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John Chamberlain (1927-2011)
John Chamberlain (1927-2011)


John Chamberlain (1927-2011)
painted and chromium-plated steel
17 x 17 x 13 1/2 in. (43.2 x 43.2 x 34.2 cm.)
Executed in 1960.
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
Stephen Paine, Boston, 1961
Allan Stone Gallery, New York, 1970
The Mayor Gallery, London
Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Manilow, Chicago, 1978
B.C. Holland & Co., Chicago
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 13 November 1980, lot 62
Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner
J. Sylvester, John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture: 1945-1985, New York, 1986, p. 58, no. 59 (illustrated).
New York, Stable Gallery, New Sculpture Group, September-October 1960.
Boston University Art Gallery, Six Sculptors, March-April 1963.
London, The Mayor Gallery, John Chamberlain: An Exhibition of Sculpture: 1959-62, June-August 1977, n.p., no. 2 (illustrated).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Valentine belongs to the series of small-scale sculptures featured in John Chamberlain’s first solo exhibition at Martha Jackson Gallery, New York in 1960—the very same show that debuted the artist’s sculpted compositions in colored steel and launched his career. In the present lot, the contortion of sheet metal highlights its painted surface, as the accordioned form accentuates the contrast between the finished, outer color and the underbelly’s unadulterated, silvery metal. One fold of metal breaks free from the compacted form, like an extended wing, displaying the moment when the blue transitions into green. As the artist explained in an interview, “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. …I used a variety of parts. Body shops would cut parts away, and I would choose what I wanted from whatever was in their scrap pile” (J. Chamberlain, quoted in “Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain,” John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture, 1954-1985, New York, 1986, p. 15).

The artist’s decision to use colored steel—primarily from the bodies of automobiles—as the basis of his twisted and torqued abstract metal sculptures derived from happenstance. Having previously worked with the same iron rods used in building construction, Chamberlain went in search for another material when he ran out. Then, living at Larry Rivers’s farm in the Hamptons, he recalled in an interview how “all of a sudden, it occurred to me one day that all this material was just lying all over the place. I saw the material as other people’s idea of waste…Only years later did it occur to me that I had taken material from an antique car of his—it was material from a 1929 Ford. So it was an antique, it wasn’t throw-away junk. It was years later that I figured out that what I had done was a little presumptuous: to use material of his that very likely had some value to him. Nevertheless I took a fender. I didn’t want to use it as a fender, so I drove over it a few times to rearrange its shape, which was the beginning of what I now know as process” (J. Chamberlain, quoted in ibid., p. 15). And so began the artist’s signature use of car parts as the basis of his sculptural works of all sizes.

Chamberlain’s solo debut at Martha Jackson Gallery introduced him to the New York art world of the 1960s and its curators, resulting in the inclusion of the artist’s work in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art the following year. The exhibition’s curator, William C. Seitz, would position Chamberlain as the inheritor of a European tradition of assemblage begun in the words of poets Mallarmé and Apollinaire, and materialized in the images and objects of Cubist artists Picasso and Braque, Futurists Boccioni and Severini, Dadaists Arp and Höch, and Surrealists Oppenheim and Schwitters. Already a regular at the Cedar Tavern, the famed Greenwich Village hangout of the Abstract Expressionists, the torque and twisted forms of Chamberlain’s colored sculptures would earn him comparisons to arabesque drips and splatters of the preceding generation of painters. Critic Anita Ventura would write, “A strong pictorial sense is put up; the sculpture becomes essentially a painting in steel” (A. Ventura, quoted in D. Scharz, “To Create the Flow,” John Chamberlain: Papier Paradisio, Drawings, Collages, Reliefs, Paintings, Dusseldörf, 2005, p. 9). Remarking on the connection between his sculptures and Abstract Expressionist paintings, Chamberlain recalled: “the comparison of my color to de Kooning’s color has a lot to do with the fact that Detroit puts a lot of white in the color that they put in the paint that they mix for putting on cars” (J. Chamberlain, “Auto/Bio,” op. cit., p. 14).

For Chamberlain, the source and type of his materials—discarded automobiles, salvaged for parts—was inconsequential to its formal, aesthetic properties. “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, what somebody’d left in the car when they dumped it, dashboards, steering wheels, shafts, rear ends, muffler systems, transmissions, fly wheels, none of that. Just the sheet metal. It already had a coat of paint on it, and some of it was formed. You choose the material at a time when that’s the material you want to use, and then you develop your processes so that when you put things together it gives you a sense of satisfaction” (J. Chamberlain, ibid., p. 15). However, according to Diane Waldman, curator of the artist’s 1971 solo exhibition at the Guggenheim, the automobile had taken on an iconic status in American culture and could not so easily be eclipsed by color, shape and form. As she wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue, “The irony of using a mass-produced commodity which then, as now, stands as symbol of the American dream, and as a more particularized metaphor of American masculinity, has not been lost upon us—just as the transcendental character of pigment is impressed on us by de Kooning—and, indeed, heightens our awareness of the transformation of art” (D. Waldman, John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition, New York, 1971, p. 5).

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