Thursday, December 11th, 2003

John Chamberlain at Allan Stone; Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain at Gagosian Gallery

“John Chamberlain: Early Works” at Allan Stone Gallery until January 15 (113 E. 90th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, 212-987-4997)

“Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain: Sculptures” at Gagosian Gallery until December 20 (980 Madison Avenue, between 77th and 78th Streets, 212 744 2313)

John Chamberlain Hatband 1960 painted steel, 58.5 x 53 x 38 inches Courtesy Allan Stone Gallery, New York
John Chamberlain, Hatband 1960 painted steel, 58.5 x 53 x 38 inches Courtesy Allan Stone Gallery, New York

To say that a show by John Chamberlain is a smash hit will inevitably sound like a bad pun, as the veteran sculptor has made mangled auto-parts his trademark medium. But the exhibition of his early work at Allan Stone, which now has been extended for another month, is a real stunner.

Taking in the period from the late 1950s and early 1960s, the show forces us (literally) to radically rethink this artist, sending us back to his aesthetic roots. The coincidence of a show at Gagosian of less than compelling work from the 1990s, however, arouses a desire to turn the clock on Mr Chamberlain backwards.

Appropriately, in view of his menacingly jagged materials, Mr. Chamberlain doesn’t fit neatly into a stylistic box. Despite his baroque exuberance, the use of impoverished materials and an emphasis on process have associated him with minimal art. Donald Judd was a critical champion and they traded works (a pristine steel cube by Judd actually ends up, suitably crushed, in a piece at Allan Stone by Mr. Chamberlain) while at Gagosian he is being shown with Dan Flavin, and he has a nave of his own at Dia:Beacon, the minimalist cathedral.

Likewise, because of the connotations of mass-production and consumer waste, Pop has grafted itself onto Mr. Chamberlain’s reputation. That the other modern artist who uses crushed autoparts, César, is “nouvelle realiste”, as the French call their pop artists, reinforces this connection.
The show at Allan Stone, however, emphasizes earlier allegiances in a way which makes better sense of of sensibilities and manifest intentions. A butch poetics of scrap comes straight from David Smith and Robert Stankiewicz, while Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline inspire a sense of gesture battling to burst free. The gorgeously convoluted “Nutcracker” (1968) is more like a de Kooning in three dimensions than any of de Kooning’s own (later) sculptures. Mr. Chamberlain had studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina where many of the instructors were entranced by notions of chance, which perhaps explains the more than passing resemblance of his collages to the combines of Robert Rauschenberg.

“Hudson” (1960) is rightly extolled as a breakthrough piece, not just because it was apparently the first instance where he appropriated a crushed auto part but because of the substance and volume of this gesture. The earlier, more linear constructions in jagged iron and machine parts seemed to speak the language of modern art, albeit with a proletarian accent. The car accelerated him into something declamatory: Looking less like drawings in air or 3-D collages, his works have truly inventive sculptural presence.

Some of the pieces that immediately followed “Hudson,” while still bold, experimental, and advanced for their time, revert to the “modern art” look. It is hard to tell from a historical distance, for instance, whether the small, mixed-media reliefs and collages of 1960-61 are more disconcerting for their messiness or their order. On the one hand, they are made from nonchalantly arrayed, defiantly trashy materials. On the other, they seem artfully uncoordinated, composed both pictorially and in the etiquette sense.

You would expect Mr. Chamberlain’s art to be animated by a sense of tragedy or entropy in view of the suffering or waste implied by auto accidents. But the eye adjusts with remarkable ease to his choice of materials. You soon tell yourself that a Chamberlain is in crushed cars like a Rodin is in bronze, and you pay attention instead to the mood established by the gestures and shapes, which is invariably upbeat and gung-ho.

Where a Kline or a de Kooning implies speed of execution, a Chamberlain lives with – is perhaps energized by -an internal contradiction: apparent frenzy that, like a symphonic scherzo, requires brilliant orchestration and artful composition. The end result is that, rather than looking at a Chamberlain as a car accident, you look at auto-wrecks as works of art.

installation shot at Gagosian Gallery of works by John Chamberlain,  foreground shows Apparentlyoffspring 1992 painted steel, 48 x 70 x 56 inches Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York
installation shot at Gagosian Gallery of works by John Chamberlain, foreground shows Apparentlyoffspring 1992 painted steel, 48 x 70 x 56 inches Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York

The gentle brutalist at Stone has poetic charm, whereas his gauche counterpart at Gagosian is a consummate vulgarian. The sculptural forms are still compelling, but not so the surfaces. Maybe the inherent beauty of rusting 1950s industrial parts was a happy accident, but the decision by the artist to start painting his own components has been a tragic one, In terms of taste, Mr. Crash crashed.

The components of these three works from 1992 have been individually pre-painted by the artist, for the most part in a hand better suited to decorating bar stools at a tropical resort than to making works of art. Again defying classification, they beg the question: Are these sculptures that happen to have painted designs on them, the way traditional materials might show patina or grain, or are they paintings on very unusual supports?

Ancient and medieval sculpture was usually painted, of course, so why not modern, too? But the objection to this objection is that Mr. Chamberlain is evidently invested in the whole issue of ontology: how the thing came into being, what came first, whether it happened fast or slow, whether it is animated by chance or by deliberation. What, in other words, it ultimately is.

Mr. Chamberlain’s early work contained similar questions. His sculptures and reliefs were “anxious objects,” in Harold Rosenberg’s phrase. In or by 1992, however, anxiety had given way to crassness. It is as if your favorite young jazzman had been recruited to a heavy-metal band.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 11, 2003