+ Portrait of John Chamberlain. Photo: Rafael Y. Herman
The artist in front of NUDEPEARLS ONE (1986/2009), More Gallery, Giswil, Switzerland, 2009. © Rafael Y. Herman
The artist in front of <i>NUDEPEARLS ONE</i> (1986/2009)


John Chamberlain (1927–2011) rose to prominence with his energetic, vibrant sculptures hewn from disused car parts, achieving a three-dimensional Abstract Expressionism that astounded critics and captured the imagination of fellow artists. Following early welded steel-rod sculptures bearing the influence of David Smith, he made his first car metal sculpture in 1958 (Shortstop). An inveterate rebel, Chamberlain indelibly transformed contemporary art by embracing vernacular materials, vastly abundant in postwar America, and his use of the industrial technique of welding. He preferred the designations of “chosen” and “recycled” to “found” and “salvaged,” inflecting chance with deliberation, and redeeming waste. Assuming forms of explosive origami, Chamberlain’s sculptures composed of crushed and sheared automobile metal inevitably attracted the wrong interpretation; where Chamberlain employed creative re-use, others saw simply car crashes. He spent the rest of his life outrunning that association. His primary concern throughout was three-dimensional abstraction. More sensitive observers noted a kinship between his works and the dramatic modeling and contrapposto of baroque art and sculptural drapery studies.

With collage and abstraction as guiding principles, Chamberlain articulated the maxim that permeated his entire oeuvre: “It’s all in the fit.” The sculptures range from the size of a fist to the girth of a generous hug to the height of a young, and eventually not so young, tree. Swelling and shrinking, in coats of multicolored, monochrome, or black-and-white paint, the works in this retrospective survey display the integrity of the artist’s gesture in diverse manifestations. Despite his commitment to abstraction, identifying anthropomorphic and zoomorphic traits in the lyrical, twisting forms is irresistible. Their playful titles are planted like red herrings: Belvo-Violet (1962), Miss Lucy Pink (1962), Rooster Starfoot (1976), Lord Suckfist (1989), and SPHINXGRIN TWO (1986/2010).

Chamberlain brazenly defied the taboo of color in sculpture, a holdover from the rhetoric of medium specificity surrounding Abstract Expressionism (materials should be true to themselves, therefore color is the business of painting), which was still influential in the 1960s and considered one of the foremost problems in sculpture at the time. He originally circumvented the controversy by picking his colors straight off the assembly lines and highways of America. Shortly thereafter, he began to apply new paint to the metal, intervening in ever more elaborate ways with its surfaces. There are examples of airbrushing from the 1960s, drips and pours from the 1970s, sandblasting from the 1980s, and freehand and stenciled patterns from the 1990s onward. Amassing a body of work that could not be ignored, Chamberlain has been clumsily shoehorned into a variety of ill-fitting categories. Perhaps the most fertile of these is the retroactive link with Abstract Expressionism. His choice to use materials derived from an iconic machine also tied him to Pop. These same materials in turn associated him with Minimalism, encouraged by the unwavering critical support of Donald Judd, while his method of assembly drew him toward Neo-Dada.

Driven by the pursuit of what he did not already know, the desire for unprecedented information and knowledge, Chamberlain experimented with other materials including urethane foam, galvanized steel, paper bags, Plexiglas, and aluminum. He ventured into film, video, and photography, notably shooting the cult art classic The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez (1968). In recent years Chamberlain worked with vintage cars (elevated from the previous status of junk) of similar stock to the materials he started out with in the late 1950s. The sculptures grew in scale and possess a newfound gravity. He also embarked on the production of monumental aluminum sculptures, based on works that fit in the palm of the hand, which Chamberlain had been making since the mid-1980s. His creations of the last five years stand as self-assured totems or sentinels at the culmination of nearly six decades of art making.

+ Caption
Chamberlain, Paris, 1964. Photo: Shunk-Kender © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, New York
Chamberlain, Paris, 1964


John Chamberlain was born in 1927 in Rochester, Indiana. He grew up in Chicago and, after serving in the navy from 1943 to 1946, attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1951 to 1952. At that time, he began making flat, welded sculptures influenced by the work of David Smith. In 1955 and 1956, Chamberlain studied and taught sculpture at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, where most of his friends were poets, including Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson. By 1957, he began to include scrap metal from cars in his work, and from 1959 onward he concentrated on sculpture built entirely of crushed automobile parts welded together. Chamberlain’s first major solo show was held at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, in 1960.

Chamberlain’s work was widely acclaimed in the early 1960s. His sculpture was included in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961, the same year he participated in the São Paulo Biennial. From 1962, Chamberlain showed frequently at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and in 1964 his work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale. While he continued to make sculpture from auto parts, Chamberlain also experimented with other mediums. From 1963 to 1965, he made geometric paintings with sprayed automobile paint. In 1966, the same year he received the first of two fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he began a series of sculptures of rolled, folded, and tied urethane foam. These were followed in 1970 by sculptures of melted or crushed metal and heat-crumpled Plexiglas. Chamberlain’s work was presented in a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1971.

In the early 1970s, Chamberlain began once more to make large works from automobile parts. Until the mid-1970s, the artist assembled these auto sculptures on the ranch of collector Stanley Marsh in Amarillo, Texas. These works were shown in the sculpture garden at the Dag Hammarskold Plaza, New York, in 1973, and at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, in 1975. In 1977, Chamberlain began experimenting with photography taken with a panoramic Widelux camera. His next major retrospective was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1986; the museum simultaneously co-published John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954–1985, authored by Julie Sylvester. In 1993, Chamberlain received both the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, Washington, D.C. In 1997, Chamberlain was named a recipient of The National Arts Club Award, New York, and in 1999, received the Distinction in Sculpture Honor from the Sculpture Center, New York. In the last decade of his life, the artist expanded his well-established career by undertaking a new medium: the large-format photograph. In 2007, Guild Hall Academy of the Fine Arts named Chamberlain the Visual Arts Honoree for the 22nd Annual Lifetime Achievement Award. Chamberlain passed away on December 21, 2011 in New York.

+ Caption
Poster for John Chamberlain, Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, 1988. Courtesy Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles
Poster for John Chamberlain, Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, 1988


Look for the following icon on selected artworks to read the corresponding lexicon entry: lexicon

Though a friend and admirer of many poets, John Chamberlain rarely claimed to be one. However, his love of language, words, puns, and allusions, the sound of certain words, and even the typographic shapes of letterforms provided a fertile outlet for him to create the multilayered and sometimes humorous or off-color titles attached to his artworks. The titles arose from his readings and observations, from suggestions by acquaintances, and occasionally writing single words on index cards and shuffling them to arrive at nonsensical combinations that struck a visual or verbal association for the artist. While sometimes tangentially autobiographical or sourced from popular culture, Chamberlain’s titles rarely make direct reference to the form or content of the individual work. Chamberlain’s recent practice of combining words into one uninterrupted string of capitalized letters complicates defining which individual words appear in the title.

Without asserting that the lexicon entries included in this microsite are either comprehensive or conclusive, but rather created in the freewheeling spirit of the artist, author Don Quaintance offers glosses on a selection of artworks. The full lexicon, “Rhyme and Reason: A Limited Lexicon,” can be found in the exhibition catalogue. The artist acknowledged some of these connections to the artworks, while other lexicon entries are only circumstantially related or simply speculation. Individual works in series sometimes have related names; such associations are generally noted in the first reference to related works. Many titles fall into identifiable categories including acquaintances and celebrities; literature, poetry, drama, and film; popular music; mythology; geography; common sayings; commercial products; and aviation, maritime, and automotive references. Assigning specific hidden codes or establishing definitive meanings is not the intention.


This exhibition is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Henry Luce Foundation logo/Terra Foundation for American Art logo

The Leadership Committee for John Chamberlain: Choices, chaired by Larry Gagosian, is gratefully acknowledged.


The Artist

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