There has never been a consensus on how to classify and evaluate the art of John Chamberlain. In the early 1960s, when his art matured, it seemed to many to be the quintessential, if belated, Abstract Expressionist sculptural statement; its vigorously gestural, visceral abstract idiom was seen as falling within a direct line of descent from the art of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.1 To others who focused less on its form than on its material—crushed automobile parts in sweet, hard colors, redolent of Detroit cars of the 1950s—it was more appropriately aligned with the contemporary work of many Pop artists.
By the end of the 1960s, Chamberlain had replaced his signature materials initially with galvanized steel, then with urethane foam and mineral-coated Plexiglas, and finally with aluminum foil, all in the guise of pristine raw material that was variously wadded, compacted, and compressed according to its individual structural properties. Alignments with Process art were then discerned. Affinities with the art of Donald Judd, Chamberlain's longtime supporter and most discerning critic, were also detected, as at other moments in this heteroclite's career. In the mid-1970s, further eluding easy classification and forestalling prediction, he reverted to using automotive parts after a seven-year-long sabbatical.
Chamberlain has since continued to deploy this distinctive material in increasingly inventive ways. While encouraging assistants to improvise freely on his established set of elements by further cutting, crushing, torquing, and crimping them, he has also elaborated their enameled surfaces by spraying, stenciling, dribbling, graffitiing, and airbrushing additional coats of brilliant hues—hot, jazzy, tropical, and even raucously patterned. Ever ready to capitalize on accidental and chance occurrences, Chamberlain has occasionally resorted to a more restricted palette of, say, luscious black, cream, and chrome, as found in Dooms Day Flotilla of 1982. Such temporary restraints only enhance the sumptuous efflorescence of his usual ebullient rainbow spectrum.
Chamberlain's range of given forms has likewise expanded over the years. As an indigent young artist he was drawn to scrap metal primarily because it was free and plentiful. Consequently, he embraced a miscellany of secondhand metals, found in such diverse objects as kitchen cabinets, buckets, and steel benches, as well as the more ubiquitous crushed car parts.2 He later ordered boxes constructed to his specifications in galvanized steel or Plexiglas and appropriated metal barrels fresh from the fabricator. When he returned to automotive material in the mid-1970s, he streamlined his repertoire by concentrating selectively on particular car parts—fenders and bumpers at one moment, truck chassis at another. The recent works' parts—which have been transfigured into narrow, crenellated, ribbonlike forms—have less decipherable industrial origins: devoid of rust or other evidence of aging, they bear few traces of their past lives. Such formal shifts and feints in Chamberlain's vocabulary over a period of some four decades reveal the restlessness of this obsessive, agile artist, whose oeuvre extends beyond sculpture and related modes to film, printmaking, painting, relief, language, environmental sculpture, and even more exploratory vehicles, not least of which are the remarkable "barges" and smaller foam couches.
In the early 1960s, Chamberlain created sculpture that introduced volume and color into this three-dimensional art form in wholly new ways. As Judd astutely and presciently noted, Chamberlain's welters of voluminous forms swell and furl, bend and fold, in and around a hollow spatial core, limning, demarcating, and ordering it contingently rather than absolutely, provisionally rather than fixedly. Without displacing this negative inner space with solid form, they create a plastic art that remains resolutely porous and airy.3 Individual components fit together through an assemblage technique that requires the parts to interlock literally and organically to create the form. For Chamberlain only resorts to spot welding after a work is resolved, and then merely to ensure that it remain stable and secure once it has left the studio. Grounded in an intuitive method of collaging, his intractable, large-scale painterly shapes—abstract and neutral in form as well as reference—can be thought of as three-dimensional equivalents to the gestural vocabularies wielded by de Kooning and Kline, and as freely, rapidly, and spontaneously deployed in ways that, like theirs, preclude any after-the-fact tinkering, any retrospective adjusting of composition, color, or balance. As formative to Chamberlain's burgeoning aesthetic as the example of these Action painters was his encounter at Black Mountain College in 1955–56 with the poets Charles Olsen, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, who were teaching there that semester. This interaction further confirmed his understanding of the ways in which everyday elements—be they words or bits of colored metal— could be mobilized in novel conjunctions to make unexpected kinds of sense: fresh, immediate, direct, and thus divested (particularly in the case of poetry) of narrative and commentary, as well as (in the case of sculpture) of image, referent, and subject.4
In 1980 Chamberlain relocated from New York to Sarasota, Florida, in quest of an affordable studio with high ceilings and abundant space. As evidenced in the extravagant densities of The Line Up (Dedicated to the Sarasota Police Department) (1982), his work soon became more monumental, whether it was confined to the wall or freestanding—or somewhere in between. 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 whose work he had first encountered at Black Mountain College. Responding to latent aspects of his familiar material, Chamberlain for the first time created compositions that build incremen-tally from one element to another along the etiolated scaffolding, the ground-hugging spine. Structure, composition, color, line, plane, shape, and surface are all to a certain degree discrete, verging at points on fragmentation. The works therefore require a more attenuated, more leisurely mode of apprehension in space and time than had his more densely impacted congeries, which only slowly and after repeated scrutiny reveal inner order and resolution beyond the seemingly happenstance and inchoate, the nonchalant and promiscuous.
Many of the subsequent works Chamberlain made in Florida revert to more volumetric, compact configurations, often aligned on a vertical axis. As seen in the so-called Giraffe series (circa 1982–83), for example, linear patterns cavort over multicolored surfaces—the results of sandblasting the metal, removing the paint, and exposing the raw surface beneath. The process counterpoints scarred, pitted, and peeling industrial hues with discordantly confectionary tones.
In the late 1980s, Chamberlain again reinvigorated his signature mode, this time by confining himself to more regular geometric forms in which the works' lithe, ribbonlike components are evenly articulated to create an allover field that is more or less symmetrically weighted; the forms also introduce an atypical degree of referentiality. The Privet (1997), the key work in an exhibition he playfully titled "Chamberlain's Fauve Landscape" (1998), is among his largest sculptures to date. Intertwining fronds of metal tendrils corkscrew into a dense, candy-colored skein, a tracery that is as pictorial as it is plastic as once more he revisited the interface of painting and sculpture, ever at the crux of his practice. Appropriate to the belatedness of his engagement with a morphology once closely associated with Minimalism is his sly sidestepping of questions of gravity and gravitas in favor of grace, wit, and élan. Necessarily less improvisational and intuitive than his previous work, The Privet manifests the artist's abiding drive to wrest a new terrain from a deliberately restricted style, a terrain located on the edges of the known and expected.
1. See, for example, William C. Agee, "The Year of John Chamberlain," The New Criterion 6, no. 3 (November 1987), pp. 49–53, and Michael Auping, "John Chamberlain," in Art of Our Time: The Saatchi Collection (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), pp. 12-16. John Chamberlain himself states that he felt intuitively connected to the Abstract Expressionists; he especially admired Willem de Kooning's dexterous compositional complexities and Franz Kline's muscular speed and power.
2. "In the early sculptures I used anything made of steel that had color on it. There were metal benches, metal signs, sand pails, lunch boxes, stuff like that. . . . Body shops would cut parts away and I would choose what I wanted from whatever was in their scrap pile. . . . I wasn't interested in the car parts per se. I was interested in either the color or the shape or the amount. I didn't want engine parts, I didn't want wheels, upholstery, glass, oil, tires, rubber, lining . . . none of that. Just the sheet metal. It already had a coat of paint on it, and some of it was formed. . . . I believe that common materials are the best materials." Chamberlain has reiterated this credo many times. Chamberlain, in Julie Sylvester, "Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain," in John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954–1985 (New York: Hudson Hills Press, in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1986), pp. 15, 17.
3. Donald Judd remains the most astute of Chamberlain's many critics. His laconic, phlegmatic tone and spare, Hemingwayesque style frame his incisive assertions, such as the following: "Initially and recurrently the metal is neutral, pretty much something as anything is something." Judd, quoted in John Chamberlain: New Sculpture (New York: Pace Gallery, 1989), pp. III; reprinted in Art International 7, no. 10 (1964), p. 39.
4. For a fuller account, see Sylvester, "Auto/Bio." Chamberlain's titles, of which Taoist Toast (1994) is representative, isolate, then juxtapose individual words; these often derive from the experiments in wordplay he made at Black Mountain College.