While he was widely known for his large scale sculptures constructed from remnants of car crashes, John Angus Chamberlain was a versatile artist who, in addition to steel, experimented with plexiglass, foam, aluminum foil, and paper bags. He ws also a painter, printmaker, filmmaker, and lastly, a large format photographer.

Chamberlain was born in Rochester, Indiana, and spent the majority of his childhood in Chicago. A particularly motivated youth, he left school in the 9th grade. As a young teenager, during World War II, from 1943 to 1946, he served in the United States Navy, spending time in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. He used the GI Bill to study hairdressing before enrolling at the Art Institute of Chicago where he applied himself to fine art from 1951–1952. Exploring the museum’s collection, he was particularly taken by Vincent van Gogh’s colorful canvases, an Abstract Expressionist painting by Willem de Kooning, and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and David Smith. He was a student at the University of Illinois from 1952 to 1954. 

Furthering his education, Chamberlain went to Black Mountain College in western North Carolina, from spring 1954 to summer 1956, taking painting and lithography classes with Joseph Fiore. While lauded for its art program, the college’s curriculum was interdisciplinary, and he became involved with the innovative poets Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley. Chamberlain wrote his own poems, finding that piecing them together was like making sculpture, as he noted in a later interview: “Curiously, it’s only recently that I’ve noticed that I’m still making sculptures in the way that I made the poems. It’s all in the fit. Say you take one word that’s on a page. You like this word, this word looks nice to you.” While at Black Mountain, he also did some metal sculptures, which later he realized were derivative: “The few sculptures that I made at Black Mountain were strongly influenced by David Smith. The first piece of David Smith’s that I saw was Agricola Nine, it was at the Art Institute of Chicago.”

By 1957 he had turned to sculpting with automotive scrap metal while staying in Southampton, New York, an area frequented by Abstract Expressionist painters whose work is often compared to Chamberlain’s. He was awarded Solomon R. Guggenheim fellowships twice, in 1966, and another in 1977. At the end of the sixties, he was experimenting with plexiglass and foam. He returned in the mid-1970s to working with automobile parts, but was more selective, choosing fenders, bumpers, and chassis. In 1973 a three-hundred pound piece sitting outside a Chicago gallery warehouse was mistaken for junk and carted away. In the early 1980s, Chamberlain moved from New York to Sarasota, Florida, where he maintained a vast studio. Despite this great facility, he did not limit himself to sculpture; since about 1963 he had created abstract paintings, sometimes geometric, and beginning four years later he turned to filmmaking and worked alongside Andy Warhol in Mexico. Toward the end of his life, Chamberlain expanded his work to include large-format photography. 

In an interview he stated that he had “led a charmed life,” and explained the source of his inspiration: “It’s daily life. That’s where I get the idea that everybody makes sculpture every day, whether in the way they wad this up or the way they throw the towel over the rack or the way they wad up the toilet paper. That’s all very personal and very exact, and in some sense very skillful on their part, but it is discarded as not-useful information. But it’s not not-useful.”