New York

John Chamberlain

L&M Arts | New York

In spite of fashioning his sculptures from the twisted steel of junked cars, John Chamberlain has long distanced himself from the spectacular American history of the car crash: Gatsby, General Patton, James Dean, and, of course, Pollock. He has insisted that his works “are not car crashes” or even evocations of violence. Notwithstanding the Pop flair of his literal mash-ups of auto refuse, he has usually been linked instead to the Abstract Expressionists, a connection he has bolstered with musings like, “I prefer not to think about [car crashes and violence] as much as I think about the poetics and the processes.” Still, even if Chamberlain’s words may lure viewers into prioritizing color over content, poetics over interpretation, this doesn’t change the reality that his autophilic sculptures of the ’60s presciently anticipated an American appetite for vicarious, voyeuristic experiences of horror later mined by Warhol, Cady Noland, and the tabloid media.

Although “John Chamberlain: Early Years” reached back to 1960, the show’s title was misleading. Several works dated from the ’80s—more than fifteen years after Chamberlain’s 1971 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The most surprising pieces weren’t the earliest but outliers like Rag Dolls, a 1965 painting made with auto lacquer and metal flake on Formica, or the touch of Tinguely in three collages with jagged bits of painted metal and steel exploding from a picture plane. Two abject Oldenburg-like sculptures of carved industrial urethane foam were winning curiosities, but as when there is a massive Serra sculpture in a group show, it was hard to look beyond the room-dominating machismo of Chamberlain’s giddily bombastic car pieces.

In a 1982 interview, Chamberlain spoke of the fetishistic satisfaction of working with junked steel: “The sexual decision comes in the fitting of the parts.” Early examples are proud and jubilant, projecting the sensibility of a grease-monkey romantic. These soiled and ravaged manifestations of entropy simultaneously attract and repulse. The scuffed, rusty, grease-smudged Blue Flushing, 1975, hunkers on the wall, its steel ribbons jutting into space as if the thing were blindly sparring or defending itself. Hillbilly Galoot, 1960, absurdly balances on the floor on tippy-toe horns of pointed steel. It’s impossible to find the appropriate angle from which to look at these sculptures; they defiantly refuse to pose or to be pictures. They’re often ugly, inassimilable heaps and disabled lumps, like supersize balls of crumpled aluminum foil, a material Chamberlain experimented with in the ’70s. He became more attentive to color in the ’80s works—to their detriment. The early car pieces are bland and industrial; later ones almost feel like nihilistic exercises in tackiness, painted with tropical colors or constructed from corny patterned steel.

What, then, of Chamberlain’s contention that his work should be appreciated apart from its iconography, which is so stridently distinct from that of his ’60s peers? You can discuss his economy of means (the parts are usually salvaged from auto body scrap heaps), the formal properties of his clashing planes of color, or his worthiness as a three- dimensional collagist, but Chamberlain’s refusal of subject matter makes his own work seem less interesting than it actually is. Sure, the early car sculptures are brawny, cool, and difficult; more relevantly, though, they’re a peep show revealing the soul of hell-bent America, gloriously contradictory in all its heroism and insolence.

Nick Stillman