John Chamberlain



Not on display

John Chamberlain 1927–2011
Painted steel
Object: 870 × 1410 × 1054 mm
Presented by Mrs Martha Jackson through the American Federation of Arts 1968


Kora 1963 is a large sculpture consisting of various irregular steel sections that form a broadly fan-like shape, starting narrowly at the bottom and widening at the top. The metal sheets are all single-coloured in lilac purple, chocolate brown and various tones of green (mint, avocado, lime and dark moss), with both plain and metallic finishes, while some are uncoloured, retaining their bare polished surfaces. It is immediately apparent that these are car parts, faceted and fragmented, with visible signs of wear and tear including rust and scratch marks. The sections have been bent, crushed and twisted and then bolted and welded together to form a dramatic abstract shape. The piece is not inscribed by the artist and requires a large, low plinth when displayed.

Kora forms one of a group of sculptures that American artist John Chamberlain made by cutting, crushing, twisting and bending discarded metal. These parts were welded or bolted together, and the welded sections in Kora were painted in various coats: the plain colours are ordinary enamel and the metallic finishes were achieved using stove paint.

Shortstop (Dia Art Foundation, New York) of 1957 was the first work Chamberlain made from automobile metal and he worked exclusively with car parts from 1959 until 1963, the year that Kora was made. Shortstop was constructed from two bumpers from a 1929 Ford car that Chamberlain found at the artist Larry Rivers’s house in Southampton (see Michael Auping, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth 110, exhibition catalogue, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth 2002, p.224). At the time Chamberlain favoured common materials for use in his sculptures, and scrapped metal car parts were seen as everyday and commonplace, inexpensive or free and readily available. However, in 1971 Chamberlain noted that although the material is common, ‘what you do with it is uncommon’ (quoted in Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1971, p.16). He has become known for his use of the mantra ‘it’s all in the fit’ (quoted in Pace Gallery 1991, p.12) as he manipulated car parts to transform and give new life to the original material. The processed colour used in car manufacture also provided Chamberlain with a new and readymade colour palette. Automobile lacquer and enamel were integral to the scrapped parts but from 1961 Chamberlain began to spray and paint pigments onto sections of his sculptures to expand the range of colours, as can be seen in Kora.

Kora was first exhibited in Sculpture at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, in May 1963, entering Tate’s collection not long after in 1968. A kora is a West African stringed instrument shaped like a lute and played like a harp. Despite this reference and the use of automobile parts, Chamberlain’s Kora is abstract, neither a literal representation of its title or its source material. Art historians have argued that Chamberlain’s works are not statements about the violence of car crashes or the car as a commodity, as might be assumed. As curator Walter Hopps noted in 1987, the painted and polished steel in Chamberlain’s works, ‘although resonant of urban life, function more as abstraction than as image’. (Quoted in Sculpture: John Chamberlain 1970s & 1980s, exhibition catalogue, Menil Collection, Houston 1987, p.4.) Similarly, curator Diane Waldman has stated that ‘Chamberlain alone transcended his materials and seized upon the found object – the automobile – exploiting it for its potential as form. Like [abstract expressionist painter Willem] de Kooning, who subverted the materialism of paint, Chamberlain used the ready-made form of the automobile to arrive at another end’ (quoted in Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1971, p.5). The original material, now unrecognisable, has been manipulated, shaped and coloured so as to emphasise abstract form.

Chamberlain’s employment of car parts in his sculptures in the late 1950s and early 1960s was an early example of the use of commercial materials in art, ahead of the emergence of pop art and minimal art in America. As minimalist artist Donald Judd stated in 1964, ‘John Chamberlain was the first to use automobile metal and to use color successfully in sculpture. He introduced the developments of American expressionism into sculpture and challenged the prevailing idea of sculpture as a solid mass’ (quoted in Pace Gallery 1991, p.iv). Chamberlain’s early metal constructions had been influenced by the work of David Smith (1906–1965), but from the late 1950s they increasingly referenced the vibrancy and energy of abstract expressionist painters such as de Kooning and Franz Kline (see Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth 2002, p.224). In this sense Kora could be seen to represent a synthesis of painting and sculpture. Relying on gesture and improvisation, the soft metal allowed Chamberlain to create crumpled surfaces and twisted planes such that it could be read as a three-dimensional expressionist painting.

Further reading
John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1971.
John Chamberlain: New Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Pace Gallery, New York 1991.
John Chamberlain: Recent Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Pace Wildenstein, New York 2005.

Bryony Bery
November 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Catalogue entry

John Chamberlain born 1927

T01094 Kora 1963

Not inscribed
Painted steel, 34 1/4 x 55 1/2 x 41 1/2 (87 x 141 x 105.5)
Presented by Mrs Martha Jackson through the American Federation of Arts 1968
Prov: With Martha Jackson Gallery, New York (purchased from the artist 1963)
Exh: Sculpture, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, May 1963 (no catalogue)

One of Chamberlain's sculptures made by cutting, crushing, denting and bending discarded parts of cars.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.115-6, reproduced p.115

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