New York

John Chamberlain

Castelli Warehouse

The perfect and appropriate setting for a small retrospective of John Chamberlain’s work was the Leo Castelli warehouse on West 108th Street, an immense, concrete floor garage space lacking all the parquet or red-carpeted elegance and cloistered feeling of the downtown gallery, or of galleries in general. Scattered around were a number of wall and floor pieces—the well-known automobile parts crammed and jammed into muscular, abstract conglomerates, lacquered metal shards, a big twisted urethane foam work from 1966, and a room filled with the newer collapsed galvanized zinc sculptures made from air-vent shafts and boxes. I had never seen so many of Chamberlain’s works in one space, and my take on them was as surprising to me as it was unexpected. For all their rugged massing, rawness, and cathartic energy, the earlier automobile and fender pieces (Mr. Press, Dolores James, Miss Lucy Park) looked more lyrical, delicate, and romantic than ever before. Their distant but palpable roots in the compositional balances of Cubism via Abstract Expressionism are still apparent, and tend to date these pieces within Chamberlain’s enterprise. And these rusty, bulging shapes and rough-edged silhouettes piling off the wall or crazily set against bases or the floor actually possess the same characteristic mixture of softness and latent explosiveness as the cinched, belly-like volume of the more recent foam piece.

Increasingly, Chamberlain has moved away from interwoven complexities and fragmented forms, concentrating more on the essential energy and Expressionist vigor that goes into the production of his work. The more current sculpture reveals a greater preoccupation with the process of inflation (foam as well as the zinc) and deflation, with the isolation of a physical embodiment of pressured volume exerting its charge on the hollow space within itself as well as on the space outside and around its bulk. Less fussy than older works, though still familiar to Chamberlain’s sculptural idiom, the 1967–8 zinc pieces bear that peculiar poetic grace, tensile balance, and flexible lyricism that are so much the quality of the more assembled disparate pieces from the earlier period. For all the irregularity, chance, and punctured contortion of works like Angel Beyond Opio or Lilith New Moon, their hammered, crushed silhouettes and masses have a rightness (though it is uncontrived) that come close to denying the crudeness and uncompromising physicality of their presence.

To say that a Chamberlain looks restrained might seem almost ridiculous, but about these new (as well as old) works there is the insistent feeling of the most intuitive, refined control––a control which is apparent at both close and distant range from the jutting volumes. Although everything is deliberately awry, nothing really is off kilter––each smashed plane, crease, or bolt looks like it is absolutely sure it is in the right place. Not to push this too far, however, there is also the tremendous aggressive force and assurance in the faults of the accidental elements which result from compressing, wadding and bolting together the resistant metal. Chamberlain still refuses to transform his materials into anything other than what they are: commercial foam, or industrially branded zinc vent pipes are not dressed up to look like anything but commercial foam, deftly trimmed, sliced and choked, or zinc vent pipes crushed and piled or riveted together. If the pieces can be assessed for their curious grace and seesaw-like balance, they must also be taken for the blunt, unfragile factuality of their process and formation.

Emily Wasserman