John Chamberlain’s dynamic agglomerations of scrap metal and used automobile bodies have been admired for translating the achievements of Abstract Expressionist painting into three-dimensional form. The whirling arabesques of color in wall reliefs such as Dolores James echo the energy and expressive power of paintings by Willem de Kooning; the heroic scale and animated diagonals suggest the canvases of Franz Kline. Like the Abstract Expressionists before him, Chamberlain reveled in the potential of his mediums. In a 1972 interview with critic Phyllis Tuchman he remarked, “I’m sort of intrigued with the idea of what I can do with material and I work with the material as opposed to enforcing some kind of will upon it.” Chamberlain emphasized the importance of “fit,” or the marriage of parts, in his sculpture. As in other early works, the various elements of Dolores James stayed in place by virtue of careful balances when the sculpture was first assembled; later, the work was spot-welded to ensure its preservation.
Chamberlain’s oeuvre appeared in the context of late-1950s assemblage or Junk Art, in which the detritus of our culture was reconsidered and reinterpreted as fine art. On some level, his conglomerations of automobile carcasses must inevitably be perceived as witnesses of the car culture from which they were born, and for which they serve as memorials. There is a threatening air about the jagged-edged protuberances in Chamberlain’s sculptures, and the dirty, dented automobile components suggest car crashes; the artist, however, preferred to focus on the poetic evocations that his sculptures elicit.