John Chamberlain, one of the most influential three-dimensional Abstract Expressionists of the twentieth century, constantly challenged, disrupted, and propelled forward the fields of art and design. Born John Angus Chamberlain on April 16, 1927, in Rochester, Indiana, he served in the United States Navy as seaman first class during World War II. After the war, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago on the GI Bill. Later he studied poetry and sculpture at the renowned Black Mountain College, where he developed his ideas around visual language.
Reflecting on what he took away from his Black Mountain experience, he once stated: “If I have a room full of parts, they are like a lot of words and I have to take one piece and put it next to another and find out if it really fits. The poet’s influence is there, plus in my titles.” Elements of this would resurface again and again in works he produced throughout his career. Many critics and scholars have focused on Chamberlain’s place in art history as an Abstract Expressionist, Surrealist, or Pop artist, but ultimately his diverse output defies categorization. Above all he strove to make art that would, in his words, “make the viewer’s heart beat.”
Itinerant by nature, Chamberlain lived in Manhattan, Long Island, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Connecticut, Sarasota, and Shelter Island (New York), and worked in Amarillo and Lanaken (Belgium). Throughout his lifetime, he proved that sculpture could be made from anything. He operated under the firm belief that if the artist got the scale correct, size never mattered, and it was all about how the parts fit together to form the whole. He once told Robert Creeley, a friend and acclaimed poet, “It’s that fit that really has importance—a crucial part of what art is about.”
In the summer of 1957, Chamberlain encountered a 1929 Ford Pie Wagon in the backyard of his friend Larry River’s house in Southampton, New York. He was inspired to pull off the fenders and drive over them with his car, then twist and weld the metal together with steel rods, thereby creating the famous piece Shortstop. This moment marked the beginning of the artist’s long engagement with making sculpture from recycled automobile parts—works that defied traditional definitions of what sculpture should be. In the finished works, the metal seems to simultaneously lack solidity but at the same time possess density—it is both light and heavy.
During the early 1960s, Chamberlain traveled between New York and Los Angeles, making mixed-media collages using pigments, paper, cardboard, fabric staples, aluminum foil, and scrap metal on twelve-inch acoustic tiles pulled from his New York studio ceiling. In 1963 he produced lacquer paintings on pieces of Masonite and Formica. In the fall of 1965, Chamberlain moved to Santa Fe, and the following summer, he accepted an invitation to stay at the Malibu Beach home of art collector and patron Virginia Dwan. The ubiquity of urethane foam in Los Angeles led him to abandon metal (he would not produce another metal work for seven years) and focus on foam sculptures. He showed two dozen of them that November at Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles. Their manipulated forms and tight ropes still provoke a reaction from viewers some fifty years later.
In 1966 Chamberlain began working primarily with materials that could be wadded up or compressed in the hand—paper, foam, aluminum foil. His practice of crumpling highlighted the material’s transformation, abstraction, and past histories. The artist once stated:
I found that the particular principle of compression and wadding up or manipulating with the fingers, so to speak, whether you use a machine or not, has a lot of applications with a lot of different materials and I only use materials that deal with that. If it’s sexual, it’s squeezing and hugging. If it’s instinctive, it has to do with fit and balance. If it’s emotional, it’s presence. I don’t know how it gets to be intellectual.
Branching out further in the late 1960s, the artist produced films such as The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez (1968). Even though Chamberlain was not creating sculpture during this period, he held onto a firm belief that “film ought to evolve as a piece of sculpture.” He and Michel Auder, his director, explained: “The job of the director, like the job of a sculptor, is first to see the pieces, then to put them together. He isn’t going to take each piece and twist it, bend it, direct it, before he adds it to the ensemble; he’s going to choose each piece because he knows in advance it will fit.”
Returning to Los Angeles in 1970, Chamberlain experimented with Plexiglas. Beginning with clear boxes, he would melt them while shaping the pieces to the point of collapse, then use fellow artist Larry Bell’s vacuum coater to encrust minerals on the surface. The resulting texture mimicked the skin of a reptile. Although Chamberlain’s adventures with Plexiglas were innovative, expenses ran high, and eventually he moved on to other media.
The material explorations continued in the early 1970s with a series in heavy-gauge aluminum foil, which he crumpled with his fingers or with tools, then decorated with color and resin. The finished products are large in scale and have a strong physical presence even though they lack definite, representational shapes. Moving into the 1980s, Chamberlain created a series of miniature sculptures in plain and colored aluminum foil whose tight creases and deep crevices illustrate the artist’s mastery of the material. (Later, between 2007 and 2011, he enlarged several of these to a monumental scale, re-creating every twist and indentation.)
Chamberlain never feared moving away from the familiar into the unknown. Indeed, he considered material exploration part of any artist’s job description. His work in collage in many ways reveals the central motivation behind his entire oeuvre, since a collagist, in pursuit of “the right fit,” constantly explores various textures and materials. He once recalled:
"See, so there’s all these different variations on different material, coming out looking like the sculptures that are what you might call the signature mark. The stance, rhyme, and the tilt are all in there, but with various materials. But I went at the materials the way the materials evidently told me to. You squeeze one and you wad another, and you melt another . . . so these peculiarities were starting to pay off for me.
The year 1972 marked the artist’s return to using metal. In 1974, he coupled color with metal—dripping, spraying, patterning, and sandblasting to produce radical visual effects. A move to Sarasota in 1980 and the purchase of an 18,000-square-foot studio—a much larger space than he had ever had before—positively affected his creative output, enabling work on a much-increased scale and with greater dynamism. Toward the end of the 1980s, the artist created sculptures from the discarded tops of vans. Cutting them into ribbons, he would crumple the pieces into their perfect fit."
Over the last three decades of Chamberlain’s career, the artist pursued ever more diverse variations of his signature “fit” that featured aggressive conjunctions of shape and color. The sculptures have deep folds that many perceive as resembling the folds of Renaissance sculpture, signaling the presence of a figure or void. Toward the end of his life, he was making some of the largest works of his entire career—assemblages of horizontal and vertical crushed metal from 1940s and 1950s automobiles, pursuing his perennial artistic ethos: “It’s all in the fit.”
Chamberlain passed away in 2011, after a career spanning six decades. He exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin America, with major exhibitions at Martha Jackson Gallery, New York (1960), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1960), the Bienal de São Paulo (1961), the Venice Biennale (1964), the Cleveland Museum of Art (1967), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1971), Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (1976), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1986), the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1993), and Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland (2005), as well as two major retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum (1971, 2012). Chamberlain’s sculptures are on permanent display at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, and Dia:Beacon in upstate New York. He received numerous awards during his life, including the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture (1993), the Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, Washington, DC (1993), the Gold Medal from the National Arts Club, New York (1997), a Distinction in Sculpture award from Sculpture Center, New York (1999), and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Guildhall Academy, East Hampton, New York (2007).