John Chamberlain's Hatband of 1960 is a superb floor sculpture constructed from brightly colored, salvaged automobile body steel. Hatband is an early example of the unique sculptural style for which Chamberlain would become renowned, transforming car metal into wonderfully abstract intersecting forms and contours. In harnessing the sculptural power of automotive steel fragments, Chamberlain explored this expressly modern medium with immense formal ingenuity, while simultaneously evoking the automobile's central role in transforming American society. The present work can be interpreted in terms of broad themes of ascendant capitalism, consumerism, industry, and the waste that is left in their wake. Hatband is a colorful, bold abstraction of metal that is as complex as it is beautiful, and bears witness to the artist's important contribution to both aesthetic and theoretical aspects of mid-twentieth century Modernism.
Hatband captures Chamberlain's innovative approach to sculptural volume. From a small base, the work rises upward into a voluminous expanse that seems to defy the force of gravity. These folded sheets of metal are contorted by the artist into complexly undulating forms that engage the space around them. Donald Judd greatly admired Chamberlain, and recognized the striking originality of his engagement with space. In a review of 1962, Judd declared that "voluminousness is not secondary but is salient in Chamberlain's work, is his unique idea" (D. Judd, "In the Gallery," Arts Magazine, March 1962). Moreover, Judd perspicaciously discerned the importance of Chamberlain's working method, whereby reconfiguring previously employed materials could suggest the possibility of infinite flux and freedom. As Judd expounded, "The seeming superfluity, openness and capacity for expansion and change of the involuted metal - this is a primary quality. If something is done freely, the activity proliferates its own distinctions, grows to contain an order not of control but of more choices. Freedom, as one aspect, and indeterminacy, as another, are for Chamberlain antecedent to and larger than order" (Ibid.).
Chamberlain had discovered a talent for working with volume even before he began his studies as an artist. After serving in the Navy during the Second World War, he intermittently worked as a hairdresser, and has acknowledged that he had an exceptional talent for constructing the cantilevered bouffant hairstyles for women that were in fashion at the time. Soon after, he discovered art and followed a path of artistic training that would lead him briefly to the Art Institute of Chicago and then the avant-garde bastion Black Mountain College. There, he became particularly engaged in poetry, led by experimental poets such as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Robert Creely. He was drawn to their boundary-pushing approach to language, which would later influence his approach to the materials of sculpture as well as the way he titled his pieces, often incorporating enigmatic names and word play to complicate how the viewer perceived his work.
Upon moving to New York in 1956, Chamberlain joined the raucous scene at the Cedar Bar, where the heavy hitters of Abstract Expressionism came to drink and debate. While most members of the scene were grappling with the redefinition of painting, Chamberlain forged his own path in sculpture, which in many ways stands as the most eloquent sculptural counterpart of the ideals of Abstract Expressionist painting. Chamberlain has admitted that the power of Franz Kline and the color of Willem de Kooning's painting had an important effect on him, albeit intuitively rather than consciously. Hatband shares with Abstract Expressionism a powerful sense of spontaneity and traces of process in its crumpled, rusted and scraped steel. Improvisation was essential in Chamberlain's adoption of auto parts as sculptural medium; while visiting Larry Rivers in 1957, Chamberlain ran out of materials so he impulsively took the fenders off of Rivers's old Ford and ran over them to give them the shape he wanted.
Hatband is a seminal work created during the first year Chamberlain began making his large scale car metal sculptures. Chamberlain grew immensely fond of the material and would eventually purchase it directly from the manufacturer, although his early works such as Hatband feature the immediacy and contextual implications that accompany salvaged material. Hoods, doors and fenders are interwoven in a composition that features strong fields of color and raw, oxidized surfaces. Color plays a vital role in his work - as Donald Judd forcefully claimed in the early sixties, "Chamberlain is the only sculptor really using color, the full range, not just metallic shades; his color is as particular, complex and structural as any good painter's" (Ibid.). Chamberlain took advantage of the existing colors on the fragments of car bodies, as exemplified in Hatband's rich rust color that beautifully contrasts with boxwood green, with accents of zinc white and red.
Judd emphatically praised Chamberlain's sculpture, claiming that in "its stature, complexity and type, the structure can be compared to that of the Baroque" (Ibid.).
Indeed, the powerful dynamism and complex spatial interplay in Chamberlain's sculptures such as Hatband have all the power of Baroque art, expressed in a distinctly modern and abstract form.