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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Gangster of Love

Gangster of Love
chromium-plated and painted steel
90 x 74 x 50 in. (228.5 x 188 x 127 cm.)
Executed in 1985.
Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles
Rita and Toby Schreiber, California
Their sale; Christie's, New York, 12 November 2003, lot 380
Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
D. Bourdon, "Artist's Dialogue: John Chamberlain, The Squeeze and the Fit" Architectural Digest, November 1985, pp. 70, 76 and 81 (illustrated).
K. Baker. "Poetry from Scraps of Steel" San Francisco Chronicle, 24 August 1986, p. 12.
J. Sylvester, John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985, New York, 1986, p. 215, no. 787 (illustrated).
Margo Leavin Gallery: 25 Years, exh. cat., Los Angeles, Margo Leavin Gallery, September-October 1995 (illustrated).
J. Frank, CRUSHED: gangster of love, New York, 2014 (illustrated).
S. Davidson, John Chamberlain: Choices. New York, 2012, p 217.
Los Angeles, Margo Leavin Gallery, John Chamberlain, March 1985.
Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Structure to Resemblance: Work by Eight American Sculptors, June-August 1987, n.p., no. 7 (illustrated).
New York, Pace Gallery, John Chamberlain, April-July 2011.
New York, Nahmad Contemporary, Gangster of Love/Crushed: Jan Frank/John Chamberlain, June 2014.

Brought to you by

Michael Baptist
Michael Baptist Associate Vice President, Specialist, Co-Head of Day Sale

Lot Essay

"Jesse James, Frank James, Billy the Kid and all the rest
Supposed to have been some bad cats, out in the West
If they could have they dug me, and my gangster ways
They’d have hung up their guns, and made it to the grave
’Cause I’m a gangster of love"
Johnny “Guitar” Watson

A towering presence of jagged form and vivid color, Gangster of Love (1985) is a monumental example of John Chamberlain’s revolutionary abstract sculpture. It rears up over seven feet in height, and is executed in the artist’s signature medium of crushed automotive steel. Vertical, pleated sheets form the crumpled bulk of the work, which is capped with horizontal, jutting panels; one silver element reaches out like a playful limb. Some sections are chromium-plated, others left the original shade of their manufacture, and still others spray-painted by Chamberlain himself. The upshot is a cornucopia of hues, ranging from oily silver through magenta, purples, blues, yellows, pastel green and tangerine, played out over a billowing, complex folded surface. Chamberlain saw himself as a collagist of steel, relying on intuition to assemble his twisted, vibrant works. He drew upon his milieu of American poets and Abstract Expressionist painters to reinvent sculpture as a lyrical effusion of volume and color. Gangster of Love’s title, taken from the blues hit by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, complements its swagger, rhythm and exuberance.

Chamberlain was born in Rochester, Indiana, in 1927, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He toured the Pacific and Mediterranean during a mid-1940s stint in the US Navy, and in 1950 studied hairdressing in Chicago through the G.I. Bill: he later worked as a hairdresser and makeup artist in between his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago (1951-52) and Black Mountain College in North Carolina (1955-56), where he met the poets Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. He moved to New York in 1956, and made his first sculpture out of a car part the following year at the Southampton home of the painter Larry Rivers, who had a rusting 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 direct, uncompromising approach would continue to drive Chamberlain’s work for decades to come. While some have read an irony into his use of cannibalized car-parts—remnants, 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 automotive metal was simply available and easy to manipulate, like marble was for Bernini. With its integral surface of readymade color, it also revealed the works as assemblies of individual parts, mapping the choices and stages of their construction.

Just as the canvases of his friends Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline record the physical actions that created them, part of the subject matter of Chamberlain’s works is their making, and how structure is derived from process. By liberating his medium from its traditional anthropomorphism and planned construction, Chamberlain was able to make sculpture as free as painting. Complete with the applied color which characterizes his later works—he would also sometimes scuff or sandblast metal to reveal the silver beneath—Gangster of Love exemplifies the mature practice of an artist who, by 1985, was revered as a modern master. Chamberlain had been awarded a number of major public commissions since his first retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1971, and would receive another career survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1986.

The raw, renegade magic of Chamberlain’s work is distinct in postwar American art. Inspired as he was by de Kooning’s colors and Kline’s potent structures, his vernacular materials tend to refute the mythic, existentialist bent of Abstract Expressionism. His incorporation of vehicle parts as “found objects” might also seem to imply a Pop-inflected commentary on contemporary culture, but Chamberlain disavowed this idea completely. “For twenty-five years I’ve been using colored 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, ibid., p. 21). His works’ material and chromatic coherence, meanwhile, won him the admiration of the Minimalist artist and critic Donald Judd, who wrote 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, in Donald Judd Complete Writings 1959-1975, New York 2005, p. 46). Yet Chamberlain’s instinctive, haptic process was worlds away from the rigid purity of Minimalism. In the 1970s he even made sculptures from the crushed metal of some of Judd’s “boxes”, which, slightly damaged in transit, the exacting Judd had discarded.

In Gangster of Love as in many other works, the car-crushing bravado of Chamberlain’s technique is offset by its cavorting colors and variegated, gestural beauty. No stranger to cosmetics, the artist married his works’ formal strength with unabashed visual bliss. Chamberlain saw steel and color as a poet sees words, synthesizing their qualities in songs of mangled metal. Gangster of Love is a lavish, romantic statement of freedom. “There is material to be seen around you every day”, Chamberlain 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 recognizable 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, ibid., p. 11).

"Art is one of the great gifts. It ranks right up there with gardening and sex. Art has a lot to do with feeling". John Chamberlain

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