John Chamberlain Choices at the Guggenheim19 April 2012
ohn Chamberlain was a magician of crushed, folded, rolled and scalloped steel. He fashioned forms that could be sharp and cutting while at other times as soft as drapery on a figure or the waves he loved to sail that surrounded his last studio on Shelter Island, New York. He was also a colorist who worked effectively with both the found palette of automotive parts and appliances and his own mixed paints and lacquers. Chamberlain also created intriguing sculptural objects from carved foam and mineral-coated, heat-treated resin. John Chamberlain: Choices at the Guggenheim surveys six decades of the artist’s work, from the mid-1950s through his passing in 2011.
SPHINXGRIN TWO, a monumental sculpture of 2010, confronts museum-goers in the Guggenheim lobby. Its scale and form suggest a grand victory arch though the work seems made of kitchen variety aluminum foil. The arch is formed of two intertwining coils and two ends meet the floor with what appear to be walking shoes. So begins a roughly chronological stroll up the spiralling exhibition space of the Guggenheim, commencing, for the most part, with Chamberlain’s abstract expressionist roots in New York.
Calliope, a linear welded steel construction of 1954, is derived from the figure and suggests an abstracted street musician, realized in the sculptural language of David Smith. Cord, another early work of 1957, also makes use of found steel and is primarily linear and pictorial in a similar way to Smith’s Hudson River landscapes. The complex, Gordian Knot confusion of the work suggests Chamberlain’s later penchant for tangled and crushed forms. This is even more evident in Shortstop, a work of 1958 that incorporates scrap sheet metal that has been folded, almost in the artist’s signature style. The following year, he began welding painted steel with chromatic refinement. In a parallel trajectory, Chamberlain also produced three-dimensional assemblages for the wall with found and colored (by the artist) steel elements.
Maz, a sculpture in the round of 1960, still incorporates a conventional pedestal, but its compressed and colored automobile parts express an ordered chaos. Disparate car parts that may have undergone collisions on the highway are pieced together with consummate skill and the palette suggests a Kurt Schwitter collage. Hillbilly Galoot of 1960 is a seminal work of chromium-plated and painted steel that stands independent of a base on folded points of the sculpture. Somehow the works suggests a gestural depiction of the figure in movement, clothed in mirrored drapery with bursts of amber and crimson. Essex, a welded wall piece of the same year is distinguished by a resonant combination of found colors (Chamberlain was influenced by the palettes of Vincent van Gogh and Willem de Kooning).
During the early 1960′s, the artist also experimented with soft materials like fabric together with his welded steel compositions. Toy, a predominantly steel construction, balances a yellow automobile part with a swathe of yellow fabric which obscures part of the sculpture and hangs precipitously at its feet. Chamberlain also created works of a diminutive scale, based on such objects as spice cans and toy parts. Much later he would design toys in collaboration with his son for an exhibition at New York’s Clocktower Gallery, curated by Alanna Heiss.
Chamberlain had moved to New York City in 1956 and fraternized with abstract expressionists at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. At the time, he was considered a younger artist of their movement but Chamberlain’s works have since been associated with both Pop Art and Minimalism as well. Hollywood John of 1962 has a strong pop vibration with garish, glossy reds on steel that have been rolled into a rosette atop a collapsed radiator grill with unidentifiable flanges or wings that sprout outward. Sugar Tit of 1964 suggests an automobile pileup accident of crumpled and folded steel in the brazen glossy lacquered colors of hotrod racers.
By the mid to late 1960s, Chamberlain was experimenting with new media and approaches. Sensations, a work of 1965, was realized with lacquer and metal flakes on Formica. Two orange 3 x 3 grids (each of the proportion to collectively make 3 x 3 elements necessary to occupy the entire panel), seem to have been stenciled on a green ground. Vertically centered, the left hand grid is faint, blending into the green while the rightmost, painted over yellow, projects outward. Kinks and Lovin’ Spoonful of the same year, employ a strong monochrome grid against various shadow images, revealing surprising pictorial depth.
In 1967, Chamberlain produced an exhibition that consisted entirely of work in foam for the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles. Mannabend Ra of 1966 consists of urethane foam, bound by a cord to articulate sculptural shapes. The result is a spongy volumetric object that calls to mind human skin in its pliability. The artist continued to work with this material throughout his career, often fashioning vast foam couches to accommodate viewers at his exhibitions. Some of Chamberlain’s later works in foam also involve color and the application of foreign elements such as wooden beads.
Other experimental works from this period include the Penthouse series, named after a New York City penthouse where Chamberlain lived at the time. These works consist of wadded, twisted and crumpled paper to which resin had been applied, making them rigid. Penthouse #46 of 1969 sports an unlikely camouflage pattern in brown and pink. Another fascinating technique he developed during these years involved synthetic polymer resin to which he applied a mineral coating. Chamberlain would heat sheets of the resin and shape them with twists, flourishes and folds into intriguing volumes. Luna, Luna, Luna (In Memory of Elaine Chamberlain) is a resin work of 1970, named after the artist’s first wife. Like the drapery of a delicate fabric, it both reveals and obscures while a mineral wash leaves the beautiful spectrum of color that crowns this work.
Papalote Goliad of 1974 is a powerful and unusual work that Chamberlain realized for Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Judd had long championed Chamberlain’s work as a critic and twenty two Chamberlain works are currently installed in the former Marfa Wool and Mohair Building as part of the Judd’s foundation. With its turquoise and scarlet colors coupled with ferocious grills and folds, the work calls to mind Kachina figures of neighboring New Mexico. Skull’s Angel, another work of the same year, suggests and elegantly collapsed and folded yellow cab in a nod to taxi mogul and loyal Chamberlain collector Robert Scull.
Dooms Day Flotilla of 1982 marks a stylistic departure for Chamberlain. Seven menacing black constructions, welded of heavy steel tubes, represents a dreadful industrial apocalypse. Chromium-plated and white steel plates, folded and twisted into sails, drive them forward. Phantom Snatch of 1991 is a fascinating work for the wall. Consisting of folded chromium-plated, stainless and white-painted steel, it calls to mind storm clouds with its stepped and faceted elements, reflecting light from points while absorbing it through other fissures in the work.
The 1990s and early 2000s are scantily represented in the retrospective but Women’s Voices of 2005 is distinctive in the unusual extent to which Chamberlain manipulated and stylized curling ribbons of white-painted steel rising to the heavens from a chromium-plated steel bulb. The artist’s process consisted of purchasing van roofs and shredding them to obtain sculptural elements. Dictator Taxidermist of 2006 is a curious hybrid between automobile, zebra and early cubist construction. Its most distinctive element is an undulating chrome bandolier that wraps and unites two painted metal volumes.
TALKSHOWAMBLE of 2009 is a thicket of chromium-plated bumpers relating to other reflective chrome elements. A strong vertical orientation is characteristic of numerous later works that seem almost derived from organic growth forms in nature. C’ESTZESTY of 2011 is another mono-chrome-plated sculpture that currently graces the exterior entrance to the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue. This piece has a strong anthropomorphic quality (one of the various historical artists who John Chamberlain has been compared with is Auguste Rodin and a certain gestural energy is common to both their work).
John Chamberlain passed away last May, prior to the opening of this latest Guggenheim retrospective. Though effectively focused on the evolution of his sculpture, John Chamberlain Choices could have benefited from incorporating more of the artist’s photography and film into the space of the exhibition. Chamberlain’s love for experimentation, improvisation and language come across most strongly. His engagement with the art and artists of his time, spanning multiple generations, is somewhat unusual and certainly endearing. This exhibition affirms his powerful vision of contemporary sculpture, whetting the viewer’s appetite to explore further Chamberlain installations at DIA Beacon and The Chinati Foundation.
John Chamberlain Choices is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from February 24 through May 13, 2012, 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street), New York, (212) 423-3589
Writing Credits: Daniel Rothbart is an artist and writer. A former Fulbright Scholar, Rothbart is the author of Jewish Metaphysics As Generative Principle in American Art (Ulisse e Calipso) and The Phoenix (Ulisse e Calipso). His work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Orsini Foundation in Milan and numerous public and private collections.
<< Previous Article Next Article >>