John Chamberlain

Long-term view, Dia Beacon

Overview

John Chamberlain's dynamic, often candy-colored objects made from crushed-metal car parts simultaneously combine the gestural vigor of Abstract Expressionism and the consumerist vernacular of Pop art. While Chamberlain experimented with other unconventional yet significantly more malleable materials such as urethane foam, synthetic polymers, and aluminum foil in the late 1960s, he returned to automotive parts and other steel components in the mid-1970s. While encouraging his assistants to improvise on his elements with further cutting, crushing, torqueing, and crimping, the artist further elaborated his enameled surfaces with sprayed, stenciled, and dribbled coats of color. 

Often puzzling and unexpected, the titles of Chamberlain’s sculptures—such as Flufft (1977), Coup d’Soup (1980), and Pigmeat’s E Bluesong (1981)—are usually composed from found words and expressions. They are deliberately open-ended and reflect a poetic sensibility he developed while attending Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the mid-1950s. 

Dia Beacon Interactive Floor Plan

In the late 1950s, John Chamberlain began vigorously shaping the colorful ruins of old cars into billowing forms. As his work matured it seemed to many the quintessential Abstract Expressionist sculpture—the progeny of the gestural marks of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. To others who focused on the materials—crushed automobile parts in colors that Donald Judd described as sweet, hard, and redolent of 1950s Detroit cars—Chamberlain’s work was more appropriately aligned with Pop art. Judd appreciated Chamberlain’s sculptures for their singular shapes, their openness, and their industrial materials. As he explained, “Reality seems considerably more capacious than any order it holds. The disparity between reality and its order is the most radical and important aspect of Chamberlain’s sculpture.” In Luftschloss (1979), for example, large panels of contorted vans are clustered into a seemingly haphazard balance that is, in fact, carefully threaded together with a network of underlying truck chassis welded into an efficient interior armature. Although the individual components appear to interlock organically, Chamberlain insisted that he arranged rather than molded found elements. As a result, the brutality of the salvaged metal and its initial physical attributes are in constant contrast with the sculptor’s precise assembly.

Chamberlain experimented in the late 1960s with other unconventional, yet significantly more malleable materials, such as aluminum foil, synthetic polymers, and urethane foam. When he returned to automotive parts and other steel components in the mid-1970s, his work was amplified by a new sense of inventiveness. While encouraging assistants to improvise on his elements with further crimping, crushing, cutting, and torquing, he also elaborated his enameled surfaces with airbrushed, dribbled, graffitied, sprayed, and stenciled coats of color that were jazzy, tropical, even raucously patterned. In subsequent works, such as King King Minor (1982), linear patterns cover multicolored surfaces. Sandblasting the paint to expose the raw metal beneath, Chamberlain paired pitted and peeling industrial hues with discordantly confectionary tones. Occasionally restricted palettes, for instance the white metal slivers of Daddy in the Dark (1988), only enhance the exuberance of his usual spectrum.

In 1980 Chamberlain moved his studio from New York City to Sarasota, Florida, into a spacious warehouse that allowed for a period of lateral expansion in his art. His first Sarasota sculptures were a group of ground-hugging Gondolas—small planar elements clinging to horizontal linear armatures forged from dismembered truck chassis (leftover from his work on Luftschloss and another project). In the Gondolas and Dooms Day Flotilla (1982), Chamberlain’s compositions build incrementally from one element to another along the chassis spines, verging at points on fragmentation. The works require an attenuated, more leisurely mode of apprehension than had his denser, apparently inchoate congeries, which only slowly reveal their inner order.

Chamberlain’s titles from this period (the Barges [a series of large-scale interactive “couches”], the Gondolas, and Dooms Day Flotilla) seem to connect the newfound horizontality of his works with maritime themes, perhaps suggestive of his surroundings, living on a boat for a period of time and working in a studio near the bay. Yet for the most part, the titles that he chose were open-ended and generated from found words or expressions. Hit Height Lear (1979), Three-Cornered Desire (1979), and Pigmeat’s E♭ Bluesong (1981) each demonstrate Chamberlain’s poetic sensibility and his taste for unlikely associations, as do the Gondolas, which were named for two titans of nineteenth-century American literature (Herman Melville and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and two canonical, twentieth-century modernist poets (T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden). 

John Chamberlain
  1. Luftschloss, 1979
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  2. The Hot Lady from Bristol, 1979
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  3. Two Dark Ladies, 1979
    Painted and chromium-painted steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  4. Hit Height Lear, 1979
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  5. SWIFT WI T, 1979
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  6. King King Minor, 1982
    Painted steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  7. Dooms Day Flotilla, 1982
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  8. Gondola Herman Melville, 1981
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  9. Gondola Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1981
    Painted steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  10. Gondola T. S. Eliot, 1981
    Painted steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  11. Gondola W. H. Auden, 1981
    Painted steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  12. Daddy in the Dark, 1988
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation; Gift of Louise
    and Leonard Riggio
  13. Black Satin Custard, 1980
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  14. Chickmeat, 1979
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  15. Pigmeat’s EBluesong, 1981
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  16. Coup d’Soup, 1980
    Painted steel
    Dia Art Foundation
  17. Three-Cornered Desire, 1979
    Painted and chromium-plated steel
    Dia Art Foundation

 

 

John Chamberlain was born in 1927 in Rochester, Indiana. He grew up in Chicago and, after serving in the United States Navy during the Second World War, attended the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s. In 1955 and 1956 Chamberlain studied and taught sculpture at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina. He moved to New York City in 1956 and the following year made Shortstop, his first sculpture incorporating scrap metal from cars. Chamberlain’s first major solo show was presented at Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, in 1960. His work was included in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961, and he began showing at Leo Castelli’s New York gallery in 1962. Chamberlain had his first retrospective in 1971 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, held a second retrospective in 1986. In 2012 the Guggenheim Museum presented another retrospective that included seventeen works from Dia’s collection. Chamberlain has received numerous honors, including the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, Washington, DC (both 1993), the Gold Medal from the National Arts Club, New York (1997), and the Distinction in Sculpture award from the Sculpture Center, New York (1999). Chamberlain died in 2011
in New York.

 

 

Artist

John Chamberlain

John Chamberlain was born in Rochester, Indiana, in 1927. Chamberlain died in New York City in 2011.

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