John Chamberlain was born in Rochester, Indiana, in 1927, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. After serving in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946, he attended the Art Institute of Chicago (1951–52) and Black Mountain College (1955–56), where he also taught sculpture. The recipient of numerous awards, Chamberlain was honored with two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1966 and 1977, the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in Washington DC, both in 1993, The National Arts Club Award in New York in 1997, and the Guild Hall Academy of the Fine Arts, Visual Arts Honoree for the 22nd Annual Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. Chamberlain has had numerous gallery and museum exhibitions, including shows at Leo Castelli Gallery, Gagosian Gallery, the 1964 Venice Biennale, and retrospectives at the Museum of Contemporary Art: Los Angeles in 1986, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1971 and 2012. Chamberlain is in many lauded collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Menil Collection, Houston, the Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, and Centre Pompidou, Paris. Chamberlain died in New York in December 2011.
Championed as the sculptural manifestation of Abstract Expressionism, John Chamberlain channeled the exuberance of Post-War painting and mixed it with the reflexivity of Pop Art. Beginning with welded iron pieces that evoked David Smith’s “drawings in space,” Chamberlain’s tactics quickly evolved into his more mature and colorful automobile assemblages for which he is best known. While he constantly found new ways to shape and form his sculptures – becoming ever-more voluminous and colorful over the years – the car body was his primary source material up until his death in 2011. Chamberlain also experimented with melting and shaping plastic-resin, and briefly worked with tied and cut pieces of urethane-foam. Both tactics exploit the qualities inherent in the materials. Like Duchamp with his readymades, Chamberlain wanted to intervene on the perceived functions of objects, and, by changing our perceptions, reveal something new. The artist pioneered a new lexicon for sculpture-making that still holds currency. A work by Chamberlain, be it metal, paper or plastic, is a totemic tribute to a life of consumerism and mass-production, which took hold of America in the 1950s and continues to define us today.