John Chamberlain - Biography and Legacy
American Filmmaker, Sculptor, Painter, and Printmaker
New York, New York, USA
Biography of John Chamberlain
Born April 16, 1927 in Rochester, Indiana, Chamberlain was the son of a fifth-generation saloonkeeper. When he was four his parents divorced and he went to live with his grandmother in Chicago. There he discovered an interest in music but lacked the talent to pursue the training. As a rebellious teenager he and a friend decided to hit the road for California. On their way they were arrested and told to move on: mostly to stay out of trouble Chamberlain lied about his age and joined the Navy at 16 in 1943.
Having served in the Pacific and the Mediterranean, Chamberlain returned to Detroit in 1948 and married for the first time. Two years later he moved to Chicago and decided to study hairdressing on the GI Bill. While working as a hairdresser and makeup artist he began to sketch and tried to teach himself to draw. He took some private lessons and discovered the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Inspired by its masterworks, he enrolled in the museum's school (1951-52) but found the teachers too conservative and narrow-minded. A paper he wrote about Hindu sculptures in the collection was rejected due to sexual content. Next Chamberlain tried the University of Illinois, but he only lasted six weeks because the faculty attitude was no better. Then a friend told him about Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and he went there to study in 1955 and 1956.
Though Black Mountain College operated for only 23 years (1933-57), its list of alumni is a remarkable roll call of American artists and poets. The arts were central to its mission, and collaboration between faculty and students was strongly encouraged. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg studied there shortly before Chamberlain arrived. Merce Cunningham and John Cage were their teachers: Cage staged the first "happening" at the college, and Buckminster Fuller made the first geodesic dome from Venetian blinds. These artists had all moved on to New York by the time Chamberlain arrived: only the poets who came to be known as the Black Mountain Poets remained: Chamberlain studied with Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan and revered their work throughout his life.
The Black Mountain Poets encouraged the use of improvisational techniques of free verse associating chance combinations of words and fragments of thought. Chamberlain wrote poetry in their style but also started to make welded metal sculptures openly inspired by the work of David Smith, who had used old tools and machine parts on iron rod armatures.
It was time for Chamberlain to move on to New York. Money was tight: he was running out of materials and had no studio space when he went to stay at the Long Island home of artist Larry Rivers. Rivers had an old car on the property. Thinking it was a "junker" Chamberlain helped himself to the bumpers. He ran a truck back and forth over them to bend them and then fitted the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. Shortstop (1957) is his first sculpture made from auto parts.
Chamberlain had a solo exhibition of his iron rod sculptures in Chicago in 1957 before his debut in New York in 1958 at Davida Gallery on Fifth Avenue. Chamberlain was thrilled that his new friends from the Cedar Tavern, a hangout for the Abstract Expressionists, attended. When Shortstop and his early auto parts sculptures were shown in 1959 critics immediately noticed his work. One wrote that they were "a construction from the wreckage of a motor car" imputing an aura of disaster.
Museum curators soon recognized the power of his work and in 1961 Chamberlain's sculptures appeared in the definitive group show The Art of Assemblage that established him as a major new talent in the field. His international reputation was assured in 1964 when his sculpture represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Chamberlain showed at Leo Castelli's New York gallery. He had grown weary of the critics' discussions of his choice of car parts and for a time he switched to unpainted galvanized steel. And he also experimented with resin-coated paper bags and blocks of foam rubber. These pieces contrasted an apparently rigid surface with inherent softness and fragility. His literary side was expressed in the movies he wrote and directed, which were inspired by a friendship with Andy Warhol. Chamberlain's The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez (1968), filmed in Mexico, was a cult hit.
From his arrival in New York in the 1950s, Chamberlain was a regular in the artists' bars of lower Manhattan such as the Cedar Tavern. Chamberlain knew the greats and said of those encounters, "[Franz] Kline gave me the structure and [Willem] de Kooning gave me the color." A heavy drinker, Chamberlain earned a reputation for rowdiness at Max's Kansas City, the Cedar Tavern's successor. The influential collector Allan Stone described him as a "gruff, hairy" character, "more like a north woodsman than a sculptor." Notwithstanding this judgment, the sculptor Donald Judd admired him and collected his miniature sculptures made of cigarette boxes. These early gifts formed the basis for a longstanding friendship between the two artists.
Chamberlain's art steadily gained recognition, but it was hard for critics to pigeonhole his work. He had made all the right gestures, but he wasn't a painter and the car parts were too literally just junk and not thoughtful "abstractions." Did that make him just an Expressionist? And what about his use of found objects and assemblage technique? Would this make him a Surrealist? Or was the automobile's aura of popular culture enough to fit him into the Pop art movement?
Chamberlain was friendly with all the artists who were creating the SoHo scene, and the one creative influence he shared with them was the primacy of the French Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, accessible to many until his death in 1968. Duchamp played chess on the sidewalks and in the parks of lower Manhattan, and although he told everyone he had stopped being an artist no one took that seriously. Instead Chamberlain's generation studied his readymades such as Bicycle Wheel (1913), In Advance of the Broken Arm (the snow shovel) (1964), Bottlerack (1914), and of course Fountain (1917), the urinal, when they appeared in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and drew what lessons they could from them. Johns and Rauschenberg were known to be friends of Duchamp, and their paintings and sculptures of the early 1960s made recognizable references to Duchamp's use of mundane objects that provoked shocked reactions when said to be works of art.
Chamberlain never went into bronze casting or stone carving, the time-honored materials of monumental sculptors. His work with automotive parts just grew bigger and brighter as he expanded his search for scrap materials and cheap industrial products used to produce everyday goods. He avoided specific imagery, avoided cultural messages, and made the sculptures succeed by their sheer audacity as visual objects.
Late Years and Death
Chamberlain had remarried in 1956 and fathered three sons with his wife Elaine. He moved his family frequently from New York to New Mexico, from Connecticut to California, and then to Florida establishing studios at all of these locations. The artist continued to experiment with a variety of materials: his translucent Plexiglas sculptures received their sparkling coatings in a vacuum chamber at the California studio of Larry Bell who also used the materials. Chamberlain further expanded his practice to include large-format photography.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Chamberlain received commissions for public art projects and was frequently honored for his work. In 1995 he suffered a major heart attack and had bypass surgery. The artist was married for the fourth time to Prudence Fairweather, Dan Flavin's former assistant. In 2000 he built a 72 by 80 foot studio on Shelter Island, where he had previously purchased a house. His wife announced his death in Manhattan on December 21, 2011 but declined to give a cause.
The Legacy of John Chamberlain
Chamberlain showed a new generation that sculpture could be made of anything, and in the late 1960s Minimalist sculptors like Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra began to work with industrial sheet metal, fluorescent light tubes, extruded aluminum, and poured metals. They carried his ideas into room-sized installations that challenged all interpretations: their physical existence was their meaning. Chamberlain's spontaneous working process was observed by another group of artists born in the 1940s who drove his instinctual approach to new directions. Lynda Benglis's poured latex pieces, Nancy Graves's fabricated animal skins, and Martin Puryear's and James Surls's works in wood were assembled in a 1987 exhibition Structure to Resemblance, where Chamberlain was featured as their ancestor. The large colorful paintings and later sculpture of Frank Stella also show attention paid to Chamberlain.