John Chamberlain Life and Art Periods

"My work has nothing to do with car wrecks."

JOHN CHAMBERLAIN SYNOPSIS

John Chamberlain is known internationally for his long career of making vividly colored and vibrantly dynamic sculptures using discarded automobile parts that he twisted and welded into monumental shapes. He used the early modernist techniques of collage and assemblage at a magnified scale and he emphasized the brilliant colors of automotive paint. Chamberlain's sculptures appeared in New York at the same time as the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists; some were his mentors and they shared a similar critical reception.

JOHN CHAMBERLAIN KEY IDEAS

Chamberlain used the jagged edges and curved surfaces of the salvaged auto parts in his spontaneous, instinctual process. In effect, this was similar to Abstract Expressionist painters who used house painters' brushes, mops, brooms, and poured paint to make splashy gestural marks and washes of saturated color.
Scorning the presumptions of critics and intellectuals, Chamberlain was not commenting on the waste and taste of American consumers. He chose materials that were cheap, abundant and easy to work with, plus he enjoyed the process of finding and accumulating them. Their brilliant commercial colors and flashy surfaces inspired his creativity.
Chamberlain's art gave the common materials he used - steel from auto bodies, foam rubber used for cheap furniture, Plexiglas boxes, and paper bags - new meaning in sculpture. His experiments with what he openly called "junk" or "garbage" took place at a monumental scale and, along with their rough facture, revealed a range of new choices for his contemporaries.
Chamberlain achievement was to be able to work at any scale. He said that if you got the scale right, the size never mattered, as long as you understood how the pieces fit together. The fit he discovered and utilized was based on the implied relationship between size and scale.
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MOST IMPORTANT ART

TITLE: Cord (1957)
Cord(1957)
Artwork Description & Analysis: In his twenties while living in Chicago, Chamberlain discovered the sculpture of David Smith at the Art Institute. About Smith's work he said, "I liked it a lot because it wasn't representing something else...and it was a very strange looking thing...and because I hadn't seen anything like that before." Explaining the making of his early pieces he said, "I found myself working with a certain spontaneity. I was trying to attach the top part of (a sculpture) to the lower half, but when I put it in the right place, it connected up in three different places, so it told me how to put it together."
Chamberlain's first steel sculptures emphasized the linear "drawn in the air" quality of Smith and other 1950s sculptors, but in Cord the steel rods and fittings have been clustered and massed into shapes with physically greater volume. Notice that Cord is a tangle of metal rods and fittings elevated by several short posts and perched over a pedestal base. In his future works Chamberlain eliminated the pedestal and placed his sculptures directly on the floor. Eliminating the pedestal was a goal of the 1960s sculptors, many of whom sought this more emphatic and less precious mode of presentation. When placing work directly on the floor it became incumbent on Chamberlain to make the metal parts fit together so as to be weight bearing. He continued to use spot welding to reinforce the structure as was done in Cord but when his pieces became larger, freestanding, and more complex, an armature within their mass was a necessity. With the contrasts of its sharp-edged vertical and horizontal elements, Cord predicts the look of his art to come.

- Formerly Allan Stone, New York

  • Cord(1957)
  • Shortstop(1957)
  • Zaar(1959)
  • Miss Lucy Pink(1962)
  • Untitled(1967)
  • Norma Jean Rising(1967)
  • Luftschloss(1979)
  • Gondola Charles Olson(1982)
  • Seagram Building Installation(2012)
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JOHN CHAMBERLAIN BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Born April 16, 1927 in Rochester, Indiana, Chamberlain was the son of a fifth-generation saloonkeeper. When he was four his parents divorced and he went to live with his grandmother in Chicago. There he discovered an interest in music but lacked the talent to pursue the training. As a rebellious teenager he and a friend decided to hit the road for California. On their way they were arrested and told to move on: mostly to stay out of trouble Chamberlain lied about his age and joined the Navy at 16 in 1943.

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Early Training

John Chamberlain Biography

Having served in the Pacific and the Mediterranean, Chamberlain returned to Detroit in 1948 and married for the first time. Two years later he moved to Chicago and decided to study hairdressing on the GI Bill. While working as a hairdresser and makeup artist he began to sketch and tried to teach himself to draw. He took some private lessons and discovered the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Inspired by its masterworks, he enrolled in the museum's school (1951-52) but found the teachers too conservative and narrow-minded. A paper he wrote about Hindu sculptures in the collection was rejected due to sexual content. Next Chamberlain tried the University of Illinois, but he only lasted six weeks because the faculty attitude was no better. Then a friend told him about Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and he went there to study in 1955 and 1956.

Though Black Mountain College operated for only 23 years (1933-57), its list of alumni is a remarkable roll call of American artists and poets. The arts were central to its mission, and collaboration between faculty and students was strongly encouraged. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg studied there shortly before Chamberlain arrived. Merce Cunningham and John Cage were their teachers: Cage staged the first "happening" at the college, and Buckminster Fuller made the first geodesic dome from Venetian blinds. These artists had all moved on to New York by the time Chamberlain arrived: only the poets who came to be known as the Black Mountain Poets remained: Chamberlain studied with Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan and revered their work throughout his life.

The Black Mountain Poets encouraged the use of improvisational techniques of free verse associating chance combinations of words and fragments of thought. Chamberlain wrote poetry in their style but also started to make welded metal sculptures openly inspired by the work of David Smith, who had used old tools and machine parts on iron rod armatures.

It was time for Chamberlain to move on to New York. Money was tight: he was running out of materials and had no studio space when he went to stay at the Long Island home of artist Larry Rivers. Rivers had an old car on the property. Thinking it was a "junker" Chamberlain helped himself to the bumpers. He ran a truck back and forth over them to bend them and then fitted the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. Shortstop (1957) is his first sculpture made from auto parts.

Chamberlain had a solo exhibition of his iron rod sculptures in Chicago in 1957 before his debut in New York in 1958 at Davida Gallery on Fifth Avenue. Chamberlain was thrilled that his new friends from the Cedar Tavern, a hangout for the Abstract Expressionists, attended. When Shortstop and his early auto parts sculptures were shown in 1959 critics immediately noticed his work. One wrote that they were "a construction from the wreckage of a motor car" imputing an aura of disaster.

Mature Period

John Chamberlain Photo

Museum curators soon recognized the power of his work and in 1961 Chamberlain's sculptures appeared in the definitive group show The Art of Assemblage that established him as a major new talent in the field. His international reputation was assured in 1964 when his sculpture represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Chamberlain showed at Leo Castelli's New York gallery. He had grown weary of the critics' discussions of his choice of car parts and for a time he switched to unpainted galvanized steel. And he also experimented with resin-coated paper bags and blocks of foam rubber. These pieces contrasted an apparently rigid surface with inherent softness and fragility. His literary side was expressed in the movies he wrote and directed, which were inspired by a friendship with Andy Warhol. Chamberlain's The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez (1968), filmed in Mexico, was a cult hit.

From his arrival in New York in the 1950s, Chamberlain was a regular in the artists' bars of lower Manhattan such as the Cedar Tavern. Chamberlain knew the greats and said of those encounters, "[Franz] Kline gave me the structure and [Willem] de Kooning gave me the color." A heavy drinker, Chamberlain earned a reputation for rowdiness at Max's Kansas City, the Cedar Tavern's successor. The influential collector Allan Stone described him as a "gruff, hairy" character, "more like a north woodsman than a sculptor." Notwithstanding this judgment, the sculptor Donald Judd admired him and collected his miniature sculptures made of cigarette boxes. These early gifts formed the basis for a longstanding friendship between the two artists.

Chamberlain's art steadily gained recognition, but it was hard for critics to pigeonhole his work. He had made all the right gestures, but he wasn't a painter and the car parts were too literally just junk and not thoughtful "abstractions." Did that make him just an Expressionist? And what about his use of found objects and assemblage technique? Would this make him a Surrealist? Or was the automobile's aura of popular culture enough to fit him into the Pop art movement?

Chamberlain was friendly with all the artists who were creating the SoHo scene, and the one creative influence he shared with them was the primacy of the French Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, accessible to many until his death in 1968. Duchamp played chess on the sidewalks and in the parks of lower Manhattan, and although he told everyone he had stopped being an artist no one took that seriously. Instead Chamberlain's generation studied his readymades such as Bicycle Wheel (1913), In Advance of the Broken Arm (the snow shovel) (1964), Bottlerack (1914), and of course Fountain (1917), the urinal, when they appeared in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and drew what lessons they could from them. Johns and Rauschenberg were known to be friends of Duchamp, and their paintings and sculptures of the early 1960s made recognizable references to Duchamp's use of mundane objects that provoked shocked reactions when said to be works of art.

Chamberlain never went into bronze casting or stone carving, the time-honored materials of monumental sculptors. His work with automotive parts just grew bigger and brighter as he expanded his search for scrap materials and cheap industrial products used to produce everyday goods. He avoided specific imagery, avoided cultural messages, and made the sculptures succeed by their sheer audacity as visual objects.

Late Years and Death

John Chamberlain Portrait

Chamberlain had remarried in 1956 and fathered three sons with his wife Elaine. He moved his family frequently from New York to New Mexico, from Connecticut to California, and then to Florida establishing studios at all of these locations. The artist continued to experiment with a variety of materials: his translucent Plexiglas sculptures received their sparkling coatings in a vacuum chamber at the California studio of Larry Bell who also used the materials. Chamberlain further expanded his practice to include large-format photography.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Chamberlain received commissions for public art projects and was frequently honored for his work. In 1995 he suffered a major heart attack and had bypass surgery. The artist was married for the fourth time to Prudence Fairweather, Dan Flavin's former assistant. In 2000 he built a 72 by 80 foot studio on Shelter Island, where he had previously purchased a house. His wife announced his death in Manhattan on December 21, 2011 but declined to give a cause.

JOHN CHAMBERLAIN LEGACY

Chamberlain showed a new generation that sculpture could be made of anything, and in the late 1960s Minimalist sculptors like Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra began to work with industrial sheet metal, fluorescent light tubes, extruded aluminum, and poured metals. They carried his ideas into room-sized installations that challenged all interpretations: their physical existence was their meaning. Chamberlain's spontaneous working process was observed by another group of artists born in the 1940s who drove his instinctual approach to new directions. Lynda Benglis's poured latex pieces, Nancy Graves's fabricated animal skins, and Martin Puryear's and James Surls's works in wood were assembled in a 1987 exhibition Structure to Resemblance, where Chamberlain was featured as their ancestor. The large colorful paintings and later sculpture of Frank Stella also show attention paid to Chamberlain.

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JOHN CHAMBERLAIN QUOTES

"I wasn't interested in car parts per se, I was interested in either the color or the shape or the amount... Just the sheet metal. It already had a coat of paint on it. And some of it was formed.... I believe that common materials are the best materials."

"...one day something - some one thing - pops out at you, and you pick it up, and you take it over, and you put it somewhere else, and it fits. It's just the right thing at the right moment. You can do the same thing with words or with metal."

"You use [colors] in a graffiti manner, or as though you were writing a foreign language that you didn't really know, so you write as if it were a penmanship exercise rather than communication."

John Chamberlain

John Chamberlain Influences

Interactive chart with John Chamberlain's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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David Smith
David Smith
David Smith was an American artist who combined Surrealism and formal abstraction in his sculptures. His early works, small and with a craft-like aesthetic, give way later on to giant constructions of welded and burnished steel.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information David Smith
Julio Gonzalez
Julio Gonzalez
Julio Gonzalez was a Catalan-Spanish sculptor and painter. His best known early works were Synthetic Cubist paintings, and later in life turned to bronze and iron welding, creating many famous abstract sculptures. In 1927 he introduced Picasso to oxy-fuel welding and cutting techniques, and became one of the artist's closest confidantes.

Modern Art Information Julio Gonzalez
Richard Stankiewicz
Richard Stankiewicz
Richard Stankiewicz was an American sculptor best known for his work in scrap and junk sculpture. Originally a student of Hans Hofmann and cubists Fernand Léger and Ossip Zadkine, Stankiewicz went on to join such galleries as the Hansa and Stable.

Modern Art Information Richard Stankiewicz
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter, commonly associated with the Post-Impressionist period. As one of the most prolific and experimental artists of his time, van Gogh was a spontaneous painter and a master of color and perspective. Troubled by personal demons all his life, many historians speculate that van Gogh suffered from a Bipolar disorder.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Vincent van Gogh
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
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Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
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Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
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Robert Creeley
Robert Creeley
Robert Creeley was an American poet and original member of the Black Mountain poets during the mid-twentieth century. Creeley wrote in what some critics cubbed a "free verse" style, wherein traditional poetic codes and rhythms were largely disregarded. He was the New York Poet Laureate from 1989 to 1991.

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Charles Olson
Charles Olson
Charles Olson was a twentieth-century American writer and modernist poet. He is credited as being one of the first people to coin the term "postmodern."

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Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
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Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
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Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
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Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Frank Stella
Nancy Rubins
Nancy Rubins
Nancy Rubins is an American sculptor and conceptual artist. She is best known for her large-scale public artworks that employ salvaged industrial and consumer goods.

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Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
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Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
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Process Art
Process Art
When Harold Rosenberg coined the term "Action Painting," he was emphasizing the importance of not the artwork itself - the objet d'art - but the process by which the work was made. Thus, Process Art refers to the actions or, in some cases, the performance of creating a work of art. The actual term was popularized by Robert Morris for a 1968 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.

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Junk Art
Junk Art
Junk Art is a medium in which artworks are comprised of found, discarded and "non-art" objects used to construct sculpture, collage and conceptual works. Junk Art derives from the medium known as Found art, and Marcel Duchamp's famous "readymades."

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Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
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Neo-Dada
Neo-Dada
Neo-Dada refers to works of art from the 1950s that employ popular imagery and modern materials, often resulting in something absurd. Neo-Dada is both a continuation of the earlier Dada movement and an important precursor to Pop art. Some important Neo-Dada artists include Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Robert Morris and Allan Kaprow.
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Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
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Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
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Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham was an American choreographer and dance instructor. He taught at Black Mountain College for several years, playing an important role in the school's interdisciplinary approach to art instruction. He founded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York, and is considered one of the founders of modern dance.

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John Cage
John Cage
John Cage was an American composer and conceptual artist who incorporated chance, silence, and environmental effects into his performances. An important art theorist, he influenced choreographers, musicians, and the Fluxus artists of the 1970s.
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Happenings
Happenings
The term "happening" was coined by artist Allan Kaprow in 1957 to decribe a series of multi-media artworks on display in a single locale. In general, a happening is an art event, often staged or pre-scripted, that requires active participation from an audience to come to full fruition. This relatively new form of artistic media could be called participatory.
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Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, designer, inventor and writer. He is best known for his designs of geodesic domes, such as the ones at Disney's Epcot Center and the Montreal Biosphere.

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Black Mountain College
Black Mountain College
Black Mountain College was an experimental school founded in the middle of the twentieth century on the principles of balancing academics, arts, and manual labor within a democratic, communal society to create "complete" people.
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Robert Duncan
Robert Duncan
Robert Duncan was an American poet commonly associated with the Beat movement and the San Francisco bohemian culture of the 1950s. Duncan was also a member of the Black Mountain Poets and an early proponent of gay culture and homosexual civil rights.

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Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers was an American artist whose work combines the brushy texture of Abstract Expressionism with figurative elements and a Pop art style. He was an earlier practitioner of appropriation techniques, and his paintings sample from art history, commercial products, celebrity imagery, and other styles and sources.

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Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli was an American art collector and gallery owner. His Castelli Gallery in New York, which opened in 1957, held several groundbreaking shows that revealed to the art world works by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Castelli's gallery was considered an early proving ground for Neo-Dada, Pop, and Minimalist art.
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Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
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Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
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Readymade
Readymade
A readymade is a pre-existing, non-art object which has been used in the context of art. Marcel Duchamp is credited with inventing the readymade in 1913 when he inverted a bicycle wheel on a stool, titling it simply, Bicycle Wheel. The idea has been highly influential, particularly since the 1960s.

Modern Art Information Readymade
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin was an American artist best known for his Minimalist constructions of color and light. Often using nothing more than a few dozen fluorescent bulbs for his work, Flavin was a crucial figure in the Minimalism of the 1960s and '70s. His light installations altered the physical exhibition space, and were designed as experiential art rather than visual art.
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Carl Andre
Carl Andre
Carl Andre is an American Minimalist whose prominence rose in the late 1960s with a series of large public artworks and sculpture. His linear sculpture was included in the famed 1966 Primary Structures group exhibition at the Jewish Museum.
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Richard Serra
Richard Serra
Richard Serra is an American Process and Minimalist artist. His sculptures have ranged from hurled drips of molten lead to gigantic steel pieces installed in public places.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Richard Serra
Lynda Benglis
Lynda Benglis
Lynda Benglis is an American artist associated with process-based and anti-form art. Best known for her floor-based "spills" and latex sculptures, she adds a critical feminist perspective to post-minimalist work.

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Cord
Cord

Title: Cord (1957)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In his twenties while living in Chicago, Chamberlain discovered the sculpture of David Smith at the Art Institute. About Smith's work he said, "I liked it a lot because it wasn't representing something else...and it was a very strange looking thing...and because I hadn't seen anything like that before." Explaining the making of his early pieces he said, "I found myself working with a certain spontaneity. I was trying to attach the top part of (a sculpture) to the lower half, but when I put it in the right place, it connected up in three different places, so it told me how to put it together."
Chamberlain's first steel sculptures emphasized the linear "drawn in the air" quality of Smith and other 1950s sculptors, but in Cord the steel rods and fittings have been clustered and massed into shapes with physically greater volume. Notice that Cord is a tangle of metal rods and fittings elevated by several short posts and perched over a pedestal base. In his future works Chamberlain eliminated the pedestal and placed his sculptures directly on the floor. Eliminating the pedestal was a goal of the 1960s sculptors, many of whom sought this more emphatic and less precious mode of presentation. When placing work directly on the floor it became incumbent on Chamberlain to make the metal parts fit together so as to be weight bearing. He continued to use spot welding to reinforce the structure as was done in Cord but when his pieces became larger, freestanding, and more complex, an armature within their mass was a necessity. With the contrasts of its sharp-edged vertical and horizontal elements, Cord predicts the look of his art to come.


- Formerly Allan Stone, New York

Shortstop
Shortstop

Title: Shortstop (1957)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Shortstop launched Chamberlain's career as a major artist in the mid-twentieth century; his subsequent works with car parts stemmed from this initial breakthrough piece. Made entirely from "found" materials - the fenders of an abandoned antique Ford - Shortstop reinvested the French Surrealists' use of "found objects" with American virility.
Chamberlain was building on the the Surrealists' techniques of collage and assemblage that had relied on chance juxtapositions, and which were still in vogue with poets, painters and other sculptors. It was frequently their goal to shock readers and viewers by unlikely combinations of words and images. In addition, Marcel Duchamp - inventor of the "readymades" - was the acknowledged grand master of the visual arts contingent of Surrealists and lived in New York City at this time.
To make Shortstop, Chamberlain altered the fenders he had found by driving over them with a truck and then joined them together by a process of trial and error, accepting cues from the way the pieces themselves suggested their fit. After this piece he went to scrap yards deliberately to search for discarded auto parts suited to his creative inspirations. Recognizing his sources critics were swift to observe that their power as abstract art might come from tragic accidents. Although he would reject their allusions to a car wreck, Chamberlain surely knew that the poetry of his work came from the unexpected vigor of tortured metals contorted visually into the afterimage of a crash.


Painted and chromium-plated steel and iron - Dia Art Foundation, New York, New York

Zaar
Zaar

Title: Zaar (1959)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In the post-World War II cultural atmosphere automobiles were an important symbol of American recovery and industrial leadership. Materials for metal sculpture had always been expensive: the fact that Chamberlain discovered a source in discarded metals brought him recognition for his ingenuity. And the colors he found were a bonus, for there were few artists making colorful sculpture at this time. But his forays into junkyards did not focus exclusively on car parts. Zaar was composed chiefly of a steel bench with a red stripe.
Chamberlain's art succeeded on several levels. To some viewers the sculptures made a statement against a progressive consumer culture that embraced the new and rejected the old. In addition, he titled his works with a self-indulgent humor. Since his college years Chamberlain had written poetry and read widely so he wasn't above using sly allusions to popular culture. Zaar was a popular hair treatment used to make permanent waves: Chamberlain must have dealt with it when he worked as a hairdresser in Chicago, before becoming an artist. The curvy outlines of Zaar might have reminded him of that product.


Welded steel, painted - Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Dallas, Texas

Miss Lucy Pink
Miss Lucy Pink

Title: Miss Lucy Pink (1962)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Chamberlain described Miss Lucy Pink as his response to the critics who called his work violent. In this sculpture he deliberately emphasized the softness and malleability of the steel and the gently overlapping shapes. These features were noted by his friend the sculptor Claes Oldenburg who commented on the contrasts of rounded volumes that softened the impression of jagged metallic edges. An openly feminine sculpture, Miss Lucy Pink has clear affinities with the Women paintings of Chamberlain's good friend Willem de Kooning. He also used a pink and flesh-toned palette reminiscent of the works of Pablo Picasso, an artist de Kooning admittedly admired. Miss Lucy Pink's bosomy contours project beyond the base, giving the sculpture the illusion of a woman balancing on high heels.
In later comments Chamberlain also drew attention to the fact that she, the sculpture, has a front and a back. He said, "I look at the piece every now and then and sometimes it reminds me of somebody who's putting on a good front, but you take a look around the back and her ass is hanging out." He also revealed that he had accumulated a lot of pink painted metals in his studio and had welded the various parts only to better preserve the unbalanced structure. This technique of intuitive, non-predetermined creation closely connects to the Abstract Expressionists painters' use of gestural, instinctive brushstrokes. Like them he wanted to throw off the influence of the School of Paris painters and participate in the birth of a new American modern art.


Painted and chrome-plated steel - Collection of the artist: Sarasota, Florida

Untitled
Untitled

Title: Untitled (1967)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In 1963, Chamberlain and his family left New York for California where he began a series of experiments intended to broaden the range of his materials. Three years later while living in Malibu at the home of his art dealer Virginia Dwan, and with one month to go before a show at her gallery, he made three-dimensional sketches for sculpture using common household sponges that he squeezed and tied. Of this time he said, "I wanted to do a sculpture that was quick...and instant sculpture was the result." Pleased with the small pieces he had created, he enlarged the concept using large blocks of foam rubber carved with a knife. His assistants lassoed the foam around the middle with rope: they pulled while he folded and tucked the foam to get the look he wanted. If the sculpture didn't please him, Chamberlain untied the rope and repeated the process. A critic praised the work saying: "The simplicity of the form, the uninflected, porous smoothness of the surface and the generosity of the curves gave all these pieces a monumentality belied by their size."
Chamberlain made two significant groups of urethane foam and cord tied sculptures in 1966 and 1967. These humorous anthropomorphic pieces were popular with private collectors but many have not survived because the material is not stable and museums tended to avoid them. But Chamberlain continued working with foam and made several room-sized couches for museums and gallery installations as well as for private collectors. The Guggenheim Barge was made for the rotunda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum as a major feature of his 1971 retrospective. On this occasion, a Milanese furniture-maker proposed an edition of Chamberlain couches. One example of this "Flintstone Furniture" was equipped with TV sets at either end.


Urethane foam and cord - Dia Art Foundation, New York, New York

Norma Jean Rising
Norma Jean Rising

Title: Norma Jean Rising (1967)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Chamberlain periodically abandoned the colorfully painted crumpled steel that had made his reputation. In 1967 he decided to investigate what he could do with the more prosaic surfaces of galvanized steel. Was he courting the approval of the artists associated with Minimalism who were his contemporaries and drank with him at Max's Kansas City? There he amused his buddies by making miniature sculptures from discarded cigarette boxes and gifting them. Galvanized steel is typically used for duct work and venting systems and has the mottled industrial surface the Minimalists desired for their work. Chamberlain ordered it pre-fabricated in standard dimensions of 42 x 28 x 18 inches. There was a compactor near his studio, and he took the boxy pieces there to be crushed and contorted into objects with jutting angles that resembled his car parts sculptures but with monochromatic surfaces. He took them back to the studio for further refinement, coating some with aluminum paint. The works matched his previous sculptures in scale and authority.
The first group of sculptures in this new material were popular with collectors. Andy Warhol acquired the six-foot-high Papagayo (1967), one of Chamberlain's largest galvanized steel sculptures: Norma Jean Rising is just a bit smaller. Many of these works were titled after constellations, that is, groups of stars, but Norma Jean was a star who had risen to fame as the movie star, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe died in 1962, but she continued to be celebrated in the arts. Norma Jean Rising was shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in an exhibition titled Homage to Marilyn Monroe (1967). In 1981, Chamberlain decided to remake and paint the sculpture and retitled it Norma Jean Risen. Another group of galvanized steel sculptures made in 1969 found the same strong reception. In the interval, Chamberlain made movies in the style of Andy Warhol and experimented with alternate materials that included aluminum foil, Plexiglas, and brown paper bags.


Painted galvanized steel - Dia Art Foundation, New York, New York

Luftschloss
Luftschloss

Title: Luftschloss (1979)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In 1974, Chamberlain returned to automobile parts as his primary material, after acknowledging that these steel scraps had become his signature medium. Three years later, he purchased a home in Essex, Connecticut, that had a studio and spacious garden where he planned to install his sculptures in an outdoor setting. He had just received a second Guggenheim Fellowship, and at the age of 50 his career was well established internationally. By this stage in his career Chamberlain had gathered a group of gallerists and collectors in Germany and visited there frequently. Luftschloss, literally translated as "air castle," may be a tribute to these friendships and experiences.
As if wanting to rival the trees that surrounded it in his garden, Luftschloss reaches for the sky. Over twelve feet tall, the principal steel elements look like they must have come from sides of trucks or buses to make an A frame structure within which other fragments are sheltered. No doubt there is an armature concealed within the massed fragments and yet there is visual tension in the contrast of the solid crimson red side and the more slender white slanted panel around the back that props up one side. These are minimal footings for the base of such a tall sculpture. The effort to understand its "stance" encourages an exploration of multiple vantage points. Chamberlain frequently compared the "stance" of his sculptures to the positions and attitudes of the human body.
For three more decades Chamberlain worked with the colorful steel and shiny chrome that made his work instantly recognizable worldwide. The works grew both larger and taller spreading out against walls or freestanding like Luftschloss. He once bought at auction a number of vintage 1940s and 1950s American car models to replenish his supply of hoods, fenders, bumpers, and doors: they came from a car collector who was closing his museum in Switzerland.


Painted and chromium-plated steel - Dia Art Foundation, New York, New York

Gondola Charles Olson
Gondola Charles Olson

Title: Gondola Charles Olson (1982)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Abstract sculpture is judged for the stance and attitude it can achieve in private or public spaces. Chamberlain rapidly mastered the ability to intrigue viewers and make a lasting impact. The sculptures compelled a confrontation. So why, after two decades, was this artist still making a statement using carefully configured car parts? The material simply worked the best for Chamberlain. As the scale of his sculptures increased, he confronted the need for armatures to hold the many and varied pieces of painted steel upright. A 1981 commission for the City of Detroit was an example of the need to foot the upright parts securely. Long pieces of channel steel were being prepared and Chamberlain later recalled, "They looked so nifty the way they were (scattered on the floor) that it reminded me of some other direction." For a period he would make horizontal sculptures so reminiscent to him of boats that he first titled the series Armada. Later as the series increased he called them Gondolas and named each for his favorite American writers and poets, a virtual who's who of his literary favorites. Typically about three feet high, the gondolas extend horizontally for as many as twenty feet. Long before, Chamberlain's sculptor contemporaries had abandoned pedestals and made art for the broad expanses of studio and gallery floors, but frequently their works had a strongly industrial edge. In contrast, Chamberlain's gondolas were the most metaphorical statements he ever made from salvaged metals.


Painted and chrome-plated steel - Dia: Beacon

Seagram Building Installation
Seagram Building Installation

Title: Seagram Building Installation (2012)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The last decade of Chamberlain's sixty-year career was overshadowed by his poor health, but his art did not suffer. No longer able to manipulate large sheets of steel, he nevertheless retained all his haptic powers and shaped household aluminum foil with his hands to make models that could be enlarged in his studio by assistants while he watched from a nearby chair. The group included PINEAPPLESURPRISE (2010), MERMAIDSMISCHIEF (2009), ROBUSTFAGOTTO (2008), and FROSTYDICKFANTASY (2008).
Longtime observers of his sculpture offered critical comments and interpretations of these ALL CAPS titles based on his well-known fondness for wordplay, nonsense, and sexual innuendo. They also remembered Chamberlain's love of music, especially jazz, that might be recognized in the resemblance of the sculptures to comical woodwind instruments. It was also noted that this was Chamberlain's second appearance in Park Avenue Plaza, where in 1984 he showed his monumental automotive steel piece American Tableau (1984). American Tableau was thought to resemble a line of pedestrians or the surrounding skyline done in his signature style.
The rigidly geometric architecture of Park Avenue Plaza was the ideal background to show off this cavorting band of colored industrial aluminum forms torqued, tangled, and towering to heights of up to fifteen feet. The aluminum surfaces of the pieces had been highly textured so that the forms reflected light that emphasized their biomorphic shimmer: some observers thought they saw sea anemone and remembered his love of the ocean. More frivolous and more endearing, the second Seagram Building installation would have delighted the boy from Indiana who had made it really BIG in New York City.


Colored aluminum - Estate of the artist, Gagosian Gallery

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.