The Probity of Modernism: Collages by John Chamberlain and Alfred Leslie
Collage at Allan Stone Gallery
November 4 to December 23, 2010
113 East 90th Street, between Lexington and Park avenues
New York City, 212 987 4997
At Allan Stone Gallery, two artists we know well are caught in a less familiar and surprisingly compatible moment of aesthetic initiation. In their mature oeuvres, John Chamberlain and Alfred Leslie are artists of markedly different sensibility, both from one another and from these, their own early efforts. This fascinating and focused show is like a snapshot of smiling infants now famous in utterly different walks of life—a rock star and a politician, say, or a priest and a mobster. Here are little John and Leslie in their Abstract Expressionist kindergarten, and the toy of choice in the sandbox is collage.
Leslie famously abandoned a budding career as an action painter to achieve renown, via a foray in experimental moviemaking, with precisionist nudes and with an extended, Carravagesque narrative/allegorical series on the death of Frank O’Hara.
John Chamberlain is a sculptural giant of the era of Pop and minimal art whose trademark material of compressed automobile body parts, though expressive and contorted, has formal clarity and chromatic sharpness that contrast with the murky period palette and scruffy, ambiguous layering that permeate these early collages.
Collage, according to Rauschenberg, was the drawing mode of the 20th-century. Does that make it, to montage one dictum with another, the probity of modernism? What is beyond dispute is the commonality collage provides to the early experiments of an array of American movements and individuals. Collage was seminal to formative or transformative moves by artists as disparate as Robert Motherwell, Judith Rothschild, Lee Krasner, Alex Katz, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and – as demonstrated here – Leslie and Chamberlain.
These two men are artists who found themselves in finding. Their collage is of the manifestly messy variety. There was actually what could be called, in a nod to Clement Greenberg, an American type collage which is better defined as “cutout” in that it is clean, hard-edged, and reductive, having to do with carving out space and depth rather than modeling in juxtaposed and contrastive forms.
Leslie and Chamberlain, however, are anything but fastidious in their fifties collage. In fact, somewhat brutalist results are redolent of mess and distress. These collages can feel like randomly selected patches of an AbExer’s paint-splattered floor in which detritus has been stamped into the floorboards as the painter moves around his workspace. Tellingly, Chamberlain actually uses acoustic board ceiling panels as his support in a couple of these images.
But in common with many American collagists, and in contrast to classic European experimentation, there is little that is associative about the materials that find their way into these works. In one Leslie piece from 1953-54 we get a scrap of an ad with GE’s distinctive graphic logo, but this hardly makes him heir to Kurt Schwitters. Interestingly, Chamberlain, whose future idiom, found and crushed car parts, is shot through to the core with rich and suggestive social meaning, is almost willfully non-objective in his choice of materials. There are, granted, a strawberry and a few leaves in a fragment of wallpaper in one piece from 1959-60.
The show includes a number of Chamberlains that are not actually collages at all, but the array of mediums (oil, crayon) and of contrastive washes and impastos brings textures into collision that echo a preoccupation with collage as surely as they prefigure his later infatuation with the car wreck. His breakthrough into car parts occurred in an act of accidental collage when he grabbed a couple of fenders in Larry Rivers’s back yard that he only realized later belonged to a precious 1929 Model T Ford.
Leslie does, in one or two of his pieces, have something of that carving as opposed to modeling sensibility I’m identifying as “American type” cutout. Gildo the Moore (Rose) 1951 is quite striking in this respect. Half a dozen torn, black boulders of paper and two whites partially overlap as they are bolted together against a faintly-colored ground, the rose of the title, that is allowed to peer through the slivers of space between these defiant armor plates of paper.
One strategy the artists have in common is to make potent expressive use out of a functional mode of affix, namely the staple. This comes across very forcefully in Leslie’s Gildo and an untitled Chamberlain of 1960. In both images, the arbitrarily directed staples, spare but strategic in Leslie, allover and frenetic in Chamberlain, are like pentimenti that electrify the compositions. Again, however, the way the staple goes down speaks to differing artistic personalities even as Leslie and Chamberlain tap a common period sensibility. Leslie uses the staples to find, intuitively rather than geometrically, the corners of his rough-hewn quadrangles, or sometimes to tether the forms to one another. Chamberlain is altogether more liberal in the way he scatters these boisterous accents across the picture plane. That said, for all their exuberant abundance, almost every staple pulls its weight as a functional necessity.
That neither artist seems to have stayed with collage is in both their cases a moot point. The young Chamberlain came of age intellectually at Black Mountain College where the company of poets prompted him to play with language. When he put together poems on the basis of how the words looked, rather than sounded, he realized, he says, that at heart he is a collagist. That in a way he remains. The most recent piece in the show, a mixed media relief of 1961, forcefully signals the direction of his mature sculpture.
For Leslie, the idea that his AbEx career is a different man from the new perceptual realist he became is anathema. Both bodies of work, he once explained to me, are defined by frontality, confrontation and all-overness. Differences of look and behavior, so far as he is concerned, are of minor consequence.
The boy is father of the man, as the saying goes, and this is true too of collagists and the sculptors or painter/filmmakers they grow up to be.