A practice that yielded such magic took time to develop. Before embarking on his artistic career, Chamberlain, who was born in 1927, had a tumultuous young adulthood: He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and served in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946. Upon returning, he studied hairdressing and then tried to teach himself to draw between shifts working as a hair and makeup instructor at a modeling school. He eventually enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago but lasted only 18 months; he frequently fought with instructors, whom he found narrow-minded. However, from 1955 to 1957, he attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he encountered like-minded artists, including Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan, who helped refine his vision.
The period following Black Mountain College proved to be defining for the rest of Chamberlain’s life. In 1957, he rented his friend and fellow artist Larry River’s house in Southampton, New York, where he found a rusting, defunct 1929 Ford pie wagon in the backyard. He was compelled to remove the fenders, drive over them with his own car, and then twist and weld the metal together with steel rods. This process resulted in what is now regarded as Chamberlain’s seminal piece 'Shortstop' (1958) and set the stage for years to come: From then on, the artist created genre-defying sculptures built entirely of crushed automobile parts, fit perfectly together like puzzle pieces.