Lot 27
  • 27

John Chamberlain

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
2,281,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • John Chamberlain
  • Bijou
  • painted and chromium-plated steel


Elaine Chamberlain, New York
Richard Bellamy, New York
Heiner Friedrich, Cologne
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1993


Pasadena Art Museum, New American Sculpture, February - March 1964, cat. no. 6
Los Angeles, Dwan Gallery, John Chamberlain, November 1966 - January 1967
Cologne, Heiner Friedrich, Group Exhibition, September 1971
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition, December 1971 - February 1972, cat. no. 32, p. 41, illustrated
Sarasota, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, John Chamberlain Reliefs 1960-1982, January - March 1983, p. 25, illustrated in color
New York, Dia Art Foundation, John Chamberlain Sculpture: An Extended Exhibition, September 1983 - February 1985


Julie Sylvester, John Chamberlain: a Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954 - 1985, New York, 1985, cat. no. 68, p. 60, illustrated (incorrect dimensions)

Catalogue Note

"...., since even an unpainted canvas now stated itself as a picture, the borderline between art and non-art had to be sought in the three-dimensional, where sculpture was, and where everything material that was not art also was.  Painting had lost the lead because it was so ineluctably art, and it now devolved on sculpture or something like it to head art's advance."

--Clement Greenberg ("Recentness of Sculpture", in American Sculpture of the Sixties, 1967, p. 24)

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the chasm between painting and sculpture and the emphasis placed on the physicality of artists' work, and thereby materials, was nowhere more paramount than in the work of the American sculptor John Chamberlain, who began his illustrious career as a painter.  While predominantly known for his body of large freestanding sculptures, he also produced a series of incomparable wall reliefs, more intricate and painterly, that accommodated the physical presence of sculpture with the format and spontaneous gesture of painting. Bijou of 1961 is an outstanding example of this group displaying Chamberlain's consummate ability to manipulate his forms in relation to the wall.

Bijou, like many of Chamberlain's reliefs, is rectangular in format, assembled around a horizontal understructure, extending just over a foot from the wall.  Here, Chamberlain concentrates the movement of his crushed car parts in a sweeping sense of lateral and swirling motions, an almost centripetal rhythm that simultaneously enlivens and holds together structure and form.  The large number of fragments, which increased in number from his first crushed sculptures of 1959-1960, shine in ebullient colors which further animate the surface, creating a vibrating, nervy quality.  One of the innovative aspects of these earlier works is their resolutely abstract, anti-narrative quality, a departure from the surrealist sculptures of his forebears such as David Smith.

Chamberlain's aesthetic developed partly out of a literary model, nurtured through professor-poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina.  There, a hotbed for avant-garde thinking and creating, Chamberlain learned much that would inform his poetic evocation in his works' titles and intuitive form.   "The parts that went into them [collages and reliefs] became pretty much like the words that I'd collect when I was a student of Charles Olson. I didn't particularly understand the words other than whether I liked the look of them, as they were printed, let's say. Rather than try to determine an attitude by writing something that you'd understand, I picked out words I liked to look at. So I made a collection of words; not unlike this pile of body parts and chrome around on the floor here. They all become the same thing; something you like to look at. And you choreograph or orchestrate the way certain numbers of these parts interact between each other as a form of social engagement, so to speak. This same social engagement takes place in the collages or reliefs but with metal that had been used for some other kind of function, whether it was the lid of a coffee can or an automobile part..." (John Chamberlain, interview with Michael Auping, June 16, 1982.)

Bijou also finds parallels in the Abstract Expressionist painters whose work was more sculptural, most notably Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning—the energy and expressive power of de Kooning's paintings and the heroic scale and animated diagonals of Kline's canvases.  In this vein, Bijou projects a tension between painting and sculpture, with its attention to "facture" in the form of cantilevering edges that emphasize texture and a greater engagement with the object quality of a painting by creating larger and thicker supports. In Bijou, Chamberlain dealt directly with these paradoxes of the picture plane by making illusionistic ambiguities of space and surface actual. 

Chamberlain revels in the potential of his mediums, especially his reliefs, which mark the most complex strain within Chamberlain's wide-ranging development as an artist.  They are personal, authoritative and independent of any school or movement, which is why a confluence of inspirations and explorations find expression in Bijou.