If you read the Sunday New York Times Art and Architecture section on Jan. 14, 2001, no doubt the article on "two new significant Soho buildings" caught your eye. A careful reading of the feature revealed that one of the structures, by the renowned Philip Johnson, was "inspired by a piece of semi-figural sculpture, one of John Chamberlain's crushed-automobile constructions." Such is the respect that Chamberlain typically receives from his peers. The question is, why doesn't the art market give him the same respect?
The answer is rather simple. While it's hard enough to sell sculpture that is made of "noble" materials, such as bronze, it is highly difficult to sell work made of discarded scrap metal -- and sometimes rusted metal, at that. To the unsophisticated eye, Chamberlain's work looks exactly like what it is -- remnants of a crushed car. However, anyone who has any sense of connoisseurship can clearly see the aggressive beauty of the work. Depending on your mood, a Chamberlain can appear as light and ephemeral as a crumpled piece of paper, or as dense and heavy as the smashed car that it is. It's this ambiguity that creates a remarkable tension in the work.
Chamberlain began producing mature work around 1958. A credible argument can be made that he should be considered an Abstract Expressionist sculptor, since he moved metal around in much the same way that Willem de Kooning pushed paint. Chamberlain also found a solution to a problem that even the great David Smith could never successfully solve -- how to add color to sculpture without compromising the integrity of the material.
For example, if an artist covered a welded steel sculpture with a coat of red paint, chances are that you would have a hard time determining what material it was made of. Even if you identified it correctly as metal, you certainly would have no idea whether it was copper, cast iron or brass. By utilizing found steel covered in weathered paint, whose chips and thin spots revealed the underlying metal, Chamberlain was able to resolve this dilemma in one brilliant stroke.
Despite his historical achievements, the market hasn't responded in the same way that it has for later contemporaries like Joel Shapiro, Mark di Suvero and Richard Serra. The last time a major Chamberlain appeared at auction was back in November 1999 at Sotheby's. Los Ang Us, a large work from 1988 that measured 96 by 47 by 37 inches, was estimated to sell for $80,000-$120,000. The work brought $107,000 -- respectable until you look at what a comparable work would bring by one of the above major sculptors. Try finding a large Shapiro, di Suvero or Serra for $100,000 -- there ain't no such animal.
One might argue, "Oh, that's because it was a late work from the 1980s." Unfortunately, that argument carries no weight. Works from Chamberlain's finest periods (generally considered the 1960s for free-standing sculpture and the 1970s for wall-reliefs) rarely bring premium prices. Can you imagine a Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, or Oldenburg from the 1960s not bringing a huge price? Well, that's exactly the case with Chamberlain. The market places virtually no cachet on his early work. For example, a classic work from 1964, Miss Remember Ford, appeared at Christie's (Nov. 2000) with a modest $40,000-$60,000 pre-sale estimate. The work sold for only $49,350.
About the only Chamberlains that routinely exceed estimate are his smallest sculptures. The artist refers to some as "Tonks" (those made cleverly from metal Tonka trucks) and "Baby Tycoons." When available at PaceWildenstein, they have been priced at $18,000. On the secondary market, dealers ask $20,000-$25,000. To be able to buy a unique work by one the 20th century's better sculptors, for that kind of money, certainly represents good value.
What would it take to revitalize the Chamberlain market? Probably new representation. For a living artist, the gallery context in which you exhibit is everything. PaceWildenstein is simply the wrong context for Chamberlain. The gallery's slick exhibitions of his work tend to emphasize their decorative aspects rather than their raw energy. If Chamberlain were to switch allegiances to Matthew Marks, Gagosian or Cheim & Read, or for that matter any one of a number of young, edgy Chelsea galleries, he would be taken far more seriously by collectors. Another consideration is the absence of press attention to his shows. When was the last time that you read a major feature on Chamberlain?
Right now John Chamberlain is someone collected by the over-40 generation. The young collectors seen at a Christie's contemporary sale would rather spend a lot more and buy three dimensional works perceived as hip, such as a Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. Even when they buy a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread -- a good if unoriginal artist -- they are not buying an innovator. Sculpture by Carl Andre, Donald Judd and even Andy Warhol (product boxes) brought something new and vital to art history. John Chamberlain's work is in the same category and some day his market should reflect that.
Recommended reading: John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Sculpture, 1954-85 by Julie Sylvester.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.