John Chamberlain, American (1927 - 2011)

John Chamberlain

b. 1927, Rochester, Ind.

John Chamberlain was born April 16, 1927, in Rochester, Indiana. He grew up in Chicago and, after serving in the navy from 1943 to 1946, attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1951 to 1952. At that time, he began making flat, welded sculpture, influenced by the work of David Smith. In 1955 and 1956, Chamberlain studied and taught sculpture at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, where most of his friends were poets, among them Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson. By 1957, he began to include scrap metal from cars in his work, and from 1959 onward he concentrated on sculpture built entirely of crushed automobile parts welded together. Chamberlain’s first major solo show was held at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, in 1960.

Chamberlain’s work was widely acclaimed in the early 1960s. His sculpture was included in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961, and the same year he participated in the São Paulo Bienal. From 1962, Chamberlain showed frequently at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and in 1964 his work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale. While he continued to make sculpture from auto parts, Chamberlain also experimented with other mediums. In the late 1960s he switched from car parts to unpainted galvanized steel, then made pieces from resin-coated crushed paper bags. He also began using blocks of foam rubber that, when tied with cords, resulted in forms strikingly like his car-metal pieces, underscoring the seeming softness of such rigid pieces. In 1968, Mr. Chamberlain took a detour into filmmaking, the most notable result of which was the cult hit “The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez,” filmed in Mexico with Warhol regulars Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet in various states of intoxication and undress.

From 1963 to 1965, he made geometric paintings with sprayed automobile paint. In 1966, the same year he received the first of two fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he began a series of sculptures of rolled, folded, and tied urethane foam. These were followed in 1970 by sculptures of melted or crushed metal and heat-crumpled Plexiglas. Chamberlain’s work was presented in a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1971.

In the early 1970s, Chamberlain began once more to make large works from automobile parts. Until the mid-1970s, the artist assembled these auto sculptures on the ranch of collector Stanley Marsh in Amarillo, Texas. These works were shown in the sculpture garden at the Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, New York, in 1973 and at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, in 1975. In 1977, Chamberlain began experimenting with photography taken with a panoramic Wide-lux camera. His next major retrospective was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1986; the museum simultaneously copublished John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954–1985, authored by Julie Sylvester. In 1993, Chamberlain received both the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, Washington, D.C. The artist has lived and worked in Sarasota, Florida, since 1980.

Mr. Chamberlain devoted his life to challenging traditional notions of sculpture and to eroding the boundaries between sculpture and painting. He was among a wave of late-modernist sculptors who put color on an almost equal footing with form, and he had an uncanny ability, as the curator Klaus Kertess wrote, “to make roundness into color and color into roundness.”

Donald Judd, who enshrined many of Mr. Chamberlain’s pieces at the art complex he built in Marfa, Tex., observed that Mr. Chamberlain’s colors in his early years were quintessentially American, “the hard, sweet, pastel enamels, frequently roses and ceruleans, of Detroit’s imitation elegance for the poor.”

Mr. Chamberlain felt that even the word “sculpture” was limiting in describing art that, while functioning in three dimensions, could be made from almost anything.

Mr. Chamberlain’s work is in the collections of dozens of museums, including the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art and Dia:Beacon in Beacon, N.Y.; this year an older piece sold at auction for $4.7 million, a record for his work.

Mr. Chamberlain spoke of his work with reluctance and often humility, deriding the over-intellectualizing tendencies of his questioners. “Everyone always wanted to know what it meant, you know: ‘What does it mean, jellybean?’ ” he told Julie Sylvester, adding: “Even if I knew, I could only know what I thought it meant.”

1997 The National Arts Club Artist Award New York
1993 Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, ME
1993 Lifetime Achievement Award, Contemporary Sculpture International Sculpture Center, Washington, DC
1990 Elected as member of the Art Department American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
1990 Honorary Prize for participation Seoul Art Festival
1984 Brandeis University Creative Arts Award Medal
1981 Outdoor studio Sarasota, FL
1977 Begins taking photographs with a wide-lux-camera New York
1977 Receives 2nd Guggenheim fellowship
1975 First sculpture in public space
1974 Resumes work with auto-body-parts New York
1970 Begins plexiglass pieces Los Angeles, CA
1969 Artist in residence at Dart Industries and at the Rand Corporation
1968 Makes his first film, Wedding Night New York
1967 Begins galvanized steel sculptures New York
1966 First 'instant sculptures' Santa Fe, NM
1966 Receives fellowship John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
1957 First sculptures made out of car wrecks New York
1955-56 Attends Black Mountain College North Carolina
1951-52 Attends the School of the Art Institute Chicago, IL
1943-46 Serves in the U.S. Navy
1927 Born on April 16 Rochester, Indiana


2000 Galerie Karsten Greve AG St. Moritz
1999 Galerie Karsten Greve Milano
1997 Galerie Karsten Greve Paris
1995 Galerie Karsten Greve Paris
1994-95 Galerie Karsten Greve Cologne
1993 Galerie Karsten Greve Paris
1992-93 Galerie Karsten Greve Cologne
1991 Galerie Karsten Greve Paris
1989 Galerie Karsten Greve Cologne
1986 Retrospective, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, CA
1982-83 Sculpture (several exhibitions), Organized by the Dia Art Foundation
1971 Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York, NY
1962 Leo Castelli Gallery New York, NY
1960 Martha Jackson Gallery New York, NY
1957 Wells Street Gallery Chicago, IL

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