May 2012: John Chamberlain: Choices @ Guggenheim

John Chamberlain, Dolores James, 1962
Painted and chromium-plated steel; 72 1/2 × 101 1/2 × 46 1/4 inches (184.2 × 257.8 × 117.5 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; © 2011 John Chamberlain / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York


John Chamberlain: Choices
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
February 24 through May 13, 2012

There’s a lot to engage with in ‘John Chamberlain: Choices.’ A lot of sculptures. A lot of twisted steel. Honestly, it’s kind of confusing. I guess it wasn’t what I expected.

The pictures on the subway ads showed heaps of wrinkled car parts. The colored hoods and doors were like the colored fragments in paintings by Abstract Expressionists like Hans Hoffman. I figured, since the sculptures were made from automobiles, that they’d take the bravado of Abstract Expressionist painting to cataclysmic proportions. I thought the twisted steel would evoke the war planes and tanks of WWII, the bayonets and shrapnel of the trenches, and the bomb that changed the world forever. I was expecting something grand in scale, like a nuclear blast.

Truth be told, the quote on the subway poster says more about the exhibition than the picture does. It reads, “A mercurial poet of twisted steel.” Chamberlain’s sculptures aren’t about the magnitude and might of a mechanized military—they’re surprisingly elegant.

As the exhibition’s wall text explains, it was mostly about “fit” and “choices” for Chamberlain—how the pieces fit together. The artist’s concern with placing the pieces is evident in the sculptures, most of which are tight clusters. Nothing hangs or balances or looms. The sculptures are fairly small, each one about the height of a person and as wide as an arm span. The collaged pieces of steel fit together like a smashed up eggshell that was re-assembled to form something that, while chaotic, still has the general shape of an egg.

Installation view: John Chamberlain: Choices, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February 24 - May 13, 2012
Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

A lot of the fun of Chamberlain’s work is in the details. The Guggenheim’s wall text explains the artist’s relationship with the titles of his work. The titles aren’t tangential—they add to the expression of the pieces. Titles like ‘Belvo-Violet’ and ‘Hillbilly Galoot,’ which were created through the artist’s combination of random words, mimic the disparate nature of the sculptures. Other titles such as ‘Hatband’ and ‘Clyde’ imply a personal meaning. Some of the pieces absorb a sexy tone based on the title, such as ‘Miss Lucy Pink.’

Joined hand and hand with the witty titles is an exciting use of color. Bright magentas, electric blues, and teals that were splashed onto the metal offer a startling juxtaposition with the browns and blacks of the car paint. Combined with a surprising use of found materials, like a section of delicately patterned tin ceiling, or a piece of metal trim that resembles the hem of a woman’s stocking, some of the pieces become feminine. The mixture of masculine and feminine throughout the exhibition adds a push and pull, a sense of dynamics that the Abstract Expressionist scene often lacked. As an example, Chamberlain’s paeans to women offer a tenderness that De Kooning’s series’ about women never had.

Chamberlain’s sensuality is also on display in a variety of pieces that deviate from the car part sculptures. In, ‘Untitled (1962)’ a section of a military green T-shirt is stretched across a small square canvas, alongside a section of a blue striped T-shirt, a piece of pink T-shirt, and a slab of metal with a red racing stripe that could be from a model car. Metal staples clamp the pieces down; the staples stand out as an aggressive force piercing the cotton fabric. The mixed-media collage is a slightly unnerving conflict of benevolence and hostility, of hippie and military.

So how does Chamberlain’s body of work relate to Abstract Expressionism? It remains oddly separate, due to the personal nature of the work. Perhaps it was not apt to fit Chamberlain in with the Abstract Expressionists in the first place. Chamberlain’s timeline of work began in the early 60’s, so it came later than the trailblazers of Abstract Expressionism. The sculptures in ‘Choices,’ which offer personalized glimpses of inspiration, love, and historical context, built upon the art of the 1950’s, and anticipated attitudes in art and thought that would come later in the 1960’s.


John Chamberlain, Untitled, ca. 1960
Paper, metal, painted and printed tin-plated steel, printed paper; fabric, and paint on painted fiberboard
12 × 12 × 5½ inches (30.5 × 30.5 × 14 cm)
Private collection; Photo: Kristopher McKay

John Chamberlain, Lord Suckfist, 1989
Painted, chromium-plated, and stainless steel, 83 3/4 × 57 × 56 inches (212.7 × 144.8 × 142.2 cm)
Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Sammlung Brandhorst
© 2011 John Chamberlain / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: Courtesy The Pace Gallery

Dan Tarnowski

Dan Tarnowski has published reviews of culture, and several chapbooks of his poetry. He lives in Brooklyn.

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