JOHN CHAMBERLAIN (1927-2011) Ballantine, 1957

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Lot 22W
Ballantine, 1957
Sold for US$ 287,500 inc. premium

Post-War & Contemporary Art

15 Nov 2017, 17:00 EST

New York

Lot Details
JOHN CHAMBERLAIN (1927-2011) Ballantine, 1957 JOHN CHAMBERLAIN (1927-2011) Ballantine, 1957
Ballantine, 1957

painted steel

18 x 48 x 10 in.
45.7 x 121.9 x 25.4 cm


  • Provenance
    Martha Jackson Gallery, New York (acquired directly from the artist in 1958).
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1963.

    New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Sam Francis, 25 November-20 December 1958.
    New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Great Works, 6-17 October 1964.
    Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle, John Chamberlain, 11 May-21 July 1991, no. 2, pl. 47 (illustrated in color, p. 209). This exhibition later traveled to Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlung, Albertinum, 25 August-3 November 1991.
    New York, Allan Stone Gallery, John Chamberlain Early Works, 28 October 2003-15 January 2004, no. 8 (illustrated in color).
    New York, Gallery Valentine, Willem and John, 16 August-5 September 2011.

    D. Waldman, John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1971 (illustrated, p. 23).
    J. Sylvester, John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985, New York, 1986, no. 12 (illustrated, p. 45).

    "There is material to be seen around you every day. But one day something—some one thing—pops out at you, and you pick it up, and you take it over, and you put it somewhere else, and it fits, it's just the right thing at the right moment. You can do the same thing with words or with metal. I guess that's part of my definition of art".1

    The immediacy and forcefulness exhibited by America's Action Painters of the mid-20th century was ultimately constrained to just two dimensions; that is at least until a comparatively speaking unschooled mid-westerner named John Chamberlain arrived in New York City in 1956 and radically changed the scope of abstract sculpture forever. Chamberlain's artistic accomplishments are obviously impressive, but the rather circuitous route that led him to New York City to create the kind of work that he did is singular and almost unimaginable in relation to the individual journeys of his artistic peers.

    Prior to formally becoming an artist, Chamberlain pursued various vocations around the country, none of which seemed to truly satisfy the artist. In the early 1940s, he headed west from Chicago to Hollywood to try his hand in the film industry, however a minor run in with the law made him drastically change course and enlist in the Navy in 1943 to avoid not only a potential life of destitution but also to flee the State of California. After serving for three years as a sailor on the U.S.S. Tulagi aircraft carrier, Chamberlain eventually found his way back to Chicago where he enrolled, oddly enough, in a cosmetology program at Sid Simon's school through the G.I. Bill. While later teaching hairdressing and the art of makeup at a modeling school in Chicago, Chamberlain began to take art lessons at a studio near his employment.

    The first major event that set Chamberlain on a path towards artistic discovery and innovation occurred in the studio of his instructor, Lucretia Malcher, when he saw a small black and white photo reproduction of a Camille Pissarro work. He described the moment of revelation as such: "When I looked at it all of a sudden it got me, and I said, geez, there's more here than meets the eye. And it turned out that it became a place I wanted to be; [...] where you could exercise your own faculties, to the way I felt my faculties should be used."2 Shortly thereafter, Chamberlain enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he would stumble upon his first real artistic influence, one that would shape his philosophy on construction for the foreseeable future. "And then a David Smith sculpture showed up—one of the early Agricolas--and it was sitting up in the museum [The Chicago Art Institute] and so I would go look at it and it was the first piece of sculpture that I saw that was just itself. I mean it wasn't representing something and it wasn't telling me that I should do this or that. It was just there by itself and that fascinated me."3

    The free association that Chamberlain discovered and embraced through Smith's Agricola works was compounded and expanded upon once he began studying at Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1955-56. In her 1993 New York Times piece concerning Chamberlain and his work, art historian Carol Strickland notes, "Chamberlain found an atmosphere that encouraged questions and experimentation. Because 'it was a poet's regime at that time,' he began writing poetry, cobbling words 'that I liked the looks of together' for startling juxtapositions. Assembling disparate parts by whim into a satisfying whole later informed his sculpture. 'Fooling around puts you in a position,' Mr. Chamberlain said, "to see things that wouldn't happen by any other means."4 Certainly he felt the influence not only of his poet mentors at Black Mountain but also of the institution's previous students and instructors who greatly informed the Abstract Expressionist movement. In this respect, Franz Kline, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Willem de Kooning, would come to be the next biggest impacts on his ideological and stylistic development.

    After arriving in New York in 1956, Chamberlain fully immersed himself in the extremely vibrant epicenter of the art world. Like many other artists from the period, he became a regular at The Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, a bar which had already become a mainstay of the Abstract Expressionist artists. Here he was able to socialize and discuss art directly with Kline and de Kooning, which only further helped him to develop and expand upon his own ideas. Of his talks with Kline, Chamberlain remarked, "The only thing I can remember [him] saying about sculpture is that if you drop it on your foot it'll hurt."5 Of course that is certainly true with Chamberlain's works from the time, being constructed from welded steel, but it also reflects the whimsical side of Chamberlain and his ideas on art being free from deliberate meaning. Fortunately, however, that wasn't all Chamberlain gleaned from his study and understanding of Kline and his work. As he stated in 1972, "It had to do with the power and glory forever. The force, the velocity, that's what I got out of Franz. I thought it was swifter and harder in terms of the 50's, it seemed to be more accurate for me, a reality, to be influenced by Kline rather than de Kooning. But either one of them, they were both terrific."6

    Chamberlain's comments become quite clear upon comparison of Ballantine, 1957, to Kline's The Ballantine, 1958-60 currently in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Executed just a few short years apart, both works exhibit the same sort of visual force, pent-up energy and spatial construction. In fact, one could argue that Chamberlain's sculpture is more successful than Kline's painting in that the latter is constrained by the edges of the canvas and naturally flat, whereas Chamberlain's sculpture is completely free, accessible from all angles, and seemingly bursting with energy from within. Their nearly identical titles coincidentally link the artists and works together for eternity. The titles refer to Ballantine brand beer, a favorite among artists from that generation and likely a drink the two artists might have consumed at the Cedar Tavern together.

    Ballantine is perhaps Chamberlain's most important work from the period, one of very few welded steel pieces he made before drastically changing his sourced material from found steel elements to colorfully painted car parts. He speaks most fondly of this early period, stating that being part of the group of artists practicing in New York city imbued him with more energy than he had ever experienced before which "set him on a lifelong journey to explore art as the quest of 'finding out what you don't already know'".7

    1. J. Chamberlain quoted in J. Sylvester, "Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain", in John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985, New York, 1986, p. 11.
    2. J. Chamberlain quoted in conversation with R. Creeley in Buffalo, New York, November 29, 1991, unpublished transcript, Artist's file, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, unpaged.
    3. Excerpt from a conversation between Elizabeth C. Baker, John Chamberlain, Donald Judd, and Diane Waldman, 26 October 1971, New York City.
    4. C. Strickland, "Unshackled, Unconventional Sculptor", in The New York Times, 13 June 1993.
    5. J. Chamberlain quoted in H. Gelzdahler, "Interview with John Chamberlain", in John Chamberlain: Recent Work, exh. cat., New York, Pace Gallery, 1992.
    6. J. Chamberlain quoted in P. Tuchman, "An Interview with John Chamberlain", in Artforum, February 1972, Vol. X, p. 39.
    7. S. Davidson, "A Sea of Foam, an Ocean of Metal", in John Chamberlain: Choices, exh. cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2012, p. 18.
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