While at Black Mountain College in 1955–56, John Chamberlain encountered poets Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, who confirmed the artist’s belief that everyday elements—be they words or painted metals—could
be mobilized in novel conjunctions to make unexpected sense: fresh, immedi- ate, direct, and divested of narrative and commentary. As his art matured in the early 1960s, his large-scale painterly shapes, vigorous and voluptuous in form, seemed to many the quintessential Abstract Expressionist sculpture, the progeny of the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. To others who focused on its material—crushed automobile parts in sweet, hard colors, redolent of the Detroit cars of the 1950s—his work was more appropriately aligned with Pop art.
The artist Donald Judd (also represented in Dia’s collection), was a longtime supporter of Chamberlain’s work and noted the balance between his capacious, open forms and common, neutral materials. Judd concluded that he was “the first to use automobile metal and to use color successfully in sculpture,” challenging “the prevailing idea of sculpture as a solid mass.” Concealing the quality of the metal and the shape of the inner structure, individual components interlock organically, articulating into single expressive bodies that bear unexpected, even puzzling names such as Flufft (1977), Coup d’Soup (1980), and Pigmeat’s E♭Bluesong (1981). These titles are usually found words and expressions, and they are never referential or descriptive. Rather, they account for Chamberlain’s poetic sensibility and his taste for unlikely associations. Some of them were even composed by randomly shuffling index cards.
In the late 1960s, Chamberlain took a three-year sabbatical from steel to use other materials, such as urethane foam, synthetic polymers, and aluminum foil. In the mid-1970s, Chamberlain returned to automotive parts and other recovered steel components, which he deployed with increasing inventiveness. While encouraging assistants to improvise on his elements with further cutting, crushing, torqueing, and crimping, he also elaborated his enameled surfaces with sprayed, stenciled, dribbled, graffitied, and airbrushed coats of color—jazzy, tropical, even raucously patterned. Occasionally restricted palettes only enhance the ebullience of his usual spectrum.
In 1980, as his work became more monumental, Chamberlain relocated from New York to Sarasota, Florida, in search of an affordable studio with high ceilings and abundant space. Paradoxically, the first body of work he produced in Sarasota was a series of low-slung, meandering works made from small planar elements threaded into, draped over, and perched on horizontal linear armatures forged from dismembered truck chassis. Each of these works, the Gondolas (1981–82), is dedicated to a poet, as evidenced in Gondola T. S. Eliot and Gondola W. H. Auden (both 1981), for example.
In the late 1980s, Chamberlain reinvigorated his signature mode, reverting to volumetric compactness, as illustrated in Daddy in the Dark (1988), where little remains of the material’s past life as an automobile. Working improvisationally and intuitively, long slivers of white metal weave and twist organically like surreal vegetation, manifesting once again Chamberlain’s humorous fusion of material concretion and chance-generated fancy.