by Jim Long
John Chamberlain’s sculptures of crushed automobile metal are as immediately iconic as Hokusai’s wave. Careful to explain that the material he used was not found but chosen, Chamberlain conceived sculpture as groups of semichaotic modules that could be coaxed
to fit, and the result seemed the most natural thing for sculpture to be: uncontrived, casual masterworks.
Like de Kooning, whose work he admired, Chamberlain’s subject matter was most often girls, jazz and cars. He found a way to sculpt color, and the “dynamic obsolescence” of Detroit’s industry insured he would have an unending supply of extremely sophisticated material. (At GM, Harley Earl and a staff of 75 developed color intentionally to create deluxe objects; economically and socially seductive.) It was no accident the sculptor admired the painting of de Kooning: the Dutch painter was choosing his “American” palette from the advertising of the day.
Chamberlain’s Guggenheim retrospective begins with the amazing “Doomsday Flotilla” (1982), a sevenpart, floor-hugging hellish armada of skeletal lengths of black chassis parts
fitted out with cream colored sails and chrome engines. It’s a blast of Dantesque radical imagination. On the back wall hangs the relief “Essex” (1960). Works on the ramp spiral upward in roughly chronological order, mixing wall reliefs with free-standing objects. “Calliope” (1954) is an early work borrowing its sculptural vocabulary from David Smith.
Nearby, we see “Shortstop” (1958), a breakthrough assemblage of rusty fenders. Chamberlain developed the fit by repeatedly running over them until they resembled a baseball mitt. This convergence of instinctive choice of material and random
act would inform his work for the following decades. The
hydraulic baler soon became Chamberlain’s tool of choice, although a sledgehammer
was employed for finesse work.
In the work of the early 1960s he was able to bring an organic and voluminous lightness to the steel, contradicting its actual weight. The works pulse with elusive convolutions, as do the titles. “Miss Lucy Pink” (1962) sports an eye and floppy ear.
In minimalism’s moment, Chamberlain collapsed grid, line and plane all at once. After a seven-year filmmaking break from sculpture in the ’60s, he returned with unique versions of figuration and brittle vegetal forms. During the five years before his recent untimely
death, however, he began working again with automotive metal, carefully chosen “vintage” colors from the ’40s and ’50s. These bring back scale and volume to some of his most monumental work, completing the multifaceted self-portrait of this profound artist.
John Chamberlain: Choices
Through May 13, Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum, 1071 5th Ave., 212-423-3500,
This article first appeared in the
March 7 issue of CityArts. For more from
New York’s Review of Culture, visit www.cityartsnyc.com
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