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John Chamberlain (1927-2011)


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“I found that “abstract expression” is really the only [term] you need.  Because it’s all abstract, it doesn’t matter if its realism, it’s still abstract, and it’s the guy’s expression.  It doesn’t matter who it is, the person’s expressing himself.  So it’s all [art] abstract expression.” *

Born in 1927 in Rochester Indiana, John Chamberlain was raised in Chicago, where he attended the Art Institute from 1951 to 1952, after having served in the US Navy during the Second World War. From 1955 to 1956, Chamberlain attended Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, where he met poets Charles Olsen, Robert Creely, and Robert Duncan, all of whom taught at the college. Olsen, Creely, and Duncan each had an important influence on Chamberlain; what they did with everyday words, he sought to do with ordinary scraps of metal—arrange the familiar and unspectacular into challenging new configurations that embraced abstraction and defied narrative coherence. In 1956, Chamberlain moved to New York, and the following year, he created Shortstop, the first of his sculptures to use the discarded parts of automobiles. In the 1950s, many artists had begun to translate the monumental scale of abstract expressionist painting into sculpture, but Chamberlain added the element of color, using brightly painted scrap metal from the discarded bodies of cars to create voluminous works that exploited sculpture’s three-dimensionality. As Lynne Cooke notes, Chamberlain’s gestural abstraction and his embrace of the accidental and the spontaneous made his work consistent with abstract expressionism, but to viewers who focused more on his choice of materials “crushed automobile parts in sweet, hard colors redolent of Detroit cars of the 1950s—it was more appropriately aligned with the contemporary work of many Pop [sic] artists.”†

Chamberlain had originally turned to scrap metal as a medium out of economic need. Using the discarded metal parts of cabinets, benches, and other objects, he created complex sculptures of interlocking parts that held together almost organically, requiring only spot welding to ensure stability during transport. In the late 1960s, he abandoned scrap metal and began experimenting with other materials: galvanized steel, urethane foam, mineral-coated Plexiglas, and aluminum foil. But in the mid-1970s, he went back to using

scrap metal, this time focusing exclusively on car parts. He also established boundaries for himself as a way to stimulate creative thinking; often Chamberlain would limit himself to specific parts (for example, fenders, bumpers, chassis) for a given period of time. In the 1980s, the scale of his work increased dramatically, aided in part by the greater studio space available once he moved to Sarasota, Florida. His work also became more geometric in form, less organic.‡

Chamberlain has continued to develop as an artist throughout his impressive career. He has been honored with numerous exhibitions and awards. In 1961, his work was exhibited at the São Paulo Bienal and in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1964, he was included in the Venice Biennale, and two years later, he received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.  By 1971, Chamberlain was established enough for a mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. His work was included in the Whitney Biennial in 1973, and in 1977, he won another Guggenheim fellowship. In 1990, he was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in 1993, the International Sculpture Center in Washington, DC gave him a lifetime achievement award; and in 1997, he was presented with an award from the National Arts Club in New York.

* John Chamberlain Interview by Arne Glimcher, (accessed July 2009).

† Lynne Cooke, “John Chamberlain,” Dia Center, (accessed July 2009).

‡ Cooke.