John Chamberlain dies at 84

New York City (US)



John Chamberlain, who almost singlehandedly gave automotive metal a place in the history of sculpture. He smashed and twisted together a ‘poetic fusion of Abstract Expressionism and Pop from fenders, fins, bumpers and hoods’, died last wednesday, 21 december 2011, in Manhattan. He was 84.

In a restless career of almost half a century, Mr. Chamberlain worked with a broad range of materials, some as pliant as foam rubber and as ephemeral as brown paper bags. But he returned again and again to the more substantial stuff of the scrap yard, explaining the attraction as one of practicality. “I saw all this material just lying around against buildings, and it was in color,” he said, “so I felt I was ahead on two counts.”

But auto bodies also provided him with a material that could bear more than its weight in art-historical significance: as a chaotic riff on Duchamp’s readymades, as a renegade form of truth-in-materials Minimalism, as a bridge between the raw expressiveness of the New York School painters and the assembly-line deadpan of Warhol.

Critics often saw his crumpled Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles as dark commentaries on the costs of American freedom, but Mr. Chamberlain rejected such metaphorical readings. He turned to making sculpture from other things partly because he grew so tired of the automotive associations.

“It seems no one can get free of the car-crash syndrome,” he told the curator Julie Sylvester in 1986. “For 25 years I’ve been using colored metal to make sculpture, and all they can think of is, ‘What the hell car did that come from?’ ”

Years later, he said: “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.”

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.

“A sculpture is something that if it falls on your foot, it will break it,” he said. (Well into his career, some people still had a tough time seeing his sculptures as works of art; in 1973, two 300-pound metal pieces were mistaken for junk and carted away as they sat outside a gallery warehouse in Chicago.)

Mr. Chamberlain’s early influences included few sculptors. He gravitated to poets and to the Abstract Expressionist painters he met at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village after moving to New York from Chicago in 1956, chiefly to Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.

“Kline gave me the structure,” he once said. “De Kooning gave me the color.”

They also helped fuel a love of drink that contributed to his reputation as an art-world hellion, especially during the heyday of Max’s Kansas City, the Cedar’s successor as New York’s art-world clubhouse. At six-foot-four, with a broad, toothy smile full of mischief and menace, he looked, and sometimes acted, like a character from a Sam Peckinpah movie. In 1964, the year he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, he was arrested in the Village after a drunken street fight with a police officer. Mr. Chamberlain’s lawyer defended his client by saying the fight was the fault of the officer, who had repeatedly and “needlessly struck Mr. Chamberlain on the head with a nightstick.”

John Angus Chamberlain was born on April 16, 1927, in Rochester, Ind., the son of a fifth-generation saloonkeeper. He was raised above a meat market until he was 4, when his parents divorced. His mother, a sometime waitress, took him to Chicago, where he was left in the care of his maternal grandmother, Edna Brown Waller, whom he described as a strong, voluble presence in his life.

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.”

But he trusted his instincts and seemed to follow them to please himself more than anyone else. “When a sculpture is nearly done, you can put things on and you take them off and it doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Stopping is the key; you have to know when to stop. If I feel so glad that a sculpture is here, and I don’t care who did it, then I figure it’s a good piece.”

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Toon Verberg