John Chamberlain - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, April 15, 2021 | Phillips
  • Overview

    'In finding your place in sculpture, you need to find the material that offers you just the right resistance. As it turns out, car metal offers me the correct resistance so that I can make a form—not overform it or underform it.' —John ChamberlainRising to human height with a multitude of patinated metal sheets, Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya is a vibrant example of John Chamberlain’s body of crumpled metallic sculptures. With its many protruding surfaces, sprawling, rippling and motioning in different directions, the sculpture resembles a living entity — an amorphous creature transcending the lifelessness of its material constituents. Yet at the same time, Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya’s ambiguous physical form recalls the very real aesthetic of accumulated detritus, the image of amalgamated waste that one may encounter upon entering a junkyard. This impression echoes Chamberlain’s sculptural process, as the artist would search for discarded car parts and subsequently transform these through both generative and destructive gestures — crushing, blending, mingling, and assembling. The result of this creative enterprise was astoundingly ebullient, and often replete with paradoxes. In the present work, the final appearance of Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya showcases the twofold countenance of debris and gem — in the words of Jackson Arn, a three-dimensional collage work that is at once ‘juvenile and jaded, optimistic and apocalyptic’.1



    With its tongue-in-cheek title, Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya notably makes reference to the eponymous song released by the artist Gris-Gris in 1968 which, at the height of a moment of social liberation in the United States, served as a musical hymn to a drug dealer. Incorporating New Orleans rhythm, hints of blues and psychedelic rock, Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya echoes its sculptural counterpart, which similarly hybridises styles and genres — namely Abstract Expressionism, interspersed with hints of Neo-Dada.


    Giving Life to Sculpture


    A quintessential bon vivant, Chamberlain was known during his youth and formative years to lead an epicurian lifestyle. Patronising the famed bar Max’s Kansas City in New York, the artist would frequently make intricate sculptural compositions out of crushed cigarette packs. In 1956, he took to monumental scaling and transformed his witty bar trick into a grand creative gesture, producing his first sculpture incorporating automobile parts, Shortstop. Created more than three decades later, Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya demonstrates Chamberlain’s growing interest in colour, vibrancy and grandeur — a mature and dynamic variation on his enduring theme. In addition to its mature rendering and spellbinding aura, Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya is distinguished by its prodigious exhibition history, having travelled from Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum to the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg  in 1996, on the occasion of Chamberlain’s important retrospective that year.



    Poetic Debris

    'I’m still making sculptures in the way that I made the poems.' —John ChamberlainSpending most of his youth raised by his grand mother in Chicago, and serving in the U.S. Navy aboard an aircraft carrier from 1943 to 1946, Chamberlain utilised the G.I. Bill to attend the School of The Art Institute of Chicago and Black Mountain College from 1951 to 1956. Whilst studying at Black Mountain, Chamberlain fostered a particular fondness for poetry, at times explicitly alluding to the practice of sculpting in his writing, at others translating his known sculptural gestures into delightful human and phenomenological thoughts (‘i have abbreviated you / to a pimple to be / squeezed’, the artist wrote). Under the tutelage of Charles Olsen, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, seasoned poets who doubled as mentors for Chamberlain, the artist would lay theoretical groundwork for his artworks to come. It was upon moving to New York after his studies that, for the first time, he created sculpture that included scrap elements found in automobile junkyards. ‘Curiously, it’s only recently that I’ve noticed that I’m still making sculptures in the way that I made the poems’, the artist said. ‘It’s all in the fit. Say you take one word that’s on a page. You like this word, this word looks nice to you. Maybe you don’t even care what the word means. But you like the word. You can conjugate the word. If the word is beauty, it can become beautiful. Then it can become beauteous, can’t it? Or beautification. You can play around with it, add to it, or if you want you can take the word apart’.2 Like a bodied poem coated with plated steel, Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya shifts and conjugates with each viewer’s moving perception.


    Slow Looking

  • Art Historical Associations


    Despite deriving from a unique visual language melding poetic bravado and macho tenderness, Chamberlain’s body of writhing sculptures carries a number of historical associations that reach farther out into the artistic canon — spanning a variety of different genres and media. Indeed, associated with lingering dichotomies of fragility versus stability, elegance versus roughness, Chamberlain’s sculptural work was built upon a multifarious conceptual ground enabled by Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Neo-Dada. With its chromatic energy, its gestural commotion, and its junk-like façade, Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya possesses loose connections to Willem de Kooning’s serendipitously distributed colouring, Franz Kline’s gestural approach to linework, and Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines — which similarly boasted scavenged materials from the artist’s neighbourhood. Yet, Chamberlain takes these pictorial advancements mainly made in the painterly realm and propels them into that of sculpture; in this way he provided, as his peer Lawrence Weiner suggested, his own ‘solution to the spatial problem’.3


    Willem De Kooning, Untitled V, 1982, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Image: Scala, Florence. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2021.
    Left: Willem de Kooning, Untitled V, 1982, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: Scala, Florence. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2021. 
    Right: Robert Rauschenberg, Estate, 1963, oil and silk-screened inks on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Image: Scala, Florence. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021.

    Critiquing Consumption


    In Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, an additional conceptual layer is made evident by the work’s irreverent title, playfully alluding to a 1968 psychedelic song of the same name. A mellow, quasi-hypnotic serenade to a narcotics and stimulants merchant, Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya reflects a time during which the social landscape of America shifted towards an impression of increasing freedoms, physically materialised in bohemian demonstrations and culturally immortalised in writing, on the heels of the Beat Generation’s ode to postwar horizons. These new times ushered a growing fascination with automobiles and the sense of emancipation enabled by them; Chamberlain’s response to the consumerist symbol feels sobering — a darker take on the possibilities of a so-called American dream. In Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, the patinated sheets of reverberating metal feel both awesome and on the brink of collapse; they evoke the grandeur of urban developments whilst equally denoting their inherent flipside. In this sense, the work is reminiscent of other great artists’ foray into the ambivalent subject of cars as a totem of capitalistic greed — Peter Cain’s truncated automobile forms, James Rosenquist’s astutely modern collages, and John Baldessari’s obsession with the car-ladden landscape of Los Angeles.


    Left: James Rosenquist, F-111, 1964-1965, oil on canvas with aluminum, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: Scala, Florence. © James Rosenquist/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021.
    Right: Peter Cain, Z, 1989, oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Image: Scala, Florence. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

    1 Jackson Arn, ‘The Staying Power of John Chamberlain’s Crushed Car Sculptures’, Artsy, 29 November 2019, online.

    2 John Chamberlain, quoted in Elisa Wouk Almino, ‘John Chamberlain’s Previously Unknown Poems From Black Mountain College’, Hyperallergic, 16 April 2020, online.
    3 Lawrence Weiner, quoted in ‘John Chamberlain: The Artist’, Youtube, Guggenheim Museum Channel, 8 December 2016, online.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Karsten Greve, Cologne
      Mrs Jamileh Weber, Zurich
      Phillips, New York, 16 May 2013, lot 21
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Pace Gallery, John Chamberlain: New Sculpture, 8 March - 13 April 1991
      Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, John Chamberlain. Current Works and Fond Memories: Sculptures and Photographs 1967-1995, 11 May - 17 November 1996, p. 123 (illustrated, p. 50)

Property from an Important Belgian Collector


Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya

painted and chromium plated steel
168 x 185.4 x 155 cm (66 1/8 x 72 7/8 x 61 in.)
Executed in 1990.

Full Cataloguing

£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £478,800

Contact Specialist


Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+ 44 20 7318 4060


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+ 44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021