John Chamberlain is best known for creating sculptures from old automobiles (or parts of) that bring the Abstract Expressionist style of painting into three dimensions. Born in Rochester, Indiana as the son of a saloonkeeper, Chamberlain spent much of his youth in Chicago. After serving in the U.S Navy from 1943 to 1946, he attended the Art Institute of Chicago (1951–52) and Black Mountain College (1955–56). At Black Mountain, he studied with the poets Charles Olsen, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, who were teaching there that semester. The following year, he moved to New York, where for the first time he created sculpture that included scrap-metal auto parts.
He began his artistic career by carving and modelling, but turned to working in metal in 1952 and welding in 1953. By 1957, while staying with the painter Larry Rivers in Southampton, New York, he began to include scrap metal from cars with his sculpture “Shortstop.” From 1959 onward he concentrated on sculpture built entirely of crushed automobile parts welded together. By the end of the 1960s, Chamberlain had replaced his signature materials initially with galvanized steel, then with mineral-coated Plexiglas, and finally with aluminum foil. In 1966, he began a series of sculptures made of rolled, folded, and tied urethane foam. Since returning in the mid-1970s to metal as his primary material, Chamberlain limited himself to specific parts of the automobile (fenders, bumpers, or the chassis, for example).
In the early 1980s, Chamberlain moved to Sarasota, Florida, where a 18,000-square-foot warehouse studio on Cocoanut Avenue enabled him to work on a much grander scale than he previously had. Many of the subsequent works Chamberlain made in Florida revert to more volumetric, compact configurations, often aligned on a vertical axis. In 1984, Chamberlain created the monumental American Tableau created for display on the Seagram Building's plaza. 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.
Chamberlain’s first major solo show was held at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, in 1960. His singular method of putting discarded automobile-body parts together led to his inclusion in the paradigmatic exhibition The Art of Assemblage, at The Museum of Modern Art in 1961, where his work was shown alongside modern masters such as Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. His works have since been exhibited around the world and have been included in the São Paulo Art Biennial (1961, 1994), the Whitney Biennial (1973, 1987) and Documenta, Kassel, Germany (1982) and he has had over 100 solo shows, including Dia Art Foundation (1983); Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden and Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (1991); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1996); and Menil Collection, Houston (2009). Chamberlain represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1964. He had his first retrospective in 1971, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. A second retrospective was organized in 1986 by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. A special exhibition of Chamberlain's foam sculptures and photographs was on view at the Chinati Foundation in 2005-06
Over the course of his prolific career, he had studios in New York, New Mexico, Florida, Connecticut, and finally Shelter Island. Chamberlain's work is represented in many major public collections including Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas; Menil Collection, Houston; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Tate Modern, London; Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna; Museum Brandhorst, Munich; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Saint Louis Art Museum; DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, New York; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
John Chamberlain enjoyed a long career. He died in 2011 at the age of 84 at his home on Shelter Island, NY.