n 1960, Donald Judd compared John Chamberlain's work to Willem de Kooning's. Since then, it has been compared to the works of da Vinci, Rodin, Warhol, Bernini, Calder, Transformers, etc. It has been called Minimalist, Baroque, Abstract Expressionist, and Pop. But in a pure sense, none of these juxtapositions stick any better than duct tape to a crumbling building. There is no commensurability. Chamberlain is Chamberlain, and though he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and Black Mountain College, one gets the feeling he was never, ever cloistered by the conventions of a formal art education.
“The shared vocabulary of Chamberlain sources and his creations befuddle the works' integrity and leave them to languish like wild unicorns in a herd of ponies, like sonnets in a pile of traffic tickets,” declared art critic Dave Hickey. “You have to see them in the round and walk around them, and there are not enough words or numbers to describe the formal mastery of the individual works.”
In an interview with Klaus Kertess, Chamberlain also struggled to describe his work, saying, “You have a fit, and you have a form, and you have a color. And so all of these three parts are...I'm running out of words.” He goes on, “They're having a good time together, if you put them together well.”
Chamberlain's first car-part sculpture was assembled from the pieces of a junker he'd been eyeing in the back yard of his friend, Pop art icon Larry Rivers. Though the sculptures he made of crushed cars—with antiquated colored paint (then more vibrant later in his career), chipped and flaked from the severe folds in the process—became the forms that most people identify with him, but he also experimented with fabric, foam, plexiglass, and paper, always pinching and folding and crushing the materials so that what remains seems like the crumpled evidence of a viscerally satisfied curiosity. Residuals of action. He likened the process to crushing a cigarette box, and in an interview with Michael Auping, he asked him to take note of “how you wad your toilet paper.” There is a playfulness in his work in spite of the fact that his toying is with towering tangles of metal and a scrap metal press. But Chamberlain's commitment to lyricism in his forms came from a seriousness about finding the right “fit” amongst the parts. He compared his work to sex, lasagna, jigsaw puzzles, a girl he used to know in Philadelphia. I'm inclined to hold Chamberlain's work up to the Easter Island statues, those great masses of artifice that are at once intelligent and unknowable. Even his smaller pieces have a way of looking back at the viewer. But then again, no.
Chamberlain grew up in his father's saloon in Rochester, Indiana, until he and his mom moved to Chicago when he was twelve, and he was mostly cared for by his grandmother. At sixteen, Chamberlain lied about his age and joined the Navy, seeing World War II from an aircraft carrier. When he returned, he learned to cut hair on the GI Bill—a good way to meet chicks. Then, inspired by the disruptiveness of Abstract Expressionism, Chamberlain chose to study fine art at the Art Institute of Chicago. But he left there in the wake of a spat over a paper he'd written discussing spirituality and the “fit” of entwined nude bodies as depicted in Indian columns. His instructor accused him of taking the opportunity to discuss sex at the expense of formal rigor. Black Mountain College was probably a better place for Chamberlain. He credited Joseph Albers for his use of color and Franz Kline for form throughout his career, but it's been frequently noted that he was heavily influenced by the poets Robert Creely, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson. He found himself interested in words not for what they meant or how they sounded, but for how they looked, and his process for divining a title for his pieces thus began by isolating words that somehow visually fit together, or had an interesting ring, regardless of meaning. He kept a list of combinations of words in advance of attributing them to pieces, thus the titles, “Chopped Lip,” “Acme Thunderer,” “Crawling Cross,” “Trixie Dee,” “Ultrafull Private,” “Glossalia Adagio,” etc.
John Chamberlain died December 21, 2011. An exhibition of Chamberlain's work called Curvatureromance (a title devised by the artist) at the Pinokothek der Moderne in Munich ran from July 8th to October 23rd, 2011, in a series called American Summer. It was nice to have his work so fresh in my mind when I heard of his death. I had never seen anything from his series of ginormous twisted tin foil rings such as “Nudepearls One,” which was there. It looks like a twisted wreath with the bells of horns emerging gracefully about the top. At 4.2 meters high, the sculpture dwarfs everything around it, and if only because of size, it's an amazing piece. Its smashed and formed metal is clearly a continuation of Chamberlain's need to crumple and twist his materials, but “Nudepearls One” is remarkably refined and lacks the chaos I personally love in his work.
From 1965 to 1972, Chamberlain took what he referred to as his “seven year hiatus” from using car parts, primarily because critics insisted his work was commentary on the American obsession with cars and traffic and wrecks, while he insisted he was only interested in manipulating large sheets of metal. During this departure Chamberlain did his experiments with foam, paper, fabric, plexiglass, poetry, and film. When he returned to working with scrapped cars, Chamberlain experimented with new arrangements, strips of metal cut like noodles, crimped and grouped in frenzies. He used more color, brighter colors, and no color, but throughout the experimentation he never stopped creating pieces in the style he started out with: elegantly balanced sculptures with what looks like the original pastel paint of old cars, bent and fit together like a language—like beautiful poetry. Those are my favorites.
The retrospective “Choices” (so called because Chamberlain didn't like his materials referred to as found objects—rather, he had chosen them) ran at the Guggenheim in New York February through May 2012, and will be on exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao March to September 2013.
Elizabeth Lopeman has written for Sculpture Magazine, American Craft Magazine, FiberArts, Bitch, Eugene Magazine, Drain Magazine.com, and various other magazines and websites. She currently lives and works in Munich.