Perfect Fit

By Cooke, Lynne | Artforum International, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Perfect Fit


Cooke, Lynne, Artforum International


SOMETIMES SPIKY AND ANGULAR, sometimes almost molten in their suppleness, the junked-car sculptures of JOHN CHAMBERLAIN are among the most iconic artworks of the postwar period. Yet automobiles were not the only vehicles of Chamberlain's career long exploration of color and volume, surface and structure: The artist, who died on December 21, 2011, at the age of eighty-four, wrested the same remarkable pliability from paper, Plexiglas, and foam as from steel plates and shards. As the survey "John Chamberlain: Choices," curated by Susan Davidson and recently opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, demonstrates, Chamberlain deployed all of these materials with an exuberance, acuity, and openness to sculpture's social valences that was to influence generations of artists. Here, curator LYNNE COOKE and artist LARRY BELL pay tribute to Chamberlain and his extraordinarily elastic oeuvre.

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LATE LAST DECEMBER, halfway through the Museum of Modern Art's de Kooning retrospective, John Chamberlain's sculpture irresistibly sprang to mind--as if the Dutch man's extraordinary mid-'5s abstractions (Interchanged, 1955; Gotham News, 1955; The Time of the Fire, 1956) had conjured their three-dimensional counterparts made from the remnants of crushed automobiles. Perhaps no other artist took on de Kooning's legacy more convincingly and more fluently than Chamberlain. Composed from the hoods and bumpers, fenders and fins, of junked car bodies, Chamberlain's vividly hued abstractions arc also based on a late-Cubist infrastructure and are similarly replete with a dynamic, gritty, urban ethos. Uncannily, the sculptor's later work moved in tandem with that of his mentor. Thus from the '80s, his work too often featured curling, convoluted, fluttering, ribbonlike forms. Sometimes in polished chrome, more often in shades of white, cream, and black, and occasionally in primary reds and blues, these crimped, attenuated metal strips seem to cascade even as they are deftly bundled into place. Unlike most traditional sculptors, Chamberlain instinctively thought in terms of volume rather than of mass and weight. Circumnavigating one of his freestanding sculptures, its profiles unfold to reveal glimpses of a hollow core molded by the arcing, overlapping, and intersection of colored planes. It sits easily and lightly on the ground, for Chamberlain sought what his friend the poet Robert Creeley nicely described as "the adjectival characterization of 'fluff or "glare.'" (1) Whereas David Smith, the Abstract Expressionist sculptor of record, employed welding to cantilever massive steel elements into space in defiance of gravity, Chamberlain seemed to fit his forms together casually and yet with a certain inevitability. For him, recourse to welding served merely to secure what already held itself in place of its own accord. And color, not drawing (Smith's preferred mode for defining forms in space), preoccupied Chamberlain, who has been acclaimed as one of the great colorists of the past century. "The hard, sweet, pastel enamels, frequently roses and ceruleans, of Detroit's imitation elegance for the poor" are the hallmark of a distinctive palette, which "is as particular, complex and structural as any good painter's," noted Donald Judd in a much-quoted review from 1962. (2)

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Though stylistically Chamberlain's work is heir to gestural Abstract Expressionism, its moods are fundamentally different. Rejecting his predecessors' angst and dark interiority, he opted for emotional detachment. Yet while his work maybe identified with that of his peers (Warhol, Judd, and Oldenburg) to the degree that its affects derive from its surfaces, in most other respects it stands apart. At no time was this more evident than in the later '60s, when, fed up with reductive critiques that related his sculptures to car crashes and thence to the violence supposedly endemic to contemporary American culture, Chamberlain took a seven-year sabbatical from his signature medium. …

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