To say that a show by John Chamberlain is a smash hit will inevitably
sound like a bad pun, as the veteran sculptor has made mangled auto-parts
his trademark medium. But the exhibition of his early work at Allan
Stone, which now has been extended for another month, is a real stunner.
Taking in the period
from the late 1950s and early 1960s, the show forces us (literally)
to radically rethink this artist, sending us back to his aesthetic roots.
The coincidence of a show at Gagosian of less than compelling work from
the 1990s, however, arouses a desire to turn the clock on Mr Chamberlain
view of his menacingly jagged materials, Mr. Chamberlain doesn't fit
neatly into a stylistic box. Despite his baroque exuberance, the use
of impoverished materials and an emphasis on process have associated
him with minimal art. Donald Judd was a critical champion and they traded
works (a pristine steel cube by Judd actually ends up, suitably crushed,
in a piece at Allan Stone by Mr. Chamberlain) while at Gagosian he is
being shown with Dan Flavin, and he has a nave of his own at Dia:Beacon,
the minimalist cathedral.
of the connotations of mass-production and consumer waste, Pop has grafted
itself onto Mr. Chamberlain's reputation. That the other modern artist
who uses crushed autoparts, César, is "nouvelle realiste",
as the French call their pop artists, reinforces this connection.
The show at Allan Stone, however, emphasizes earlier allegiances in
a way which makes better sense of of sensibilities and manifest intentions.
A butch poetics of scrap comes straight from David Smith and Robert
Stankiewicz, while Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline inspire a sense
of gesture battling to burst free. The gorgeously convoluted "Nutcracker"
(1968) is more like a de Kooning in three dimensions than any of de
Kooning's own (later) sculptures. Mr. Chamberlain had studied at Black
Mountain College in North Carolina where many of the instructors were
entranced by notions of chance, which perhaps explains the more than
passing resemblance of his collages to the combines of Robert Rauschenberg.
"Hudson" (1960) is rightly extolled as a breakthrough piece,
not just because it was apparently the first instance where he appropriated
a crushed auto part but because of the substance and volume of this
gesture. The earlier, more linear constructions in jagged iron and machine
parts seemed to speak the language of modern art, albeit with a proletarian
accent. The car accelerated him into something declamatory: Looking
less like drawings in air or 3-D collages, his works have truly inventive
Some of the pieces
that immediately followed "Hudson," while still bold, experimental,
and advanced for their time, revert to the "modern art" look.
It is hard to tell from a historical distance, for instance, whether
the small, mixed-media reliefs and collages of 1960-61 are more disconcerting
for their messiness or their order. On the one hand, they are made from
nonchalantly arrayed, defiantly trashy materials. On the other, they
seem artfully uncoordinated, composed both pictorially and in the etiquette
You would expect
Mr. Chamberlain's art to be animated by a sense of tragedy or entropy
in view of the suffering or waste implied by auto accidents. But the
eye adjusts with remarkable ease to his choice of materials. You soon
tell yourself that a Chamberlain is in crushed cars like a Rodin is
in bronze, and you pay attention instead to the mood established by
the gestures and shapes, which is invariably upbeat and gung-ho.
Where a Kline or
a de Kooning implies speed of execution, a Chamberlain lives with -
is perhaps energized by -an internal contradiction: apparent frenzy
that, like a symphonic scherzo, requires brilliant orchestration and
artful composition. The end result is that, rather than looking at a
Chamberlain as a car accident, you look at auto-wrecks as works of art.
at Gagosian Gallery of works by John Chamberlain,
foreground shows Apparentlyoffspring 1992
painted steel, 48 x 70 x 56 inches
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York
The gentle brutalist
at Stone has poetic charm, whereas his gauche counterpart at Gagosian
is a consummate vulgarian. The sculptural forms are still compelling,
but not so the surfaces. Maybe the inherent beauty of rusting 1950s
industrial parts was a happy accident, but the decision by the artist
to start painting his own components has been a tragic one, In terms
of taste, Mr. Crash crashed.
The components of these three works from 1992 have been individually
pre-painted by the artist, for the most part in a hand better suited
to decorating bar stools at a tropical resort than to making works of
art. Again defying classification, they beg the question: Are these
sculptures that happen to have painted designs on them, the way traditional
materials might show patina or grain, or are they paintings on very
Ancient and medieval
sculpture was usually painted, of course, so why not modern, too? But
the objection to this objection is that Mr. Chamberlain is evidently
invested in the whole issue of ontology: how the thing came into being,
what came first, whether it happened fast or slow, whether it is animated
by chance or by deliberation. What, in other words, it ultimately is.
early work contained similar questions. His sculptures and reliefs were
"anxious objects," in Harold Rosenberg's phrase. In or by
1992, however, anxiety had given way to crassness. It is as if your
favorite young jazzman had been recruited to a heavy-metal band.