February 24–May 13, 2012
For nearly six decades, American artist John Chamberlain (1927–2011) was one of the leading innovators in contemporary art, yet his work defies simple categorization. John Chamberlain: Choices, a major retrospective comprising approximately 95 works, examines Chamberlain's development as an artist, exploring the shifts in scale, materials, and techniques that have been central to his working method.
The retrospective presents works from the artist's earliest monochromatic iron sculptures, signature works in steel, experiments in foam, Plexiglas, and paper bags, in addition to his latest large-scale aluminum pieces, which have never before been shown in the United States. The exhibition demonstrates how Chamberlain's tireless pursuit of discovery, his curiosity, and his intuitive process have affirmed his stature as one of the most important American sculptors of our time.
The exhibition is curated by Susan Davidson.
This exhibition is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
The Leadership Committee for John Chamberlain: Choices, chaired by Larry Gagosian, is gratefully acknowledged.
About the Artist
Born in Rochester, Indiana, in 1927, John Chamberlain grew up in the Midwest in the 1930s, a time that coincided with the nation’s growing dependency on the mechanical and technological. Although he left school in the ninth grade, Chamberlain was knowledgeable in many areas, including literature, philosophy, and engineering. He learned to fly a plane at the ridiculously youthful age of 11, and in 1943 he joined the U.S. navy as an underage teenager, experiencing World War II from an aircraft carrier. Although the GI Bill prepared him for a career as a hairdresser—an occupation that might seem unusual for such a macho guy—in 1950, Chamberlain decided to study fine art at the Art Institute of Chicago. At the time, Abstract Expressionism had upset the status quo, and artists such as Willem de Kooning (1904–1997) and Franz Kline (1910–1962)—both of whom Chamberlain would later come to know and admire—gave him license to pursue his passion. Chamberlain studied and taught sculpture at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, where many of his friends who were poets instilled in him a confidence in the intricacies of words and language that would later become central to his creative process.
Chamberlain’s career did not begin with a bang. Rather, attention to his work grew slowly, gaining strength over time. Arriving in New York at the end of the 1950s placed Chamberlain at the center of a vibrant art world: "It was a huge electricity . . . that I’d never experienced before."1
The energy and experimentation that surrounded him encouraged the artist to begin creating his unique form of collage and, according to Chamberlain, set him on a lifelong journey to explore art as the quest of "finding out what you don't already know."2 By 1958, he began to include scrap metal from cars in his work, and from 1959 onward he concentrated on sculpture built entirely out of crushed automobile parts welded together. He developed a particular method of assemblage by bending, twisting, and welding larger pieces of colored steel hewn from disused car parts. His astonishingly balanced sculptures underscored their deep volumes and eccentric folds, created by squeezing or compressing the metal and then collaging the disparate elements into complex compositions. He also incorporated color into his work, using the slick, industrial palette of the defunct auto bodies. In doing so, he achieved what was often characterized as a three-dimensional form of Abstract Expressionism that both impressed critics and captured the imagination of his fellow artists.
While he continued to make sculpture from auto parts, Chamberlain also began to experiment with other mediums. From 1963 to 1965, he created geometric paintings with sprayed automobile paint. In 1966, he began a series of sculptures made from rolled, folded, and tied urethane foam. These were followed, in 1970, by sculptures of melted or crushed metal and heat-crumpled Plexiglas.
Over the last three decades, Chamberlain worked on many variations of his basic artistic equation, moving toward ever more aggressive manipulations of form and color. He embraced the use of common materials, manipulating them to create bold, expressive, and lyrical sculptures. Chamberlain passed away on December 21, 2011.
1. Paul Tschinkel, John Chamberlain: Modern Sculpture, Art/New York 52 (New York: Inner-Tube Video, 1999), transcript, p. 7.
2. Julie Sylvester, "Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain," in Sylvester, John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture, 1954–1985, exh. cat. (New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1986), pp. 11, 24.