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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Elastic Jesus

Elastic Jesus
painted and chromium-plated stainless steel
116 ½ x 45 ½ x 53 ¾ in. (295.9 x 115.6 x 136.5 cm.)
Executed in 1989.
Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1989

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Allison Immergut
Allison Immergut Associate Vice President, Specialist, Co-Head of Day Sale

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Lot Essay

With a commanding physical presence, John Chamberlain’s Elastic Jesus is an exquisite example of the artist’s cutting edge abstract sculpture. Towering at a monumental nine feet in height, the present work demonstrates the artist’s signature use of transformed automotive metal through a fluted, vertical form. Manipulated and painted pieces of industrial detritus stretch, swirl, and reach to impressive heights, as if the sculpture has grown upward from the floor. Some of these elements are their original color, such as the reflective silver bumper, which is a constant in Chamberlain’s sculptures, while others – vibrant blues, oranges, pinks, and yellows – were painted in the process of the sculpture’s realization to create a rhythmic interplay of chroma. Chamberlain’s ability to transform known parts – the mass-produced automobile – into abstracted cascading forms of color and gesture set him apart from other artists maturing in the 1950s. In the present work, Chamberlain’s practice of reinvention and transformation is meaningfully expressed in this metamorphosis of materials.

“The definition of sculpture for me is stance and attitude. All sculpture takes a stance. If it dances on one foot, or, even if it dances while sitting down, it has a light-on-its-feet stance. What I do doesn’t look like heavy car parts laid up against a wall.” John Chamberlain

Born in Rochester, Indiana in 1927, Chamberlain focused his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and Black Mountain College in North Carolina. His time at Black Mountain College (1955-56) proved to be especially influential on his artistic practice, having studied amongst poets, such as Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, whose free verse form of poetry impacted Chamberlain’s own understanding of process. The intuitive nature of Chamberlain’s approach to making is also echoed in the work of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, who called forth an image in the process of making, rather than pre-determining what the final result of the work would be. While different in substance, there are obvious connections between the colorful compositions of the joined parts of a Chamberlain sculpture and the painterly gestures of Abstract Expressionist painters, such as Willem de Kooning, whose work Chamberlain deeply admired. In both instances, there is bodily presence, but rather enacting the body through dripping, pushing, or hurling paint, Chamberlain cut, bent, and curved metal parts.

Similarly to these artists, Chamberlain also rejected conventional concepts of art, utilizing commercial, pre-fabricated materials that were not obvious art materials. Having collected scraps from junk yards and auto shops, Chamberlain considered these objects to be chosen, rather than found, later stating “I think of my art materials not as junk but as garbage. Manure, actually; it goes from being the waste material of one being to the life-source of another” (John Chamberlain quoted in “John Chamberlain (1927-2011),” Artforum, December 2011, digital).

Chamberlain’s method, while innovative and spontaneous, was informed by a specific process whereby he would pair individual elements into smaller sections that he would then unite to form the whole. As seen in the present lot, a car’s mirror-like bumper glistens, peeking through behind individual pieces of sheet metal. The car bumper was often the artist’s starting point before he added additional altered and welded elements to his works, functioning as a quasi-spine or core to the sculpture, while the sheet metal acted as skin. Through Chamberlain’s joining and layering process, the disparate elements came together intrinsically, almost as if they had arranged themselves. These results are evidenced by the tactile, fluid, and synergized forms that reverberate rhythm and light in Elastic Jesus. It was also important that although the artist altered his materials, that the final product appear unaffected. This is gracefully displayed in the present lot, where the various lines, swirls, and ripples become a synchronized amalgamation color and form.

While abstract, there are natural connotations suggested by the artist’s use of mass-produced materials, such as post-industrialization, the American Dream, and consumerism; however, Chamberlain rejected any of these readings. Despite his aversion to interpretation, Chamberlain often used puns or allusions in the titles of his works, such as with the present lot, Elastic Jesus. The interconnection of these two words is quite absurd, but the notion of elasticity is especially felt in the buoyant appearance of the sculpture, which leans, suggesting it’s in motion. Chamberlain challenged himself to produce large-scale sculpture that appeared light and uplifted, despite the heavy, cumbersome nature of his chosen materials, and Elastic Jesus is a testament to this feat.

The present work encompasses these critical elements of Chamberlain’s practice – intuition, transformation, and equilibrium – while also marking an important shift in Chamberlain’s practice. Beginning in the 1980s, Chamberlain began to explore vertical orientations with his works and new source material, specifically, the metal of van tops, which could more easily be engineered into his desired forms. Both of these artistic evolutions are present in Elastic Jesus, where elongated, narrow strips of metal propel upward, some continuously reaching while others curl or crinkle back on themselves. The desire to develop his aesthetic language in the 1980s was no doubt emboldened by the institutional success the artist received during this period, including his second career retrospective at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1986 and the inclusion of his work at the inaugural exhibition of the Menil Collection, Houston, in 1987. By 1989 when Elastic Jesus was created, Chamberlain was already perceived as a master of sculpture, but the confidence and conviction with which he approached new possibilities in his work distinguish sculptures such as the present lot apart from the rest.

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