Sculptor John Chamberlain Dies at 84

by Reid Singer on December 22, 2011 · 6 comments Obituary

John Chamberlain Gallery, Dia Beacon

John Chamberlain, the American artist best-known for his abstract sculptures made from auto parts and crushed steel, has died at the age of 84.

Artnet and Gallerist have repeated reports that the Indiana native had been ill for some time, though the exact cause of death has not yet been released. His passing nevertheless came as a surprise; up until Wednesday Chamberlain had been at work preparing for a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, the second of his career. Titled John Chamberlain: Choices, the exhibition was scheduled to include works ranging from the '50s to sculptures from recent years, tying together the career of a sculptor whose work had a stake in virtually every major school of immediate postwar art.

With their garish construction paper colors and shiny streamlined shapes, Chamberlain's work with auto parts frequently placed him in the school of Pop. At the same time, the calm-spirited curiosity with which Chamberlain explored metals of varying colors, textures, and malleabilities echoed the priorities of Minimal artists like Carl Andre and Donald Judd. At other times, Post-minimalism was a label often given to the fallible forms, awkward angles and asymmetry that were consistent throughout his oeuvre. Each label seems accurate when looking at some of his best work at The Dia Foundation in Beacon, which are on long-term display.

By far the earliest and most durable attempts to classify Chamberlain identified him as an Abstract Expressionist. The work was at once meditative and bombastic, gestural and dramatic. It was also very intellectual and very art-y, the long-term object of chin-stroking stares.

Made by intensely individualistic people who sought to move the public through combinations of form, color, and line, Abstract Expressionism's problems and successes were not unlike Chamberlain's. Critics were his champion, the gallery system was his best friend, and museums and prestigious biennials eventually followed suit. After a while, viewers felt like they knew what to expect, and they were pretty much right. Like a Rothko or a Pollock, the public obligingly stared at the sculptures of John Chamberlain and professed to see something different every time.

This wasn’t always the case. Writing in Slog, Jen Graves’s reflections on Chamberlain betray a sense of regret for not having looked harder. “He made the same thing so many times, it became impossible to see it,” she wrote, vowing to find the car crash in the next sculpture of his she saw. At ArtNet, Charlie Finch writes: “it is difficult to remember when Chamberlain was young, innovative and experimental…He coulda done better [sic]” in an obit that ran less than six hours after news broke of the artist's death.

Not everyone shares Mr Finch's knack for discarding a piece of news — no matter how recent, sudden, or upsetting — as trivial. Others are willing to wait a while longer to make up their minds. Meanwhile, the sculptures, many of which are on long term view at Dia Beacon, aren't going anywhere.


Killian Skarr December 22, 2011 at 10:53 am

If only he’d had the courage of his convictions and actually died in a car crash…

Anonymous December 22, 2011 at 11:17 am

Wow, some people just don’t have any respect for the trials and tribulations that are art making (however cliche that sounds). To say that an artist “could have done better” or that they lost their spark for innovation is really a moot point. Seldom do artists have the kind of control over their artistic process that would allow them to make quality work while skipping steps…

Corinna Kirsch December 22, 2011 at 11:22 am

John Chamberlain’s foam sculptures ( are also pretty good. I can’t find any images online, but I love his “beds,” too. Chamberlain made these huge foamy beds that you can lie on, but then you start to get really uncomfortable after a while because, well, they’re just foam. The one at Marfa has two TV sets installed at either end. Somebody’s bound to start calling Chamberlain the daddy of relational aesthetics. 

Peter December 23, 2011 at 3:57 am

I never tired of looking at Chamberlain’s work.

Socony1927 December 23, 2011 at 11:22 am

Doesn’t Finch ever get tired of listening to his own MONO-TONAL DRONE?

SOCONY1927 December 23, 2011 at 11:23 am


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