Lot 79
  • 79

John Chamberlain

350,000 - 450,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • John Chamberlain
  • Projectile D.S.N.Y.
  • steel
  • 23 1/2 by 36 by 9 in. 59.7 by 91.5 by 22.9 cm.
  • Executed in 1957.


Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
Allan Stone Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1963)
American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., New York (acquired from the above in 1967)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1987


Chicago, Wells Street Gallery, John Chamberlain: Sculptures, September - October 1957, illustrated in color on an exhibition poster
New York, Katonah Gallery, Found Objects, Accumulations and Collections, March - April 1963
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Mallary, Chamberlain, César, Anderson, October 1963
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition, December 1971 - February 1972, cat. no. 2, p. 22, illustrated
Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, John Chamberlain, May - November 1991, cat. no. 4, illustrated in color
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, John Chamberlain: Early Works, October - December 2003, cat. no. 9, p. 2, illustrated & p. 21, illustrated in color
New York, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, METAL: American Sculpture, 1945-1970, November 2015 - January 2016


Julie Sylvester, ed., John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985, New York, 1986, cat. no. 14, p. 46, illustrated
Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: Choices, 2012, fig. 50, p. 194, illustrated in color


This work is in very good condition overall. All elements are well intact and secure. There are very faint scattered surface scratches with a few notable scratches along either face of the top element. There is some minor surface dust in the crevices and evidence of faint, scattered oxidation.
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.

Catalogue Note

While studying the masters of Abstract Expressionism such as Willem de Kooning and David Smith at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1951-52, John Chamberlain first encountered what he coined as the powerful aura of sculpture: an awe-inspiring epiphany which fostered  one of the most influential careers of the Twentieth Century. Although to his contemporaries, painting dominated the movement’s far-reaching attention, Chamberlain found that sculpture as a three-dimensional medium captured the artist’s presence by generating an active viewing experience akin to “meeting with another person.” For Chamberlain, David Smith’s sculptures were “bare, so to speak, like all of their parts were available for inspection,” and therefore ultimately cultivated a sensation of corporeal exchange between himself and the work. (Chamberlain in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1971, p. 16) This engaging dynamism elevated sculpture above painting’s two dimensional limitations, and served as the catalyst for his theory that sculpture should be regarded as having “its own life and its own qualities.” This revelation would serve as the backbone of Chamberlain’s career.

Shortly after completing his education in Chicago, Chamberlain traveled to the prominent Black Mountain College, a pioneering institution for the major players of the American avant-garde such as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly. During his time there from 1955-56, Chamberlain became captivated by poetry and the power of words as he developed a close friendship with faculty member and poet Charles Olson. Keeping with his community of avid readers, Chamberlain began exercising Olson’s automatism by isolating and recording words that held aesthetic rather than conceptual value to him. He was attracted to the geometric composition of letters, and would pair together words that complimented each other visually, eschewing the pairing’s illogical syntax or meaning.  He recounts, “I remember one line I wrote in which I put together two words: blonde day. I’d never thought of a day being blonde. I still haven’t, but I liked the way that the connection functioned, and it’s a very good example of how I work…You can do the same thing with words or with metal.” (Chamberlain in Julie Sylvester, ed. John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1945-1985, New York, 1968, p. 11) Deriving from this Olson-inspired linguistic practice, much like his realization of the aura surrounding Smith’s sculptures, Chamberlain formulated his sculptural theory “fit” which endured throughout the entirety of his career. Like his illogical word pairings, Chamberlain’s “fit” sculptures were combinations of seemingly incompatible parts which he stumbled upon and was inherently enticed by: “one day something—some one thing pops out to you, and you pick it up, and you take it over, and you put it somewhere, and it fit, it’s just the right thing at the right moment.”(Chamberlain in “No Leaning on the Oars” in Jochen Poetter, ed.  John Chamberlain, Dresden, 1991, p. 33) His sculptures are reflections of his material choices that “fit” together to forge a unique visual language of sculptural aesthetics.  

Whereas Chamberlain’s process was influenced by Olson’s fluid methodology, his early sculptural style was inspired by Franz Kline’s “power” while at the Black Mountain College. As an expression of his commanding presence, Kline’s paintings are marked by an intense visual rhetoric as illustrated in his consistent employment of jagged, irregular black strokes jerking across a muted canvas. The present work manifests the marriage between Olson and Kline’s didactic programs. Just as Kline’s black strokes translate his painterly actions, the viewer can observe the way Chamberlain manipulated the steel components to coil and bend while forming the sculpture. The piece itself is defined by three different geometric components which grow in size from bottom to top, creating a sense of gravitational imbalance, and demonstrate a “fitting” of objects in unlikely placements and combinations. Chamberlain imbues his sculpture with a geometric competitive tension as the base is characterized by stiff horizontal and vertical linear parts, juxtaposed beneath a long irregular oval created from thin coiled steel that rests on a dialogue above it. Finally, the top component is an irregular door-like object that is twice the length of the base and contains a threateningly pointed tip that extends into the viewer’s space. It is this exact strength, grit, and tenacious vitality that presents the innate life and quality of Chamberlain’s sculptural foundation, and initially attracted Allan Stone to Chamberlain’s early sculptures when he first encountered them in the late 1950s at Martha Jackson Gallery.