John Chamberlain was born in Rochester, Indiana in 1927. He spent his childhood growing up in Chicago and joined the navy for 3 years, between the years 1943 to 1946. During his time at the Art Institute of Chicago (1950-1952), Chamberlain began making welded steel sculptures influenced by the work of David Smith. He then attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1955 and 1956, where he both studied and taught sculpture. In 1958, he began using scrap metal from automobiles in his work, and from 1959 and on, he focused on building sculptures consisting entirely of crushed car parts welded together.
In the early 1960s, Chamberlain’s work began to receive attention and critical acclaim. His first major solo show debuted at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1960, and shortly after, he started to become recognized as a three-dimensional Abstract Expressionist. His sculptures were exhibited at a number of galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in 1960 in their exhibition: The Art of Assemblage, the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York from 1962 and onwards, as well as the São Paulo Biennial in 1961 and Venice Biennale in 1964. During this time, Chamberlain started to experiment with other mediums and materials in addition to making sculptures with auto parts. From 1963 to 1965, he made geometric paintings with sprayed automobile paint, and in 1966, he made a series of sculptures made from urethane foam. That same year, he received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. During this time, he directed the film The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez (1969), described as a “cult art classic” by the Guggenheim Museum, starring Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet. He also started experimenting with crushing and compressing galvanized steel and paper bags before creating a series of sculptures composed of heat-crumpled Plexiglas in 1970. A retrospective of his work was presented at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971.
The year after, Chamberlain started making large works from auto parts once again, which he assembled on the collector Stanley Marsh’s ranch in Amarillo, Texas, until the mid-1970s. Starting from 1977, he began delving into photography, using a panoramic Widelux camera. In 1986, his next major retrospective was shown in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art, alongside the publication of John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954–1985. In the 1990s, Chamberlain received many awards for his art, including the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, Washington, D.C. (both 1993); Gold Medal from the National Arts Club, New York (1997); and Distinction in Sculpture from the Sculpture Center, New York (1999).
During his last ten years, Chamberlain started experimenting again with other mediums and materials, starting with large photographs printed on canvas, altered with digital visual effects. He also started to make larger versions of his miniature foil sculptures from the mid-1980s as well as new larger foil pieces in 2007. He also continued to create more sculptures using vintage automobiles. Chamberlain passed away on December 21, 2011, in New York; and a retrospective of his work, John Chamberlain: Choices, was presented from February 24–May 13, 2012 at the Guggenheim Museum.