“Baby Tycoons,” an exhibition of John Chamberlain’s small, tabletop sculptures, is on view at Hauser & Wirth through October 19. The first exhibition of Chamberlain’s work since the gallery took over representation of the John Chamberlain Estate in May 2019, it is installed in the gallery’s 69th Street space (which happens also to be the location of the former Martha Jackson Gallery, where the artist had his first solo exhibition in 1960). Here, Alexandra Fairweather, Chamberlain’s stepdaughter and the director of the Estate, introduces the work.
For our first exhibition with Hauser & Wirth, we decided to start with “Baby Tycoons,” a series that was incredibly important to Chamberlain, and one that he revisited for 20 years, from 1988 to 2008. We lived with these works in our home; they were what I grew up with. They stood on the table near his bedside, on the bookshelf, on the side table in the living room, on the coffee tables, and he gifted them to his dearest friends. The “Baby Tycoons” are defined by their size, their bright and brilliant palettes, and, of course, their wonderful, idiosyncratic personalities.
Chamberlain always loved tinkering with things. He had all this scrap material in the studio, and he said, “Wow, I can start manipulating this.” The pieces really vary: some of them have more glaze and some of them don’t, but you can see the evolution over 20 years. He kept coming back to this series; it was something he just loved. They’re fun and playful.
Chamberlain defied expectations, norms, and conventions. He challenged the status quo, and wasn’t afraid to reimagine what could be, to think in a bold way. You can see this in how he revolutionized sculpture, changing what the meaning of art is and what it would become. You can see this when he would dream up making 20, 30, 40-foot sculptures, ignoring the engineering obstacles and challenges that lay ahead and making the impossible a reality. And you can see this with the “Baby Tycoons,” capturing all the punch and power of the monumental works on a smaller scale. As Chamberlain explained, “If the scale is dealt with, then size has nothing to do with it.” In fact, he would often tell me he wanted you to be able to take a photo of his work and not be able to tell what the size is—an objective I think he achieved here. With the “Baby Tycoons,” you can get up close and really see the fit and how the pieces are assembled. Chamberlain hated it when his pieces were shoved against the wall, so it’s beautiful that you can walk around them 360 degrees.
Chamberlain didn’t want to be known as a one-medium artist. This is why his work often defies categorization, whether it is Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art or Minimalism. While he is known for his metal sculptures, he also made sculptures out of aluminum foil, foam, and Plexiglas; he made paintings and drawings and was an avid filmmaker and photographer, even experimenting with photographic manipulations on the computer. When he heard Schubert for the first time, at age 12, he cried, and he knew he wanted to be an artist, to go out into the world and make your heart beat. He felt that art was the presentation of unprecedented information and the last place for an individual’s self-discovery.
One thing I love about them, both the large-scale works and the small, is that you can see how they are resting on just three points—it’s so much weight but on these tiny points, like they’re dancing. It’s so strong but also delicate. You can see that in the big works, but I think it’s easier to see in the “Baby Tycoons,” up close. I wish I knew where the series title came from. Chamberlain always had the best titles for everything. He was just a wordsmith—he wanted to be a poet when he was at Black Mountain, and he would take words from the dictionary and just lay them out, seeing how they looked together, how they sounded, trying to combine them, taking out syllables.