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John Chamberlain (1927-2011)
On occasion, Christie’s has a direct financial int… Read more
John Chamberlain (1927-2011)

Air Diamonds

Details
John Chamberlain (1927-2011)
Air Diamonds
painted steel and lacquer
106¾ x 54¾ x 50in. (271 x 139 x 123cm.)
Executed in 1989
Provenance
Galerie Karsten Greve, Cologne.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1990.
Special notice

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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘John Chamberlain is the first artist in post-World War II America to rehabilitate sculpture’s volume and to achieve for it a potent presence and the radicality of painting. His ability to make roundness into colour and colour into roundness, pushing the two into an overall unity, is without equal’
KLAUS KERTESS

‘Art is one of the great gifts. It ranks right up there with gardening and sex. Art has a lot to do with feeling. I’m sorry to be so blunt’
JOHN CHAMBERLAIN


Unfurling in an ecstasy of jagged form and vivid colour, Air Diamonds (1989) is a lavish and monumental example of John Chamberlain’s revolutionary abstract sculpture. The work rears up almost three metres in height, and is executed in the artist’s signature medium of crushed automotive steel. Some sections are metallic and unpainted, others left the original shade of their manufacture, and still others painted and lacquered by Chamberlain himself: the upshot is a cornucopia of gleaming hues, ranging from oily silver through sweet magentas, royal purples, marine blues, bitter yellows, pastel greens and tropic flashes of orange. These tones play over a crumpled, folded surface that billows, juts, plunges, whorls and flares out from the structure’s volcanic vertical thrust. Eschewing premeditated composition, Chamberlain saw himself as a collagist of steel, relying on a keen visual intuition to assemble his twisted, vibrant, voluminous works. He drew upon the milieu of poets and Abstract Expressionist painters with whom he mingled in mid-century New York to reinvent his medium as a poetry of volume and colour. The results are spectacular, fascinating and unlike anything achieved before in sculpture. As Klaus Kertess wrote in 1986, ‘John Chamberlain is the first artist in post- World War II America to rehabilitate sculpture’s volume and to achieve for it a potent presence and the radicality of painting. His ability to make roundness into colour and colour into roundness, pushing the two into an overall unity, is without equal’ (K. Kertess, ‘Colour in the Round and Then Some: John Chamberlain’s Work, 1954-1985, in John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-85, New York 1986, p. 38). Air Diamonds’ lyrical, free-associative title captures the opulence of a work that is a flowering multiplicity of optical joy, a rich, variegated whole that offers new pleasures and intrigues from every angle.

Chamberlain first made a sculpture out of a car part in 1957 at the house of the painter Larry Rivers, who had a rusting 1929 Ford convertible on his property. ‘I took a fender’, Chamberlain recalled. ‘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 J. Sylvester, ‘Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain’, in John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-85, New York 1986, p. 15). This directness of approach would continue to characterise Chamberlain’s work for decades to come. While some have read an irony into his cannibalising of automobiles – the destruction, after all, of the emblematic product of the post-industrial American Dream – Chamberlain was less interested in his material’s origins than in its immediate visual qualities; he often said that it was simply available and easy to manipulate, much as marble was for Michelangelo. With its integral surface of readymade colour, auto metal also allows a narrative interaction of the work’s individual parts, mapping the stages, choices and procedures in its construction. For, much as the Abstract Expressionist canvases of his friends Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline are partly about their painting, Chamberlain’s work is about its making, and how structure is derived from process. Liberating his medium from the planar, planned construction and anthropomorphic baggage that limited even his radical forebear David Smith, Chamberlain finally made sculpture as free as painting. Complete with the new improvisatory joy of added colour and pattern – sometimes scuffed or sandblasted to reveal the metal beneath – Air Diamonds is a triumph of his mature practice.

The raw, renegade magic of Chamberlain’s work stands alone in the artistic movements of postwar America. Inspired as he was by the colours of de Kooning and the structural power of Kline, his own materials’ distinctly vernacular edge stops any mythic or existentialist bent in its tracks: this is not Abstract Expressionist sculpture. On the other hand, his incorporation of vehicle parts as ‘found objects’ might also seem to bespeak a Pop-inflected commentary on contemporary culture – but he disavowed any such angle completely. ‘For twenty-five years I’ve been using coloured metal to make sculpture,’ he said, ‘and all they can think of is, “What the hell car did that come from?” Who gives a shit what car it came from?’ (J. Chamberlain, quoted in J. Sylvester, ‘Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain’, in John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-85, New York 1986, p. 21). Further, his works’ non-imagistic unity and adherence to truth in materials offer a comparison with the Minimalism of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Judd was an admirer, writing in 1962 that ‘The only reason Chamberlain is not the best American sculptor under forty is the incommensurability of “the best” which makes it arbitrary to say so’ (D. Judd, ‘In the Galleries: John Chamberlain’, 1962, Complete Writings 1959-1975, New York 2005, p. 46). But Chamberlain’s process was vastly different: he worked through instinct and passion, not through the rigid, rule-based regimentation of the Minimalists. In the 1970s he even made work from crushed Donald Judd boxes, which, slightly damaged in transit, the austere perfectionist Judd had discarded. Chamberlain’s is an art of adaptation and expression, not suppression. ‘Art is one of the great gifts’, he once said. ‘It ranks right up there with gardening and sex. Art has a lot to do with feeling. I’m sorry to be so blunt’ (J. Chamberlain, quoted in J. Sylvester, ‘Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain’, in John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-85, New York 1986, p. 25).

The tough, masculine car-crushing element of Chamberlain’s creation is offset by the cavorting colours and exuberant gestural beauty of a finished work such as Air Diamonds. The sculpture is a marriage of formal intelligence and visual bliss. Indeed, as Judd himself later observed, ‘Chamberlain’s sculpture is simultaneously turbulent, passionate, cool and hard. The structure is the passionate part. The obvious comparison is to the structure of Baroque art: there is a diagrammatic resemblance and one of emotion, but certainly not one of philosophy’ (D. Judd, ‘Chamberlain: Another View’, 1963, Complete Writings 1959-1975, New York 2005, p. 110). What, then, was Chamberlain’s philosophy? He saw his components as a poet sees words, composing a dynamic synthesis from the linguistic building blocks of steel and colour, speaking in mangled metal. Suffused with soaring abstract energy, Air Diamonds is a lush, lyrical statement of his unique mission. ‘There is material to be seen around you every day’, he said, ‘But one day something – some one thing – pops out at you, and you pick it up, and you take it over, and it fits, it’s just the right thing at the right moment. You can do the same thing with words or with metal. I guess that’s part of my definition of art. Art is a peculiar madness in which you use other means of communication, means that are recognisable to other people, to say something that they haven’t yet heard, or haven’t perceived, or had repressed’ (J. Chamberlain, quoted in J. Sylvester, ‘Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain’, in John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-85, New York 1986, p. 11).

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