- John Chamberlain
- Mr. Moto
- painted and chromium-plated steel
75 by 81.3 by 58.4cm.; 29 ½ by 32 by 23in.
Executed in 1963.
Robert A. Rowan, Pasadena, California (acquired from the above in 1964)
Phillips de Pury & Company, New York, May 15, 2008, Lot 118
Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles
Phillips de Pury & Company, London, June 29, 2009, Lot 15
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, John Chamberlain, April 1964
Venice, XXXII Biennale di Venezia, May 1964 - January 1965
Irvine, University of California; San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, A Selection from the Collection of Mr and Mrs Robert Rowan, May - July 1967, cat. no. 14, not illustrated
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: A Retrospecitve Exhibition, December 1971 - February 1972, cat. no. 51, p. 66, illustrated
Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, The Americans: The Collage, July - October 1982, p. 46, illustrated in color
Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, John Chamberlain, July – October 1986, p. 76, illustrated
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, John Chamberlain: Choices, February 2012 - September 2013, cat. no. 35, p. 101, illustrated in color and fig. 73, p. 208, illustrated in color (in installation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1971-72)
“The diversity and the unity occur and recur; the work explodes and implodes… The sculpture seems open, which, in the usual sense, it is not, since it is massed. There is not space through the work; there is a lot in it… Chamberlain’s sculpture is simultaneously turbulent, passionate, cool and hard.” (Donald Judd, ‘Chamberlain: another view’ in Exh. Cat., Kunsthalle Bern, Chamberlain, 1979, p. 10)
Coaxing poetic expression from elaborately interlocked automobile parts, John Chamberlain’s bold, seductive, and ineffably cool Mr. Moto from 1963 utilizes Chamberlain’s iconic repertoire of forms while asserting a singular presence that surprises at every turn of the eye. Created in 1963 at the precise boiling point of Pop Art’s rapid ascension toward cultural ubiquity, Mr. Moto combines the gestural vigor of Chamberlain’s Abstract Expressionist forebears with the foundational aesthetic tenets of the burgeoning Pop Art movement which would soon define a half-century of artistic production. Included in many of Chamberlain’s seminal career-defining exhibitions, counting retrospectives at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in both 1972 and 2012, Mr. Moto is widely recognized as one of Chamberlain’s foremost sculptural achievements. Nearly a dozen comparable Chamberlain sculptures from the landmark year of 1963 are held in prestigious international museum collections, including: the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Tate Gallery, London; the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach; the Museum Moderner Kunst Wien, Vienna; and others.
Fashioned entirely out of found and repurposed automobile parts, the present work displays the genius of Chamberlain’s particular mode of artistic creation. Chamberlain actively mined the latent symbolism of his chosen material—the mass-produced car parts that the artist exploited for their formal potential also unmistakably connoted visions of progress, modernity, and the American dream. Mr. Moto’s commanding volumetric presence achieves an expressive power that balances the heroic with the intimate, arresting contradictions between expansion and contraction in the multiplicity of its revolving surface. Archetypal of Chamberlain’s sculptures from the early 1960s, as Diane Waldman noted, Mr. Moto “manages to incorporate both violent lateral movement (often on Kline-like diagonals) with centrifugal motion and simultaneously, through Chamberlain’s understanding of balance and rhythm, to achieve perfect equilibrium.” (Diane Waldman in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1971, p. 7) As remarked by Waldman, Chamberlain’s early sculptures are often discussed as the three-dimensional correlatives to Abstract Expressionist painting;possessing the forceful thrust of Kline’s brush, the compositional intuition of Pollock’s drip, and de Kooning’s vibrant deconstruction of the boundary between abstraction and figuration, Mr. Moto brilliantly captures the artist’s uncompromisingly unique vision. By adding the third dimension to the spontaneity of the Abstract Expressionist painters, Chamberlain liberated sculpture from the tradition of cast metal and sculpted stone.
Simultaneously resembling something out of the future while entirely configured from secondhand industrial materials, Mr. Moto embodies Chamberlain’s distinctive chromatic intelligence and signature formal complexity. In the aeronautic-like wingspan of its distinctly modern configuration, Mr. Moto orbits our imagination like an interplanetary relic—curiously appearing as debris from the Cold War Space Race rather than detritus from the junkyard. Chamberlain creates perpetually intriguing sculptural brilliance from the collision of objects that would otherwise be considered refuse. The overriding sense of action essential to the stationary sculpture tempts us to inform the work with a narrative, while the juxtaposition of hard lines and swollen curves anthropomorphizes an otherwise industrial-looking artifact. A bright gold and purple base elegantly supports and structures the luminous red dome that grows and expands gradually into a humanoid profile form; this anthropomorphism is slyly pronounced by the title, which references the namesake fictional Japanese spy created by the American author John P. Marquand. The adventures of the beloved bumbling secret agent Mr. Moto were chronicled in six novels published between 1935 and 1957, in addition to eight motion pictures starring Peter Lorre—haplessly eccentric yet ultimately razor-sharp and ruthless, the cult character personifies the interplay of whimsy and rigor that permeates Chamberlain’s sculpture.
Oscillating between sharp, jagged edges and smooth, rounded forms, Mr. Moto comprises a multifaceted and complex topography over which our eye is encouraged to journey, bewitching and delighting us at every perspective. The undulating peaks and valleys of Mr. Moto are enhanced by the vibrant colors of the individual pieces of crushed metal that combine organically to create this captivating form. Though Chamberlain adamantly described his artistic process as being as much about fate and chance as about his aesthetic predilections, the particular way in which the artist chose to fit his metal pieces together in this work result in a sculpture that appears inherently composed. Elliptical shards of red steel are gracefully arced atop swooping curves of gold and dusky violet, constituting an armature of fine arches and elegant bows that contrasts the sharp edges of the cut steel Chamberlain used as material. This juxtaposition of form and content articulated through the lens of pure three-dimensional abstraction is startlingly captivating; Mr. Moto rewards persistent looking, flirting with our attraction and avoiding complete resolution. The enticing combination of variegated surface texture and visually commanding color in Mr. Moto is alluring and seductive. Klaus Kertess distilled this sensorial power of Chamberlain’s art when he wrote: “One of Chamberlain’s principal strengths is his ability to unite pleasure with intelligence.” (Klaus Kertess, “Color in the Round and Then Some: John Chamberlain’s Work, 1954-1985,” in Julie Sylvester, ed., John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954 – 1985, New York, 1986, p. 29)
Chamberlain first turned to color-coated steel as a matter of practicality, when he found himself short of the materials he had been using. As he recalled, “I was looking for the next way to go. This was in 1957 or 1958. Then all of a sudden, it occurred to me one day that all this material was just lying all over the place.” (Julie Sylvester, "Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain" in Julie Sylvester, ed., Ibid., p. 15) Beginning with a fender and parts from an antique 1929 Ford at Larry Rivers’ house, Chamberlain procured scraps from body shops and other people’s detritus. Chamberlain’s uncanny ability to humanize cold mass-produced machine parts is wrought with complexity; Mr. Moto possesses a unity and jewel-like aplomb that lends incredible intimacy to the experience of viewing an otherwise action-packed, dynamic form.