John Chamberlain at the Guggenheim Museum
“Crush,” “squeeze,” “compress,” “twist,” “crumple,” “fold,” are words that come to mind when describing the work of John Chamberlain, the sculptor commonly associated with creating and exhibiting “car wrecks.” An exciting retrospective of the artist’s work, currently at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, examines the 60-year career of the man who brought abstract expressionism to contemporary three-dimensional art as he broke through boundaries and experimented with a broad range of unconventional materials, scales and techniques.
Work assembled from discarded automobile parts is central to his oeuvre but, as the show illustrates, Chamberlain also produced many wonderful pieces from urethane foam, Plexiglas, paper, fabric, Formica, tin foil, and even bits of Tonka toys. At the Guggenheim, his work, ranging in size from tiny to monumental, hangs on walls (sometimes seeming to explode) or leans against them, sits in the round on pedestals or (very comfortably) directly on the floor, or is arranged in display cases.
Visitors may be surprised to see lovely two- and three-dimensional collages affixed to 12-inch square fiberboards hanging alongside the more monumental pieces. Color is very important to his work and represents another breakthrough. Traditionalists in his day eschewed color in sculpture but Chamberlain never considered doing without it, seeing color as a form of celebration.
In his early and late work, he relied on the hues of the materials he was using, particularly the recycled car parts, but in mid-career began adding additional color by randomly spraying, patterning, splashing, dripping, sandblasting and brushing paint on to disparate chosen elements before assembling and welding them into sculptures.
Chamberlain was a “free-ranging spirit” who ran the gamut between “genius and lunacy,” explains Guggenheim senior curator Susan Davidson. He told her, “In art, your resource is your own peculiarities.”
Often posing contradictions, his work appears to be both hard and soft, rough and elegant, masculine and feminine, toppling and balanced, jagged and curvaceous, solid and delicate, explosive and quiet, and dense and light. Always a rebel, Chamberlain left school after ninth grade and, as he explains in the museum’s excellent free audio tour, discovered his calling during a visit to the “sculpture room” in the Art Institute of Chicago. Though uneducated in art, he decided, “This is for me.”
In 1958, in New York with little money, he came upon old car parts while scavenging for material in a junk yard and so began his signature “car wreck” pieces. Ironically, what was “junk” then has become “vintage” now as cars no longer sport chrome bumpers and fenders; in his last years, Chamberlain bought up huge numbers of these chrome collectibles for use in his work.
During a stint at North Carolina’s avant-garde Black Mountain College in the 1950s, he discovered “words” and so began a fascination that is expressed in the titles of his sculptures. Stressing that his pieces are completely non-referential with no personal messages, he chose titles for their sounds and whimsy. He sometimes put likable words singly on index cards, and shuffled them to come up with titles, much like the collage process used in his assemblages. Names like “Ruby, Ruby,” “Miss Lucky Pink,” and “Loving Spoonful,” are seen. In later years, he played with using all capital letters in titles and came up with even more nonsensical, but melodious expressions such as “RADISHRIPPLE,” “LEXICONOFFURN,” “PINEAPPLESURPRISE,” and “NUEVOYOHO.”
Chamberlain died in December, 2011 at age 84. His retrospective can be seen at the Guggenheim until May 13. A number of education programs are being offered in conjunction with the exhibit, including family tours. Details can be found at guggenheim.org/publicprograms. #