John Chamberlain was born in 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 1950 to 1952. At that time, he began making welded steel sculptures 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, including Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson. By 1958, he began to incorporate scrap metal from cars in his work, and from 1959 on he concentrated on sculpture built entirely of crushed automobile parts welded together. Chamberlain’s first major solo show was presented at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, in 1960.
Chamberlain’s work achieved critical acclaim in the early 1960s, gaining him a reputation as a three-dimensional Abstract Expressionist. His sculpture was included in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961, the same year he participated in the São Paulo Biennial. 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 materials. 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 with urethane foam, which he rolled, folded, cut, and tied. He then applied methods of crushing and compression to galvanized steel and paper bags. These were followed in 1970 by sculptures of heat-crumpled Plexiglas. During this period he also made the film The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez (1968), starring Andy Warhol’s superstars Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet. Chamberlain’s work was presented in a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1971. Small examples of his newest engagement with aluminum foil were exhibited for the first time.
In 1972, 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. From 1977 on, Chamberlain pursued photography with a panoramic Widelux camera. His next major retrospective was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1986, accompanied by the publication of John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954–1985. Chamberlain has received numerous honors for his artistic achievements, including the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, Washington, D.C. (both 1993); Gold Medal from the National Arts Club, New York (1997); and Distinction in Sculpture from the Sculpture Center, New York (1999). In the last decade of his life, the artist expanded his oeuvre by undertaking a new medium: large-format photographs printed on canvas, altered with digital visual effects, cut into regular vertical segments, and collaged to create new compositions. In 2007, he began to create a new body of work recasting his miniature foil sculptures from the mid-1980s in monumental scale. He also acquired a cache of vintage automobiles, from which he culled the materials for his last sculptures—confident and majestic in their imposing dimensions, displaying the maturation of his earliest sculptural explorations of abstraction, stance, and fit. Chamberlain died on December 21, 2011, in New York; a retrospective of his work, John Chamberlain: Choices, will be presented at the Guggenheim Museum, February 24–May 13, 2012.