— John Chamberlain, 1982
John Chamberlain abandoned the traditional sculptural techniques of modeling and carving in favor of welding in 1953. He began to incorporate automobile parts sourced in metal scrapyards into his work in 1957. The dour <i>Shortstop</i> (1958), was his first sculpture composed entirely of crushed car parts.
Encrypted in Chamberlain’s car parts sculptures is a history of postwar, American automobile design. Changes in industrial and consumer culture are registered in the shifting palettes, size and shapes of his materials.
His sculpture is also an indirect by-product of the auto industry’s financial success. The sales of millions of Impalas, Skylarks and Galaxies 500 that eventually filled the junkyards, provided Chamberlain with an infinite source of cheap materials. If it were produced today, his work would be viewed as the recycled state of an industrial product. Like ancient marbles, Chamberlain’s junkyard museum of battered, fragmentary sculptures allow us a glimpse of a heroic industrial age.
Despite the very obvious and direct dependence of Chamberlain’s work on the American auto industry, the artist consistently rejected interpretations of his work that treated the car as subject matter or content rather than a neutral material. The ironic, often suggestive, titles of his sculptures never allude to cars. He stated that he was not interested in the material’s industrial or commercial origins or its valence in the consumer culture.
While his critics yearned for discursive or symbolic meaning, Chamberlain insisted that Detroit steel was cheap, plentiful, colorful and preformed. He had car parts stored in his studio, he told an interviewer, just like Michelangelo had a lot of marble in his backyard. This comparison suggests that Chamberlain visited junkyards like Michelangelo visited the quarries of Carrara, scanning the rough materials for qualities of color, variegation, and size specific to a given project.
After reading one too many interpretations of his work as images of motor vehicle accidents that functioned as a “commentary” on the violence of contemporary American culture (precisely the kind of commentary Andy Warhol made in his car accident disaster paintings), Chamberlain stopped making sculpture from car parts for six years in protest.
Purist display techniques (seen in the Chinati Museum in Marfa above), remove Chamberlain’s sculptures as far as possible from any contexts that might suggest unwanted associations in order to underscore the abstract and formalist dimensions of work.
Seen in these venues, it is clear that Chamberlain’s art is neither a simple celebration, nor a critique, of car culture, and given the the obvious aesthetic ambitions of the work, it is obvious why, as an artist working with industrial techniques and materials, Chamberlain felt the need to distance himself in the mind of the public from auto assembly-line workers and mechanics
That said, the importance of the car to American ideology, identity and culture in the 1950s and 1960s cannot be overstated. Therefore, it seems unlikely that works of art fashioned from auto parts in no way participated in a broader construction of and/or cultural discourse concerning cars.
To phrase this differently, if Chamberlain had been based in Sweden, where durable, plainly styled, modestly-sized, Saabs and Volvos remained in use for 20 years. His signature style would have looked very different, developed more slowly, or never have developed at all.
Chamberlain’s sculptural aesthetic was intimately bound up with the vulgar extravagance, scale, and planned obsolescence of American cars. It is the high-end of a period sensibility.
Chamberlain’s exclusion of his material’s cultural baggage from his work recalls Jasper Johns’ disingenuous assertion that painting American flags in 1955 was a purely formal and ontological act. Chamberlain may not have been interested in, or in control of, the valence of his chosen medium, but it had one.