John Chamberlain - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 2, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “Chamberlain is to Smith and the Minimalists as Giacometti was to Brancusi – an intensely human and vulnerable outlook, emotionally engaged with the modern world.”
    —Mark Rosenthal

    Master of his materials, John Chamberlain’s sculptures are comprised of manipulated junk metal and scraped car parts, objects that he designates as ‘chosen’ rather than ‘found’.Undoubtedly, this process elevates discarded detritus to the status of traditional high art materials, but despite its stunning visual effects, this choice was less conceptual than practical, scrap metal’s ubiquity and affordability being what first attracted the artist to it.


    In an improvisational manner recalling the syncopated rhythms of Jazz and the free verse experiments of Chamberlain’s Black Mountain poetry tutor, Charles Olson, the artist joins unwieldy, contorted forms together as a painter connects independent forms. Irregular meets irregular as every minor adjustment, twist or replacement is met with painstaking consideration to achieve the perfect balance and sentimental harmony between each piece. In this manner, monumental works such as Sprayed Myopia demonstrate how elegance can overcome imposing, brute weight.


    John Chamberlain with the present work

    Crude Elegance


    Standing over two metres tall, the lack of a sculptural base here only emphasises the work’s astonishing balance; what were once cumbersome disparate elements are now formed into a weightless whole. In 1981, Chamberlain began to stretch the limits of his works, accentuating more and more their streaming verticality or elongated nature. Sprayed Myopia is a result of this shift, and it endorses the artist’s belief that his work has a ‘light-on-its-feet stance’ that allows his heavy sculptural forms to dance in space.ii Transforming the crude, hefty bones of metal, Chamberlain manipulates his materials into a crescendo of billowing, graceful forms. 



    Ranking amongst some of the most iconic sculptural works of the post-war period and distilling something quintessentially American in his adoption of repurposed automobile parts, Chamberlain’s careful balance of rhythm and movement and the expressive plasticity of his practice also draws on a long tradition of European sculpture. Chamberlain once likened his vertical sculptures to Auguste Rodin’s Le Monument à Balzac, an apt comparison for Sprayed Myopia’s imposing presence and treatment of form, the latter perhaps even adopting Le Monument à Balzac’s asymmetric, understanded contrapposto pose. The deep folds of Rodin’s expressive drapery is mirrored in the folded metal, although the remarkable fluidity and lightness achieved by Chamberlain here draws closer to the dramatic intensity and capacious, marbled drapery of the High Baroque.

    Left: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, L'Estasi di Santa Teresa (Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila), 1647-1652, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. Image: Matteo Omied / Alamy Stock Photo
      Right: Auguste Rodin, Le Monument à Balzac, 1898, Rodin Museum, Paris. Image: VPC Travel Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

    However, the volume which Chamberlain transcribed into his sculptures is most linked to gestural paintings of the mid-20th century. Inspired by the raw energy and dynamic forms seen in the works of artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, Chamberlain sought to translate the language of Abstract Expressionism into sculpture. Sprayed Myopia has a visual affinity with de Kooning’s Excavation in this sense. Both works share a similar structure: multiple shifting planes which result in an overall, kinetic energy. The painted metal pieces in Chamberlain’s work, which are delineated by unfinished, metallic lines, evoke painted fields of colour, and hold pictorial volume. As in de Kooning’s work, they appear to intuitively twist and interweave as each individual shape contorts into a rhythmic whole, although the effect here is more immediately physical.


    Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950, The Art Institute of Chicago. Image: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © The Willem de Kooning Foundation/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023

    Unrestricted by a two-dimensional picture plane, Sprayed Myopia’s facets of bruised metal are limitless and visceral. The piece is also reflective of Pollock’s more lyrical gesture, noticed in the bowed, dark blue bar to the top, which flashes across the predominantly white structure. And, looking more closely, one can notice how Chamberlain has dripped colours of paint over various sections in true Pollock fashion, attesting to the sculptor’s regard for metal as his canvas. In this way, and, as an Abstract Expressionist himself, Chamberlain was the first to synthesize the expressive, gestural qualities of action painting with sculpture, as he invited one of the most formative movements of modern art into the three-dimensional world.


    Taking colour to the third dimension


    Within the discourse of abstract sculpture, Chamberlain was the first to allow colour’s true potential to thrive. Alexander Calder added colour to his mobiles in the 1930s, but he did so with only primary hues, disinterested in the colours themselves as he sought to lighten his sculptures. This minimalist approach was later reflected in the work of David Smith, Donald Judd and Anthony Caro who all employed single primary colours to unify their works and once again alleviate the sense of physical weight. In opposition, Chamberlain employed colour in all its forms, giving it both dimension and variation. Choosing car parts for their predetermined ‘found’ colours, he placed glossy vinyl next to scratched, matte surfaces of tacky, industrial colours which stirred an emotive effect. He began to experiment by sandblasting metal surfaces, exposing the raw, exposed steel underneath and from 1974 onwards began to add lacquer paint onto his artistic materials, adding colours of his own.


    Chamberlain is the only sculptor really using colour, the full range, not just metallic shades; his colour is as particular, complex and structural as any good painter’s”.
    —Donald Judd

    Sprayed Myopia displays the full array of these techniques: its resplendent chrome surfaces refract and mirror light whilst the white sections appear to absorb it. The battered steel surfaces offer endless gradients through their indentations, curvatures, and bends, and by applying colour to these infinite surfaces it becomes three-dimensional, becoming a part of each physical angle whilst offering countless variations in reflected tone. Indeed, there is no flatness involved. Works such as this exemplify how Chamberlain gave colour new meaning in sculpture - it no longer held a secondary position to form - as much as they disprove Clement Greenberg’s assertion that colour was inherent to painting.  


    Chamberlain’s works have amalgamated various antitheses and have been ascribed new meanings since their conception. They are abstract yet pose rhetorical links and questions. Is the use of consumer material a reference to popular culture? Is the use of junk material conceptual? Does the present work’s reference to “myopia” – the quality of being short-sighted – refer to the limits of our vision, or is it perhaps a poetic allusion to the sculpture’s refraction of light which blinds and confuses the eye? Looking to a long history of sculptural form and practice, Chamberlain radically expanded the possibilities of his chosen medium. As Mark Rosenthal has put it: 'Chamberlain is to Smith and the Minimalists as Giacometti was to Brancusi – an intensely human and vulnerable outlook, emotionally engaged with the modern world.”iii


    Collector’s Digest

    • In 1961, John Chamberlain was included in the Art of Assemblage exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here his work was displayed next to Cubist, Surrealist and Futurist pieces.

    • The artist has been the subject of major retrospectives at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1971 and 2012; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1986; and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1996; amongst others. In 1964, he represented the United States at La Biennale di Venizia.

    • Sprayed Myopia has been featured in several exhibitions, including with Pace Gallery, New York in 1989; Munson-Williams-Proctor Instiute, Utica in 1990; and in two Gagosian shows in Geneva in 2016 and New York in 2017. When the work was sold in New York in 2003 it set a new record for the artist at auction. 



    i John Chamberlain, quoted in John Chamberlain: Early Years, exh. cat., L&M Arts, New York, 2009, p. 53

    ii John Chamberlain, quoted in John Chamberlain: Early Years, exh. cat., L&M Arts, New York, 2009, p. 73

    iii Mark Rosenthal, 'Reflections on the art of John Chamberlain', in John Chamberlain: Early Years (exh. cat.), L&M Arts, New York, 2009, p. 10

    • Provenance

      PACE Gallery, New York
      Marieluise Hessel, New York (acquired from the above in 1989)
      Christie’s, New York, 14 May 2003, lot 33
      Private Collection (acquired at the above sale)
      Sotheby’s, New York, 11 May 2016, lot 43
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, The Pace Gallery, John Chamberlain: New Sculpture, 24 February - 25 March 1989, no. 8, n.p. (illustrated)
      Utica, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Sculpture from the Rivendell Collection, September 1990 - September 1992 (on long-term loan)
      Geneva, Gagosian Gallery, John Chamberlain: Poetic Form, 7 September - 3 November 2016
      New York, Gagosian Gallery, Group Show, 27 July - 1 September 2017
      New York, Gagosian Gallery, John Chamberlain: Masks, 19 September - 28 October 2017, pp. 86, 93 (illustrated, pp. 76, 87)
      New York, Gagosian Gallery, John Chamberlain: Stance, Rhythm and Tilt, 28 September 2021 - 5 February 2022

    • Literature

      'Goings On About Town', The New Yorker, vol. 56, March 1989, p. 12
      Fielding Dawson and John Chamberlain, ‘Self Portrait in Steel: A Talk with John Chamberlain’, Arts Magazine, vol. 64, no. 8, April 1990, p. 55 (illustrated)
      John Chamberlain: Choices, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2012-2013, pp. 219, 246 (The Pace Gallery, New York, 1989 installation view illustrated p. 218)

Property from a Distinguished Collection


Sprayed Myopia

painted and chrome-plated steel
221 x 144.8 x 127 cm (87 x 57 x 50 in. )
Executed in 1988.

Full Cataloguing

£650,000 - 850,000 

Sold for £1,379,000

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 2 March 2023