John Chamberlain at the Guggenheim, New York

by Jonathan Beer, May 2012

The work of sculptor John Chamberlain bristles with defiant energy, the product of a renegade American spirit tempered by impressive elegance. His extensive career defined a space between sculpture and object and he simultaneously made things that are both. His works are surprisingly independent despite their attachment to the cultural icon that he used as his primary medium, the American automobile.

The breadth of John Chamberlain: Choices at the Guggenheim reveals an intuitive formalism that pervades the multitude of works created throughout his six-decade career. Even his earliest drawings show a high level of formal resolution despite the careful and hesitant air they exude. As the artist began to work entirely with scrap metal in 1959, the works remained very much about drawing. As his confidence developed, Chamberlain stepped out from the shadow of Modernism and his work exploded the existent genre of assemblage.

The show highlights his breakthroughs in the early 1960s: a number of small untitled wall pieces made between 1960 and 1962 burst from the wall, and the found paper, metal and plastic were bent, stapled and crimped to the support audaciously announcing themselves as sculpture. Even though the artist had no obvious anthropomorphic intentions, his pieces could be the mangled creatures of a Frankenstein mechanic, reanimated and only barely under his control. Works like Hillbilly Galoot (1960) might skitter across the floor like a mutated mechanical crab, frozen on the edge of life.

Until 1966, the artist’s work was built exclusively from salvaged car parts. Components we recognize were reconfigured. In Nutcracker (1960), fenders and car window frames are bent and broken. Moments of collective memory, thousands of hands upon thousands of car doors, are twisted together with disturbing potency. They compress and contort the everyday experiences we’ve had with a car.

One spiral ramp displays the artist’s six-year departure (beginning in 1966) from his signature material. During this period, Chamberlain instead experimented with a plethora of new materials and techniques, producing pieces that ranged from sliced and bound chunks of urethane foam to melted Plexiglass boxes. They display a more open-ended search, fueled by a desire to understand the relationship between material, form and gesture­ in a simplified way. The thick yellow foam works are bulbous and succulent—Untitled #7 (1966) is even ringed with fake blueberries. Seen behind glass, these pieces are the naked and vulnerable insides of his sculptures, delicately removed from their raucous shells. After 1972, the artist returned to his crushed cars with a more mature artistic voice. The work became streamlined, his formal intuition perfectly in sync with his practice. The pieces feel increasingly independent and unique as questions of scale, surface and manipulation are handled with restraint and deliberation. Scale in particular seems finally mastered; works like Scull’s Angel (1974) and Chopped Lip (1977) move beyond the generic machismo attraction to create massive objects in a size that feels perfectly suited to the artist’s intentions. Color and surface are attended to with painterly care. Some works sing at a higher volume, where pattern butts up against pattern, while others are more orchestral—broad stretches of muted metal slide into staccato passages of chrome.

The vivid surfaces and colorful titles underline the poetry found in the forms. In a process he termed “articulate wadding,” Chamberlain plays chance off intention, searching for a precarious balance between spontaneity and integrity. Often called the first abstract expressionist in three dimensions, Chamberlain created work whose success hinges on the idea of gesture and its influence on viewing experience. The physical sensations born from his sculptures affect the surrounding space. We are careful to avoid areas that may transform at any moment, or unseen black holes that could reawaken and resume their implosion at the slightest provocation.

The show concludes with his late work and, in comparison to the robust pieces from the ’70s, they feel restless and border on the decorative. In particular, the use of sheet metal ribbons from shredded van tops seems halfhearted and ill-considered, seeing as choice was an operative word in the artist’s process.

As you descend along the spiral ramps and travel backward through the artist’s career, you are left with a grand picture of his creative ferocity. As each new perspective is revealed, one is reminded of all the highly tuned moments that make up a John Chamberlain piece. All of those moments add up to work that is unequivocally natural in its manufactured skin, the material speaking unhindered by the artists hand. John Chamberlain left behind a wildness that forever changed contemporary sculpture. His perfectly incongruous works will always remain as dangerous as they are beautiful.