Early on, Mr. Chamberlain was drawn to the totemic welded constructions that David Smith made from old tools and machine parts. But in 1957, he had an epiphany while staying with the painter Larry Rivers in Southampton, N.Y. Using two fenders he pulled from a 1929 Ford rusting on Mr. Rivers’s property, he made a sculpture by running over the pieces repeatedly with a truck to bend them the way he wanted, then he fitted them together almost like puzzle pieces.
The sculpture, “Shortstop,” opened his eyes to the potential of pre-painted junk metal. And work like it, heavily indebted to his Abstract Expressionist mentors, attracted admirers like the influential collector Allan Stone [...]
Mr. Chamberlain worked with a broad range of materials, some as pliant as foam rubber and as ephemeral as brown paper bags. But he returned again and again to the more substantial stuff of the scrap yard, explaining the attraction as one of practicality. “I saw all this material just lying around against buildings, and it was in color,” he said, “so I felt I was ahead on two counts.”
But auto bodies also provided him with a material that could bear more than its weight in art-historical significance: as a chaotic riff on Duchamp’s readymades, as a renegade form of truth-in-materials Minimalism, as a bridge between the raw expressiveness of the New York School painters and the assembly-line deadpan of Warhol.
Critics often saw his crumpled Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles as dark commentaries on the costs of American freedom, but Mr. Chamberlain rejected such metaphorical readings.