John Chamberlain

American Filmmaker, Sculptor, Painter, and Printmaker

Born: April 16, 1927
Rochester, Indiana
Died: December 21, 2011
New York, New York, USA
My work has nothing to do with car wrecks.

Summary of John Chamberlain

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.


Progression of Art



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 launched Chamberlain's career as a major artist in the mid-20th 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 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



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

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



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

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



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

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

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

Biography of John Chamberlain


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.

Early Training

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

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

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.

The Legacy of John Chamberlain

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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