Lot 9
  • 9

John Chamberlain

350,000 - 450,000 GBP
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  • John Chamberlain
  • Swans-52
  • painted and chromium-plated steel
  • 122 by 85 by 46cm.; 48 by 33 1/2 by 18 1/8 in.
  • Executed in 1976.


Alan Jacobs, New York (acquired directly from the artist)

Peder Bonnier, New York

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1981


Julie Sylvester, Ed., John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985, New York 1986, p. 151, no. 546, illustrated in colour


Colour: The colour in the catalogue illustration is fairly accurate although the red tonalities are deeper and richer and the blue fin is less purple in the original. Condition: This work is in very good and original condition. No restoration is apparent when examined under ultra-violet light.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Swans-52 exudes visceral strength, authoritatively dominating the space in which it is placed. Following a seven year break from the medium, this work represents John Chamberlain’s triumphant return to working with automotive parts. It is a superb example of his wall-mounted output; replete with muscular torsion and ebullient gleam.

Chamberlain’s sculptures are inherently abstract; certainly redolent of a multitude of different themes and motifs, but resistant of entirely succumbing to any identifiable form. In the artist’s own words, “I always liked the way that there was no subject matter… any time you go to look at these amazing things, they never seem to be the same” (John Chamberlain quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: Choices, 2012, p. 27). Herein, the present work is an apt example of Chamberlain’s synthesis of late twentieth-century art movements. It is easy to ascribe some Pop art sensibilities; the sense of smashed damage directly recalls Andy Warhol’s early 1960s Death and Disaster series, which focused on horrific traffic accidents. Meanwhile, one could certainly say that the crushed chrome fenders speak of a post-industrial society where even objects of value cease to have meaning: “Their very physical substance is a commentary about our times, our conspicuous waste, our confused values” (Emily Genauer quoted in: Ibid., p. 195). In the lower half, deep red and dripped with dashes of colour, we see the unabashed influence of the Abstract Expressionists. Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline were friends of Chamberlain, and the power of their forceful multi-coloured mark-making undoubtedly prefigured the chromatic gusto on show in this work. To this end, it is notable that the artist only began adding colour to his metal sculptures when he returned to the medium in the mid-1970s. Prior to this he had merely manipulated the colours already inherent in his found objects.

This work also exemplifies Chamberlain’s fusion of American Pop and Abstract Expressionism with the European Nouveau Réalisme movement. Artists like Jean Tinguely, César, and Arman were worthy peers in the practice of appropriating and accumulating objects in order to manipulate their forms and create compelling new compositions. In particular we might observe the way César is able to convey a comparable sense of crushed density in his ‘compression’ series. His works also employ rippled, crumpled, and cut metal forged from spare car parts. However, despite the conspicuous destruction of the elements that form their work, neither César nor Chamberlain imbues their output with a sense of violence or vehemence. There is no sense of a specific accident or crash in the obliterated automotive parts, nor can we identify any specific dent or contusion. The present work is thus an excellent demonstration of the way in which Chamberlain did not produce microcosms of road collisions. His works are not the product of sadistic fascination, but rather of a fruitful confidence in composition and an almost bravura approach to appropriating found objects.

The abstract arrangement of Swans-52 identifies it with the very best of John Chamberlain’s wall-mounted sculpture. Across its rippled folds and through its brilliant flash of chrome, this work perfectly synthesizes the maelstrom of artistic styles which the late Twentieth Century brought forth in both America and Europe.