John Chamberlain - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, November 14, 2018 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Private Collection, New York (acquired directly from the artist in 1984)

  • Literature

    Julie Sylvester, John Chamberlain, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985, New York, 1986, no. 378, p. 115 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Executed in 1966-1970 at the beginning of the pioneering sculptor’s career, this selection of three superb foam sculptures by John Chamberlain showcases his unique exploration of form and materiality. Having begun working with discarded automobile parts, the artist’s signature and wildly unorthodox choice of medium, in 1957, Chamberlain was keen to overcome his reputation as a fender bender by the late 1960s and experimented with other unconventional yet significantly more malleable materials such as urethane foam, synthetic polymers, and aluminum foil. Fascinated by the active transformation of everyday materials, Chamberlain recalled watching someone squeeze a sponge while washing dishes and observing one end of the sponge popping out of one side of their fist, suddenly resembling a sculpture to the artist: “It’s daily life,” he explained, “That’s where I get the idea that everybody makes sculpture every day, whether in the way they throw the towel over the rack or the way they wad up the toilet paper. That’s all very personal and very exact, and in some sense very skillful on their part…those little things, like blowing up a paper bag and hitting it so it pops --- take it one little step further and do it in slow motion and explore what the resistance of the air in the bag is, and you make something. To me that is very interesting, if there is a body of work demonstrating all these things that come together, that’s useful in art history, as a record of accumulation and development of knowledge in this occupation” (John Chamberlain quoted in Julie Sylvester, John Chamberlain, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985, New York, 1986, p. 12).

    While in Malibu in 1966, Chamberlain began a series of sculptures using industrial urethane foam that was available in Los Angeles parking lots, in which the artist cut, folded, and tied foam into “instant” sculptures such as the present three works. Inspired by commonplace movements, this series began with a number of small sketches of squeezed and tied sponges, and progressed to larger pieces of urethane foam, whose denser and more buoyant quality allowed for increasingly complex configurations resembling craters and writhing donut forms. The year of 1967 saw his second series of these works, using even larger pieces of foam and occasionally requiring two ropes to harness the squeezed shapes. The artist continued to experiment with this material until his fourth series, executed in 1972.

    Exemplifying Chamberlain’s unwavering respect for the materials he employs, the emphasis in his foam works rests on their structure and construction, such that the subject of the sculptures becomes the foam itself. The smooth, sensuous surfaces and bulging, almost bodily forms of these works evoke the effect of the sculptor’s hands kneading flesh. In describing this series, Julie Sylvester observes: “Urethane foam is Chamberlain’s marble - porous and tactile but cheap, and softly and directly responsive to the bare hands” (Julie Sylvester, John Chamberlain, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985, New York, 1986, p. 36). Dating to his first series of foam works, Untitled, 1966 is tied with a charming, black beaded drapery trim, further highlighting Chamberlain’s enthusiasm for repurposing found materials and his endless creativity. Executed in a larger format, the two Untitled works from 1970 retain the original vigor of the contorted foam shapes struggling to escape from their restraints.

    Though a fascinating window into the renowned sculptor’s early creative process, this radical series of foam sculptures did not receive the critical attention it deserved at the time of its conception. In November 1966 to January 1967, more than two dozen of Chamberlain’s foam sculptures were exhibited at the legendary Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles, and the group received little consideration again until a survey exhibition at Chinati, Marfa in 2005-06 of around 30 rarely-seen foam sculptures, highlighting the importance of these works in his oeuvre. An icon of 20th century American sculpture, Chamberlain has utterly radicalized the way in which form, modeling, and composition are arranged in the sculptural canon, evidenced by the power and lasting success of his foam sculptures despite their being executed in an almost comically disposable material.



signed and dated "CHAM '70" on the underside
urethane foam, cord and paint
9 x 16 x 14 in. (22.9 x 40.6 x 35.6 cm.)
Executed in 1970.

$15,000 - 20,000 

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John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 14 November 2018