New York

John Chamberlain

Leo Castelli Gallery uptown

Each of John Chamberlain’s six new welded auto sculptures, comprised of the front ends of car chassis, bodies and fenders, is pinned by a rod to the wall, and bears an unmistakable resemblance to hunters’ mounted trophies. The massive top third of each piece tapers, with tusklike planar thrusts to left and right, to the narrow lower part, whose shape, a cross between the trunk of a baby elephant and the snout of an oversized hoar, ends about 18 inches above the gallery floor.

The sculptures are about five feet in height, so one must gaze up at the outer sweeps of metal, smallish like Indian elephant ears, and stare directly into the dashboard light holes or the vortices of crushed metal in the proper place of implacable eyes. Like de Kooning’s “woman” variations, Chamberlain’s work here mixes abstract and figurative styles, but as Chamberlain hasn’t titled these pieces, a special effort of will is required to decide one isn’t arbitrarily projecting a motif onto the sculpture. But it’s really there amid the more abstract tensions of bent metal. In the upper mass metallic folds hint at large cavities within and small lateral thrusts create an airiness that belies the heavy material. Along the lower projection parallel planes provide contrasting surfaces, sometimes bending in obtuse angles along their course, sometimes splaying out at the end, sometimes straight as an I-beam and seamed with empty rivet holes. A respectable case could be made for the phallic quality of these works, but that remains a tertiary effect, not as forceful as the recognition of car and beast. The Chamberlain lexicon of bare and rusted metal, gray undercoat, car enamels, chrome, plus splotches of paint—particularly blood red and mossy green—thrown on by the artist, provide the intense, almost suicidal cheerfulness favored by Detroit designers.

All the pieces are tilted to the left, recalling the Ant Farm’s Cadillac Ranch, constructed on Stanley Marsh’s ranch in Amarillo, Texas, where Chamberlain worked in the early 1970s. The half-buried Cadillacs have been documented in a videotape by the Ant Farm, in which a voiceover informs us that the 60-degree angle of the cars parallels the 60-degree angle of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Of course in Chamberlain’s show the serialization points more to the off-vertical axis typical of his freestanding sculpture than to that product of ancient Egyptian assembly-lines. But the gesture is not free from the Ant Farm’s keen sense of the absurd.

In an interview in Artforum (February, 1972) Chamberlain explained he felt a piece complete when it “fit” together well. But in a larger context, the strength of Chamberlain’s work comes from the ways it doesn’t easily slip into its environment and disappear. His recent large Texas pieces generated newspaper ferment when’ exhibited outdoors in the Dag Hammarskjold Sculpture Plaza in 1973–4, and at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis in 1975. Even the innocuous plexiglas works of 1970 had the honest gall to be saccharine to the point of toothache, while the urethane foam couches of the late ’60s annoyed their collectors by crumbling apart after steady use.

The stubborn play upon “fit” continues in this Castelli show, but in a strangely inverted form. The pieces stand against the walls, expertly reflect figurative trends, affect an elegant tilt. That takes care of everybody, right? It will be a great day when Chamberlain does Mount Rushmore in the Jersey Meadows out of car junk.

Barbara Baracks