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From Crumpled Cadillacs to Creative Repurposing, John Chamberlain remains a Master of Metal

Imagine a daunting assemblage of twisted, painted metal. Look closely and maybe there will be a distorted car door or mangled fender – was this pile once a Ford? A Cadillac? An Oldsmobile? A combination thereof? These are the questions and aesthetics one can expect to ask and encounter when viewing a John Chamberlain sculpture. Between 1954 and his death in 2011, the American artist created a prolific body of work, earning worldwide renown for his metal-based sculptures. To create such works, Chamberlain took readymade materials, often found in scrapyards, and transformed them into abstract colorful forms. But make no mistake: the artist did not work with found materials, but rather, his materials were chosen, each piece of metal specifically selected for the way it fit amongst others. As he famously said, “Some seem to think that I work with found pieces, but I don’t. They’re chosen, you see. The idea is that there has been a lot of magic implied in the choice.”



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.


One might be tempted to read into his use of disused car parts or a title like 'Shortstop', with all the baseball and Americana culture it entails, but Chamberlain’s “sculpture is not calculated to do anything other than what it looks like it’s doing,” the artist himself said in 1982. So, where some see car crashes and crumpled Cadillacs, he saw creative repurposing. Such a perspective directly reflects his influence from Abstract Expressionist painters like Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, who held similar stances towards interpretation and meaning. With his sculptures, Chamberlain brought Abstract Expressionism into the three-dimensional realm: “Kline gave me the structure,” he once said, “[and] de Kooning gave me the color.”


Despite his close associations with the Ab-Ex movement, Chamberlain also had affinities with Pop, Minimalism, and Neo-Dada. In the 1960s, living in New York City, he ran in the same circles as Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, all of whom even bought his works at a gallery exhibition in 1961: Warhol purchased 'Jackpot' (1961), which became the only work displayed in his Factory for years to come; Judd acquired the wall relief 'Mr. Press' (1961/69); and Johns came to own 'Fantail' (1961). A decade later, when Judd was creating the Chianti Foundation in Marfa, Texas, he arranged for the permanent installation of a group of Chamberlain’s works, including nine 'Texas Pieces' in the former Wool and Mohair Building, where they remain today. During this time, Chamberlain was simultaneously experimenting with his artistic practice. He moved away from the sole use of car parts to also include household appliances and in the summer of 1966, he began squeezing and tying urethane foam. A succession of sculptures made from other materials followed: he crushed galvanized steel boxes, he treated paper bags with resin, he melted and vacuum-mineral-coated Plexiglas boxes, and he crumpled aluminum. In 1968, he made a film that has since become a cult art classic: 'The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez'. By 1974, however, Chamberlain returned to sheet metal as his primary material and, after this period of experimentation, said he “was really glad to be back to this metal business.”


Metal overlaid with dripped, sprayed, patterned, and sandblasted paint became the common ground on which Chamberlain built the remaining four decades of his artistic career. The artist continued to operate under the belief that if the scale was correct, the size didn’t matter; that if he chose the right parts, they would fit together to form the whole. “It’s that fit that really has importance—a crucial part of what art is about,” he once said. Towards the end of the 1980s, he cut discarded tops of vans into metal ribbons, which he crumpled and twisted until they found their perfect fit, and his works continued to explode with colors ranging from shining chrome to rusted yellows and whites. Although many elements, like material and color, remained constant throughout Chamberlain’s last decades, as time progressed, so did his scale. Towards the end of life, Chamberlain created some of the largest works in his oeuvre, including 'C’ESTEZESTY', which towers over viewers at almost 20 feet high. Other notable works from this time include 'Awesomemeatloaf', 'Hawkfliesagain', and 'Superjuke' (all 2011), and such titles might once again lead the mind towards certain associations. However, with all of Chamberlain’s work, as the art critic and New Yorker staff writer Peter Schjeldahl once wrote, “The mangle is the message.” Text: Emily McDermott