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Thinking in metal form: David Carrier reports on a retrospective of the late John Chamberlain, in which the artist's majestic, abstract sculptures remain as elusive as ever.

John Chamberlain: Choices

February 24-May 13, 2012

Solomon R. Gusgenheim Museum, New York

This large retrospective includes about 100 works by John Chamberlain (1927-2011), most of them large sculptures. It is installed chronologically, so that as you walk up the internal ramp of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum you trace out the artist's 40-year career. After a couple of essays in assemblage, reminiscent of David Smith's, Chamberlain really got going. The show's title alludes to his basic conception that success in producing art requires making, intuitively, the right choices. When Chamberlain, who dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, met the poets Robert Creeley, Roger Duncan, and Charles Owen while teaching and studying at Black Mountain College during the late 1950s, he found support for this way of thinking. From these mentors he learned to put together images composed of words without concern for what they meant, thereby unleashing his visual imagination.

Because Chamberlain's sculptures are mostly made of car parts--material from household appliances such as dryers, refrigerators and washing machines is occasionally incorporated as well--attempts have been made to link them to the destructive chaos of American industrial culture. However, undue reference to these physical sources really takes us away from the intrinsic qualities of his works as sculptures. Chamberlain was a friend of Willem de Kooning, whose paintings have been exhibited alongside his sculptures, yet he found his most important early critical champion in Donald Judd. Because his sculpture is both gestural and impersonal, it bridges the gap between the Abstract Expressionism of his youth and 1960s Minimalism.



The catalogue contains a most instructive account, entitled 'Rhyme and Reason: A limited Lexicon', of many of Chamberlain's titles, which he idiosyncratically derived from popular culture, history, literature and the events of his personal life. Thus we discover that the title of Hillbilly Galoot (1960) refers to a dim-witted, usually high-hearted rube; Dolores James (1962; Fig. 1) to the wife of an artist friend; Nanoweap (1969) to the Grand Canyon's Nankoweap Trail, thought to have been laid out by the Ancient Puebloans; and Toasted Hitlers (from E.J.) (1977) to an imaginary breakfast bread free-associated with Stalin's toast to Hitler after Russia signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Germany at the start of WWII. Some titles are more obviously significant--Scull's Angel (1974), for example, concerns Robert Scull, the Chamberlain collector and New York taxi mogul--but mostly they are 'poetic', which is to say that they don't help us much in interpreting his art. That the title of Famous Sackerson (1989) alludes to a bear mentioned in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor shows the surprising range of Chamberlain's reading interests, but it doesn't appear to say much about to the sculpture itself.


Although Chamberlain didn't have much of a formal education, he was possessed of a very richly stocked mind. And whereas Joseph Cornell created precious surrealist poetry from meaningful juxtapositions of figurative subjects which he set in boxes, Chamberlain used his materials in a completely abstract way, eliding their figurative significance. All sorts of thoughts, we learn from the lexicon, ran through his head, just as all sorts of thoughts run through ours when we view his art. Some of his sculptures sometimes rest on pedestals, some stand. Some are groupings of physically distinct elements. There are near monochromes, like Endzoneboogie (1988) and Women's Voices (2005; Fig. 2), and multi-coloured works such as the massive Divine Ricochet (1991). The very beautiful Whirled Peas (1991) is composed of narrow vertical strips, while Opera Chocolates (1994) is a solid, mostly red construction. From a relatively limited range of materials--mainly painted steel car parts, occasionally embellished with additional paint or sanded down--Chamberlain managed to create an extraordinary variety of oddly delicate, weighty sculptures.

The large works in steel are his masterpieces, for Chamberlain had a great facility--no doubt enhanced by his prior training as a hairdresser and makeup artist--for composing in colour in three dimensions. By contrast, the small sculptures and rare two-dimensional works don't come off, nor the aluminum or synthetic polymer resin constructions, nor the soft painted sculptures made of urethane foam and cord. The foam sculpture carved as a couch, similar to one in his 1971 retrospective, doesn't fit in this show; likewise, SPHINXGRINTWO (2010), a vast aluminum construction placed at the centre of the Guggenheim's ground floor, is a mistake. Otherwise, however, here is all of Chamberlain's best work. Nowadays sculptors are taught that they need some theory of the political and social significance of their art, and its relationship to art history. Chamberlain was lucky, for he was free to create without such a burden. Maybe only an artist who had so little concern for art history or politics could have been so boldly original, and so amazingly consistent.

David Carrier is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art. Art Outside the System, forthcoming from Phaidon.
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Author:Carrier, David
Date:May 1, 2012
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