template, specific photographic procedures, and protocols for annotating photographs using an iPad, proved invaluable in identifying the conservation needs and priorities of each sculpture, while allowing us to draw comparisons between sculptures and follow changes in the artist’s working methods over time. The implementation of a standard documentation methodology also facilitates tracking of condition issues in the future, and can be used as a model for documenting complex sculptures by other artists.

The paper also describes the practical aspects of conservation treatment of several Chamberlain sculptures, which involved collaboration between a team of conservators, art handlers, and a master metal craftsman, and documentation of the treatment with time-lapse photography.

Overall, this project addressed dilemmas in the conservation of artworks where treatment methods that are most suitable for the sculpture and are also integral to maintaining the artist’s intent challenge traditional conservation practices and ethics. Documenting and treating the collection as a whole provided an opportunity to develop a systematic approach to documentation and treatment to provide clear, consistent information regarding decision-making rationale.

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2013 | Indianapolis | Volume 20