New York

John Chamberlain

Dia Art Foundation

“In what I do, constant hard work is not necessary; my drive is based on laziness. . . . I don’t mind admitting that I’m lazy because laziness is, for me, an attribute”: thus John Chamberlain on John Chamberlain, in a statement accompanying this show. It’s hard not to like a man with that kind of attitude—an attitude that allowed Chamberlain to do things that, in the ’60s and careful early ’70s, were verboten. It was a time when artists worried a lot. Certain things were not allowed—for example, paint on sculpture. Applied chroma was nothing, formalists opined, but a skin, and therefore it was stricken from an essentialist program. Now we post-Modernists know better, but this outmoded rule exerts an atavistic power, an ember still flaring occasionally into controversy or sparking a joke. And surely one of the funniest puns of recent years has to be the literalism of Steve Keister’s coverings of (fake) animal skins and formica on his suspended constructions. Anyhow, Chamberlain never bit his nails over color. If the auto parts he mangled already had color on them (or, recently, graffiti), what was the problem?

Of course, it was another “rule” that justified this laissez-faire composure, and that was the dictum of “truth to materials.” Ten years ago, this philosophy seemed likely to prove Chamberlain’s most enduring contribution. But his belief that “materials say, ‘You can do this and this and this to me’ ” (Artforum, February 1972), while once wildly catchy. seems to have had few lasting influences. One thinks, perhaps, of Eva Hesse and early Lynda Benglis, whose materials/process accent, however, leaned more to the purely expressionist, with their psychosexual revelations, than to Chamberlain’s truly abstract expressionism; despite his insistence that the work is about the “sexual fit”—parts with a compositional elective affinity—it does not read metaphorically. Younger artists are much more willful, which may explain the resurgence of the forging and shaping mediums, like bronze. Faust succeeds Zen.

On the other hand this show is mainly composed of wall pieces, full of drips and sprays and even pattern (liberated, in one case, from a Checker cab). and both early enough, 1975, and late enough, 1981, to leave one wondering about the possibility of Chamberlain’s having inadvertently provided us instead with the legacy of the decorative bonanza: the colorful reliefs that until two years or so ago were to be seen everywhere. Frank Stella’s “Exotic Bird” series of 1976 is the acknowledged source. but Chamberlain’s ’60s output was already there—metal, on the wall, aggressively gestural and thrusting—as an inspiration when Stella decided to pursue the French curves that were, after all, the logical extension of his buttoned-down protractors. Ignis fatuus or not, the connection with the decorative is what strikes one most forcibly when viewing this exhibit. As exemplars of that mode, these are among the best—suave and sure handed: as markers in Chamberlain’s development, they may be too sure handed, too practiced.

Most of the constructions, congealed strands of components oddly uniform given their automotive provenance, tend to the vertical, with now and then a mild diagonal. A representative piece like Paddy’s Limbo separates neatly into top and bottom halves. Leaving out the horizontal hardly makes Chamberlain guilty of a crime against nature, but the dynamic push/pull, the unpredictability of sphericalness, or the nova of a centrifugal flowering, all found in the ’60s production, never disturb the order here. In a way a roomful of lithographs provides the paradigm for the sculptures, and the plan is, surprisingly, a grid: bars and squares and catercorner swipes, definite borders emerging from a haze of smudges and veils. At their best these blueprints teach us about the sculptures’ commandeering of the effects of drawing. with their contrast between sharp edges (line) and deep negative spaces (chiaroscuro); at their worst, their tasteful regimentation provides substance for the suspicion that Chamberlain’s sculptural “fit” could degenerate into lockjaw.

In the past, the slouched posture that Chamberlain has always liked to assume was accompanied by an almost disinterested curiosity—what Barbara Rose has characterized as a “drive to experiment . . . [a] constant . . . search for new techniques. materials, and forms” (Artforum, February 1972). There was the Chamberlain of video, of Plexiglas, of foam rubber; neither techniques nor materials nor forms are new in this selection. One of Chamberlain’s old eccentric interests, the couch, is revived in an arrangement of foam rubber cubes covered with a parachute. It allows for multiple seating facing outwards. an inversion of the modular. “play-pen” sofas sold at cheap furniture stores. Rather than “altering our sitting consciousness” as a formulated ambition—for the cubes are not so different from the plush circular seating around towers of potted palms in Victorian hotel lobbies—rather than working physically, they work conceptually: what with the facing outward, the title (Thordis’ Barge), and the survivalist implications of the limp parachute, the couch offers a kind of present-day Raft of the Medusa. Chamberlain is so visual and tactile a talent that this fabrication’s lack of presence feels like a letdown. The other work is accomplished; it’s a handsome show. But it could use some of the vulgarity of one of Chamberlain’s better throwaway lines: “As an artist I give away more than I would if I ran a beauty shop.” Chamberlain getting his supplies from a beautician’s inventory—that would be worth seeing.

Jeanne Silverthorne