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 he attended the School of 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. While there 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. His work in three dimensions is considered to be the sculptural embodiment of Abstract Expressionism.
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 Biennale. 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. 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.
“Best known for his sculptures of crushed automobile parts, John Chamberlain has had an ongoing interest in everyday objects, but he focused almost exclusively on cars in his early works. Not the art of found objects, Chamberlain instead focused on creating something new from the debris of modern life, he was demolishing something already in existence.”
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 co-published 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.
Works by Chamberlain have been the subject of several monographs and are included in books of the Art of the Twentieth Century. The Artist’s works are in many museum collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, SFMOMA, MOMA, The Seattle Museum of Art, Houston Museum of Art, Orlando Musem of Art, DIA Center for the Arts, The Saint Louis Art Museum, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Addison Gallery of American Art and The University of Michigan Art Museum.