John Chamberlain, an artist who turned automotive scrap metal into sculpture, dies at 84
NEW YORK, NY.- Gagosian Gallery announced that John Chamberlain has died on December 21, 2011, in Manhattan.
Brandishing a wicked sense of humor and notoriously ornery, Chamberlain was a larger-than-life personality who was as bold and expressive as his sculptures, photographs, paintings, and films. He was constantly experimenting with new materials and processes over his five-decade long career—including discarded automobile parts, galvanized steel, paper bags, Plexiglas, foam rubber, aluminum foil–revealing a near-constant stream of inventiveness. His recent exhibitions—in Giswil, Switzerland, in 2009 and 2010; at Gagosian Gallery’s New York and London locations in the spring of 2011; and at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munch, Germany, in the summer of 2011– featured some of the largest and most jubilant sculptures of his career, proving that despite his advancing age, the artist remained fearlessly, relentlessly creative. Chamberlain has been the subject of more than 100 single-person exhibitions around the world, and his first retrospective, at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1971, is to be followed by a second retrospective at the same museum in February of 2012.
Larry Gagosian said “John Chamberlain made an indelible mark on the history of art in the twentieth century. He was a spectacular, roaring figure who embodied the fierceness of mid-century American art and who was unparalleled in his adaptation of unlikely materials for his sculptures. His influence will be long reaching, and his death is a great loss. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.”
Born in 1927 in Rochester, Indiana, Chamberlain briefly studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago (1951–52), and at the avant-garde Black Mountain College (1955–56), near Asheville, North Carolina, where he credits his time with teachers including poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson among the greatest influences on his work. He rose to prominence in the late 1950s with energetic, vibrant sculptures hewn from disused car parts, achieving a three-dimensional form of Abstract Expressionism that astounded critics and captured the imagination of fellow artists. An inveterate rebel, Chamberlain also violated the formalist prohibition deriding the use of color in sculpture. He chose to adapt uncommon, recycled materials in his work such as the slick, industrial palette of defunct auto bodies.
Chamberlain moved to New York in 1956, where he developed his particular method of assemblage, first using small found metal parts that quickly became larger welded versions of bent and twisted steel. Although he was originally influenced by the compilation methods of David Smith (who also relied on welding found metal parts), Chamberlain’s work soon showed a preference for voluminous and spatial masses. His astonishing, balanced sculptures stressed the deep volumes and eccentric folds that he managed to achieve by squeezing or compressing the metal and then welding the disparate elements into highly developed, collage-like compositions.
Equally conversant in a variety of materials, Chamberlain has not solely restricted his medium to automobile parts. For a seven-year period beginning in 1965, he returned to painting, using an enamel automobile finish to produce highly glossed, small-format square pictures; he ventured into writing and directing 16 mm films; and, fueled by his interest in science, he began an investigation into unusual materials such as urethane foam, aluminum foil, paper bags, and mineral-coated Plexiglas. Later, printmaking and photography (using a wide-angle camera attached at hip level) entered his artistic repertoire.
In addition to Abstract Expressionism, throughout his career, Chamberlain has been associated with both Minimalism and Pop. His works composed of “crushed automobile parts” in bright colors resonated with America’s fascination with consumer car culture, accordingly aligning him with the contemporary work of many Pop artists whose focus was on the object. On the other hand, for Donald Judd and his compatriots, Chamberlain’s sculptures embodied the neutral, redundant, and expressively structured tenants of Minimalism that sought to remove objectivity, inexpressiveness, and the referential. The attempts to place Chamberlain in such various, conflicting categories acknowledge the artist’s elusiveness and singularity. His tireless pursuit of discovery, his curiosity, and his intuitive process distinguish him as one of the most important American sculptors of our time.
Since returning in the mid-1970s to metal as his primary material, Chamberlain has limited himself to specific parts of the automobile (fenders, bumpers, or the chassis, for example). He has been adding color to––or in some techniques, subtracting color from––the found car parts by dripping, spraying, and patterning on top of existing hues to often-wild effect. This liberation and deep exploration of color reference Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse, two artists whose color sense he greatly admires. Beginning in the late 1980s, Chamberlain began using the discarded tops of custom vans, cutting them into long ribbons that he left unfurled, crumpled into undulating bands, or rolled into dense rosettes. The scale of his work increased dramatically at this time, aided in part by a significantly larger studio space in Sarasota, Florida, in 1980, and ultimately on Shelter Island, at the far end of Long Island, where his studio is today.
Over the last three decades, Chamberlain has worked in varying ways within his basic artistic equation, but as his work matured, he has moved toward more aggressive manipulations of form and color and away from crashed-car renown. Perhaps not intentionally, the deep folds of Chamberlain’s sculptures resemble Renaissance drapery studies that imply the underlying presence of a figure, or conversely, a void. His works throughout the 1990s and first years of the twenty-first century became increasingly volumetric, if not baroque, in their massing of form and vibrant color choice. However, in recent years, the artist has embarked on the production of a new body of work that demonstrates a decided return to earlier concerns. Among the largest works he has ever made, these confidently monumental bonfires of metal, with their stacks of mostly horizontal and vertical crushed and rolled metal are drawn from a supply of 1940s and 1950s automobiles. The works’ elegant refinements and exponentially complex renderings exemplify his long-held artistic philosophy, “it’s all in the fit.”