John Chamberlain "Baby Tycoons"
September 5 through October 19
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, September 2019
The late, accomplished abstract sculptor John Chamberlain is offering a group of small, tabletop sculptures made of the metal scraps of automobiles he worked with when fashioning the larger pieces. Begun in 1988, this series, called “Baby Tycoons,” was worked on until Chamberlain died in 2011. Immensely attractive in their own right, even in comparison to the beautiful large works, these works of art hold their own despite their diminutive size. Chamberlain, one of the few sculptors to belong the ab-ex movement, was interested most in building a monumentality out of the fragments of car metal. His forms and colors, deeply dependent on the materials he chose to use, nonetheless suggest painting just as much as three-dimensional construction. The bigger pieces loom both like tall figures and abstract presences celebrating the American industrial vision (and perhaps its decline). But they are also highly constructed pieces--cultural artifacts reflecting a strenuous, inspired American moment in art. Like many of the painters working during the same length of his career, Chamberlain evidenced his creativity in art that was closely related, formally speaking, from one work to the next. The same is true of the “Baby Tycoon” sequence, in which scale, on a larger level than the works themselves, is maintained through density of structure, an upward movement, and an overall gestalt that can be read independently of size.
This means that Chamberlain had, from the start, an epic sense of his materials. Car scrap is both a metal substance and therefore directed toward long-term survival, but it is also the detritus of one of America’s biggest industries, important to our economic well-being. In even the smaller pieces, one can see how the dimensionality of the art drives toward a statement considerably larger than the sum of its parts. And then there is the atmosphere brought about by the group of works on show on two floors of the Upper East Side gallery, in which the body of the exhibit encourages viewers to generate a reading of the group en masse. But of course the individual works command attention; Coup de Very (1992), made of painted, chromium-plated steel, is less than a foot high, but it occupies our attention as if we were looking at something quite monumental. Made mostly of vertical steel, differently hued parts--a baby-blue metal strip, along with a bright red strip next to it, captures our attention--Coup de Very is charming and massively there, despite its small size. This happens with all the works in the show. Some curlycues take place on top of the sculpture, along with the standard silver you find in the fenders of cars, complicate what is already a densely made work of art. Chamberlin’s art doesn’t really relate to Arte Povera at all--politics was never a stated interest--but the use of scrap makes the work socially expressive in ways that may not have been fully understood at the time he made it.
The mostly white colored sculpture, with the exception of a couple of black stripes, called Erotic Eskimo (2006) doesn’t look too overtly sexual, nor does it conjure up the image of an Eskimo, even though its whiteness argues for an arctic location. The crushed, bruised elements fall together nicely, giving us the appearance of having been put together in an improvisatory fashion, as indeed it is. From one side, the piece even looks like a polar bear, although we must remember that Chamberlain is first and foremost an abstract sculptor. Given the small gestalt of the work, one would imagine it to be relatively constrained in ambition. But that is not the case. One of the great insights--and strengths--of the show is the continuing emphasis on a rich, and even an epic, scale--despite the fact that the works are small. Large proportions can be suggested even in small pieces if the components project the feeling of great size within the overall gestalt. Chamberlin is inexorably an artist of ambition and desire, both qualities lending themselves to large structures. But here something else happens; the compression of materials not only communicates density, it also argues for an epic sensibility, no matter how reduced the scale. Winter Philodendron (1992), Chamberlin’s abstract version of the larg indoor plant, maintains the same density. elaborated with a circular piece of steel or two among strips of metal. Its pieces, seeming jumbled, are actually carefully put together. They play out, in complex fashion, the outline of something at once nonobjective and given to natural form. Made of mostly gray and gray-blue components, the work exerts its effect by means of the mastery of their seemingly arbitrary, but actually carefully assembled, placement within a small confine. Chamberlin is a master of the complications and intricacies of assemblage. In the case of “Baby Tycoons,” we see him establish a fluent language of expressiveness from the steel exteriors of automobiles, in art that transforms industry into something emotional and free. Unlike David Smith, his contemporary in sculpture, Chamberlin sought something beyond classical measure. His great gauge was that of feeling, joining him inevitably to the ab-ex painters active during the same time. To do this in sculpture, in the small sizes on show, makes him formally inspired. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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