John Chamberlain: An Underappreciated Icon

Recently, I came across an article raising the notion that sculptor John Chamberlain is one of the most undervalued contemporary artists in the world today. I wholeheartedly agree with this assertion. As the article highlights, this conclusion is not based on the absolute dollar value of Chamberlain’s work, but rather its value in relation to the work of his peers, which are few and far between.

For over five decades, John Chamberlain pushed boundaries to redefine the medium of sculpture. His unique brilliance and signature revolutionary process made him one of the most important artists of his generation. Chamberlain’s work spanned multiple artistic movements, incorporating key elements of both Abstract Expressionism and Pop. Interestingly, some of his early, more austere works also reflect the Minimalist movement arising at that time. Chamberlain took the foundational elements of each movement and transformed them into three-dimensional works with an energy, fluidity and vitality that could never be achieved on a two-dimensional canvas. By infusing these movements into his work, beginning with Abstract Expressionism, Chamberlain broke from the traditions of sculpture by incorporating the evocativeness of color. This process initially started with the selection of colorful used car parts but evolved over his career to include painting vivid colors on top of the amalgamated and reformed everyday objects he would amass to create his unique style of art.

For Chamberlain, making sculptural art out of discarded and worthless materials was ultimately about the process, which he considered free flowing, intuitive and sexual. In his own words, “I deal with new material as I see fit in terms of my decision making, which has to do primarily with sexual and intuitive thinking.” The fitting, molding, crushing and manipulating of what most of us would rightfully consider pure junk is an artistic process that is uniquely Chamberlain’s. He creates art that is alive and fun, while never forgetting the delicate balance between something magical and something one might encounter in a junkyard: “The fine line is that it is either junk, or art materials, or it is a piece of work.” The bold, visceral and fun-loving character of his works are matched by the unforgettable and playful names he assigns to them. Titles like Lord Suckfest, Miss Lucy Pink and Famous Sackerson are as meaningful and creative as the art itself.

Sculptor John Chamberlain

Where I come to slightly disagree with the article is in the assertion that Chamberlain is not as recognizable as art historical stalwarts like Willem de Kooning. I agree that, from a purely name recognition standpoint, it is difficult to match de Kooning, but I question whether that recognition holds true when visually identifying the works themselves, particularly when it comes to Chamberlain’s iconic sculptures constructed with used car parts. For anyone other than an art expert, it is often challenging to identify a de Kooning, however, that is rarely the case with a mangled heap of auto fenders and body parts. Chamberlain’s work is both unmistakable and profoundly one of a kind.

Additionally, I disagree with the entirety of the author’s claim in the accompanying video clip that collectors prefer paintings to sculpture because they are easier to hang, transport and care for. Obviously, a reasonably sized painting is easier to install and move than a massive assemblage of car parts, but a painting is also considerably more fragile and susceptible to environmental conditions. It is hard to imagine light, humidity or a clumsy viewer doing much, if any, damage to a crumpled and scratched car bumper. Many of Chamberlain’s works are of a small and manageable scale that fit ideally on a table. These works are considerably easier to manage than a painting.

It is hard, if not impossible, to find a major contemporary art museum anywhere in the western world that does not include a Chamberlain in their collection. MoMa, the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, DIA, Ludwig and countless others consider Chamberlain a staple of 21st century art. Perhaps even more telling than his inclusion in so many permanent collections are the more than 100 solo exhibitions Chamberlain had during his career. Very few of today’s hyped and sought-after contemporary artists can even aspire to or imagine reaching such a pinnacle.

I believe a key element of an artist’s long-term value proposition rests on the question of whether or not they are deemed by the art experts to be historically significant. Along these lines, I doubt anyone remotely familiar with contemporary art would debate that John Chamberlain is permanently and indelibly a significant figure in art history. One can regularly peruse art auction catalogues and identify artists whose works are far more valuable, and yet that distinction is far from conclusive, much less solidified, and may not be determined for many years or possibly decades. It is on this basis and, ultimately, the quality of the work, that I agree with Bob Mnuchin’s assertion that Chamberlain and de Kooning can be considered artistic equals. My prediction is that one day in the not-too-distant future, art collectors and aficionados will wake up and realize the enormous and unjust disparity temporarily assigned to John Chamberlain. When we look to allocate precious and finite resources, it is hard to pass up the combination of what we believe to be amazingly powerful, unique works that are temporarily under-appreciated and overlooked. The question of whether John Chamberlain’s work is valued in the realm of the greats from AbEx and Pop is not an “if” but a “when.”

All photos by Richard Brown