Chamberlain grew up in the Midwest during the 1930s, his early life coinciding with the nation’s growing dependency on mechanics and technology. He began his professional career in the Navy, serving in the Second World War on an aircraft carrier. After coming back from the war, he became a hairdresser and make-up artist before deciding to enroll in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950. In Chicago he began his artistic career; learning of the Abstract Expressionists, who at the time were breaking with the status quo, allowed Chamberlain to pursue his own chosen method of art. He furthered his education at Black Mountain College before relocating to New York City at the end of 1950s. In New York he came in contact with the vibrant, electric art scene and began creating his car-part sculptures. Influenced by the American sculptor Joseph Goto, Chamberlain welded metals and mastered David Smith’s technique, allowing him to achieve a three-dimensional form of abstract expressionism by bending, twisting, and welding larger pieces of colored steel carved from old car parts. Chamberlain considered himself an Abstract Expressionist due to his sculptures’ counterpointing the paintings of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, but he has also been considered a Pop artist due to his using objects associated with major consumer products in the vein of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
Kidd Eau is an elegant example of Chamberlain’s mastery of the manipulation of objects and colors, asserting a singular presence that surprises at every turn. Throughout the 1990s and in the early 21st Century, Chamberlain became increasingly volumetric and baroque in the massing of forms and the use of vibrant color. He created his forms with what he called ‘chosen’ objects, as opposed to found. The welding together of parts of automobiles such as fenders, bumpers, and hoods with other sheets of metal created the radical forms of his sculptures. “Some seem to think that I would like found pieces, but I don’t. They’re chosen, you see. The idea is that there has been a lot of magic implied in the choice” (the artists in Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: Choices, 2012, p.18). Mimicking the process to which he contorted his forms, Chamberlain was fascinated by the innate sound and appearance of words, and his titles frequently featured a memorable conjunction of random phrases or words he had shuffled from index cards, such as the title of this work, Kidd Eau.
Chamberlain is considered among the greatest colorists of the 20th century. In liberating sculpture from the prohibition of color, he transformed the medium. In his work, he kept the original color of his chosen materials but would also add paint on top of the existing hues by dripping, spraying, pouring, and patterning to rough the effect. “I never thought of sculpture without color. Do you see anything around that has no color? Do you live in a world with no color? It never occurred to me that having color on sculpture was such a big number. I thought it was very obvious” (the artist in Phyllis Tuchman, "An Interview with John Chamberlain," Artforum 10, no. 6, 1972, p. 39). Chamberlain’s use of color in sculpture can be compared with de Kooning’s on canvas; despite the different materials and disciplines, both considered form and color, denseness and transparency, and surface and depth as continually developing and assimilating fundamentals. Willem de Kooning’s The North Atlantic Light, like the present work, uses gestural brushstrokes and shows experimentation with color. This work illustrates how de Kooning influenced Chamberlain’s treatment color, translating abstract expressionism into the three-dimensional form.
In the world of sculpture, Chamberlain is celebrated for the introduction of nontraditional materials and for an unprecedented sculptural process of clustering and folding metal. His uncanny ability to humanize cold, mass-produced machine parts is wrought with contradictions and complexities, but Kidd Eau provides the ultimate vantage point to access the nucleus of this extraordinary, influential artistic journey.
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