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Modern Artist: John Chamberlain
American sculptor John Chamberlain is internationally known for his long career of creating vibrantly colored, dynamic sculptures from crushed, twisted and bent automobile parts. Inspired by the scale, color and impulsive creation of Abstract Expressionist work, Chamberlain was a pioneering force through his use of found materials and diverse colors. While also experimenting with a variety of sculptural media, as well as with film and painting, he greatly impacted many generations of artistic movements, including Minimalism and Pop art, and continues to create inventive work today.

Key Ideas
  • Chamberlain retains the jagged edges and unrefined paint colors of his primary medium - steel automobile parts - to illustrate his spontaneous, improvisational process. This technique brings the instinctual and gestural brushstrokes of his Abstract Expressionist peers into three dimensions.
  • Rejecting the frequent comparison of his work to violent car crashes, Chamberlain intends his audience to view his work aesthetically without preconceived ideas about the materials' past. He aims to give everyday objects entirely new meanings, ranging from poetic abstraction to figural allusion.
  • A main concept for Chamberlain is the idea of "fit," a natural, innate interconnection between sections of his sculptures. Rather than predetermining structures, he lets the fragments' shapes and colors dictate composition.

John Angus Chamberlain was born into a family that had owned a series of taverns since 1835. He grew up in Chicago with his mother and grandmother after his parents divorced when he was very young. As a boy, Chamberlain was interested in becoming an aeronautical engineer until developing a fascination with music, particularly Schubert, around 12 years old. When his musical abilities were lacking, he turned to other art forms. At 16 years old, Chamberlain entered the U.S. Navy, serving aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and Mediterranean from 1943 to 1946.

Early Training
After leaving the Navy, Chamberlain used the G.I. Bill to study hairdressing in Chicago. He began his brief formal art training at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago (1951-1952), then spent the following two years working in Chicago as a hairdresser and makeup artist. His studies at Black Mountain College in North Carolina (1955-1956) were most instrumental in shaping his artistic development. While creating welded metal sculptures highly influenced by David Smith, he met poets Charles Olsen, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, whom he has described as "kindred spirits." These writers made a strong impact on Chamberlain, who began writing his own poems, arranging words and fragments he had collected from various sources into new configurations. This technique also informed his sculptural work, as he began using diverse, found materials to shape his creations. The first full manifestation of this direction was Shortstop (1957), Chamberlain's initial sculpture made from automobile parts.

Mature Period
After leaving Black Mountain, Chamberlain moved to New York, where he became a regular at the famed Cedar Tavern with other Abstract Expressionists. At this time, he expanded on the use of steel car remnants, exploiting the existing colors of the material in his sculptures. Beginning in the early 1960s, his work was shown to strong acclaim, appearing as part of the Museum of Modern Art's 1961 The Art of Assemblage exhibition, the Venice Biennale in 1964 and in several Leo Castelli Gallery shows.

During the 1960s and 70s, he moved every few years between New York and locations such as New Mexico, Wisconsin, California and Texas, working in other media such as fiberglass, urethane foam and galvanized steel, purposely avoiding the steel car scraps for which he had become known. He received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966, and again in 1977. In 1968, inspired in part by his friend Andy Warhol, Chamberlain began directing films including Wedding Night, The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez and Wide Point.

He also continued expanding his sculptural work, creating a series of white and chrome sculptures as well as others using brown paper bags, Plexiglas or aluminum foil. The Guggenheim gave Chamberlain his first retrospective exhibition in 1971, having several others in later years. He returned to automobile parts as his primary material in 1974, creating wall reliefs and freestanding sculptures in both small and monumental scales. While continuing in this direction, he also began working with still photography, an interest that continued as he proceeded with his career.

Late Period
Beginning in the 1980s, Chamberlain lived and worked in Sarasota, Florida, where he had more space to create ever-larger sculptures that expanded both vertically and horizontally. He later established a studio on Shelter Island, New York. Continuing to sculpt primarily with welded metals, Chamberlain broadened his artistic output, using stainless steel and composing works from ribbon-like strips. While earlier works had incorporated the material's existing colors, later works featured added paint, often in bright colors and patterns. In addition to crumpling and crushing his media, Chamberlain also integrated spiral shapes into his work. He is currently represented by Pace Wildenstein in New York.

For the past six decades, Chamberlain has created highly innovative sculptural work that aligned him with the Abstract Expressionist painters, while also setting him apart in his embrace of three-dimensional space. His consistent use of color at a time when sculptors were only beginning to integrate such elements further set him apart as crucial to the development of post-war American art. Chamberlain has received numerous honors and awards for his work, which can be found in major collections worldwide.


Below are John Chamberlain's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

David Smith
Julio Gonzalez
Richard Stankiewicz
Vincent Van Gogh
Donald Judd
Franz Kline
Robert Creeley
Charles Olson
Abstract Expressionism
John Chamberlain
Years Worked: 1951 - Present
Frank Stella
Nancy Rubins
Donald Judd
Andy Warhol
Pop Art
Process Art

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

"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."

Content written by:
  Rachel Gershman

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