Whitehot Magazine

John Chamberlain, The Greatest Junk Artist by Donald Kuspit

John Chamberlain, Diamond Lee, 1969. Painted and chrome-plated steel, 59 x 57 x 45 inches. © 2021 Fairweather & Fairweather LTD/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever. 

John Chamberlain: Stance, Rhythm, and Tilt


September 28, 2021 through February 5, 2022

By DONALD KUSPIT, February 2022

Looking at such bizarrely beautiful sculptures as John Chamberlain’s luminous Diamond Lee, 1969, and the more colorful White Thumb Four, 1978, Dearie Oso Enseau, 1982, and TambourineFrappe, 2010, one tends to forget they are made of junk—discarded automobile parts, that is, the debris of junked automobiles.  Chamberlain made other three-dimensional works of foam rubber from cheap furniture, plexiglass boxes, and paper bags, acknowledging that they were all “junk” or “garbage.”  Two-dimensional Cubist collages also used such commonplace, useless, discarded remnants of everyday life, giving these so-called found materials a complex new artistic life by idiosyncratically integrating them to ironic aesthetic effect.  Chamberlain’s sculptures, following in their wake, have been called “three-dimensional collages,” their disparate elements also idiosyncratically integrated if to flamboyant expressionist rather than restrained cubist effect.  Orchestrating his contradictory fragments to rhapsodic effect, his is a musical abstract sculpture on an aesthetic par with Kandinsky’s musical abstract paintings.  There is a sense of abundance about Chamberlain’s grandiose, full-bodied sculptural collages, a sense of ascetic restraint to Cubist collages, with their oddly disembodied flat forms.  Chamberlain’s works are the sculptural equivalent of what Harold Rosenberg called “signature painting,” as Chamberlain implicitly acknowledged when he noted that all his sculptures, however varied, had the same “signature mark.”    

John Chamberlain, TAMBOURINEFRAPPE, 2010. Painted and chrome-plated steel, 116 3/4 x 90 x 86 1/2 inches. © 2021 Fairweather & Fairweather LTD/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever. 

To see Chamberlain’s sculptures through the narrow lens of Abstract Expressionism is to be blind to their larger importance:  they are the grand climax of junk art.  Collage is a species of junk art, which has been in the making since Van Gogh, in an 1882 letter, celebrated as a “real paradise…the place where the street-cleaners dump the rubbish.  My God, it was beautiful!”(1)  Bauhaus students were urged by the teacher Johannes Itten “to keep their eyes open, while out walking, for rubbish heaps, refuse dumps, garbage buckets, and scrap deposits as sources of materials by which to make images (sculptures) which would bring out unequivocally the essential and antagonistic properties of individual materials.”(2)  The first junk art—abstract assemblages—came out of the basic Bauhaus course taught by Hans Albers, who instructed students to “put together real [artistic] marvels…out of everything and anything” they found in “scrap heaps” and “the city dump.”(3)  “Every artist should be able to put together a picture out of nothing more than, say, blotting paper, as long as he knows how to give it form,” Kurt Schwitters declared.(4)  

All of this suggests that these artists believed that making art was more than a matter of affording a “sensation of the new,” however new—untraditional--their art seemed when it first appeared, and whatever new materials—for example steel rather than stone, foam rubber rather than clay—it used as a medium.  For them it had an alchemical purpose, a transformative purpose, a religious purpose:  as Schwitters said, “art is a spiritual function of man, which aims at freeing him from life’s chaos (tragedy).”(5)  “The minute (material) becomes art it becomes much more sublime,” that is heavenly, he added, reminding one of Kandinsky’s remark that “art belongs to the spiritual life, in which it is one of the most agents,” its purpose to “awaken us from “the whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude,” fraught with “desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose.”(6)  Junk artists—artists who used junk as their raw material, ingeniously turning it into refined art, a transformational act that in effect raises it into aesthetic heaven, and with that raises it from the dead and gives it eternal life—are in effect true believers in the religion of art.  A piece of junk is a found object, suggesting that Duchamp was a junk artist, for his urinal and bicycle wheel were junk, considering the fact that they became useless when they became art.      

John Chamberlain, Dearie Osu Enseau, 1992. Painted and chrome-plated steel, 98 x 60 x 57 inches. © 2021 Fairweather & Fairweather LTD/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever. 

As the historian Jacques Barzun and the poet Wallace Stevens pointed out, the religion of art—the belief in the miraculously transformative redemptive power of art—began in the 19th century, in compensation for the loss of Christian faith among the disillusioned cognoscenti.  As though in compensation for what Nietzsche called “the death of God” Art became the new God, all the more so because it seemed to confer immortality on mortal ruins, which is what junk is.  Faith in art became the alternative to faith in God, because one could see how art worked, while God worked in mysterious ways.  Perhaps the greatest demonstration of the transformative and redemptive power of art in the 20th century—art’s alchemical ability to turn ugly reality that has lost its meaning into sublime form with enduring meaning, to turn dead matter into living art, spiritualize secular reality by aestheticizing it--Chamberlain’s sculptures may be the last stand of sacred art.  His works show the redemptive power of art, the artist’s ability to spiritualize spiritless matter, to raise dead material into aesthetic heaven, and with that show art triumphing over industrial society.  For by putting its material dregs, indicative of its destructiveness, to creative use, art gives industrial society spiritual value, making all the bad, symbolized by the junk it leaves in its wake, good.  But the golden age of American art, and its belief in high abstraction, to which Chamberlain’s masterpieces belong, is over.  Art became secularized with the arrival of Pop Art, and Andy Warhol, who called himself a business artist, not to say a materialistic capitalist.  Does that mean that Chamberlain’s sculptures have become profane idols, their secular material their most conspicuous feature—the “sensational” color that Chamberlain applies to the steel makes it more emotional engaging, all the more so because it softens its hardness, making the work less intimidating, even seductive, more a unified whole than the chaotic sum of fragments it seems to be--and with that among the greatest golden calves to be worshipped in the religion of art? WM


1. Quoted in John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters (New York:  Abrams, 1968), 152

2. Ibid., 262

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 153

5. Ibid., 42

6. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky:  Complete Writings on Art (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 131, 128

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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