In his lifetime, John Chamberlain was many things. He was a high school drop-out, a pilot, a party animal, a hair dresser. But perhaps most notably, Chamberlain was an innovative and poetic artist. Difficult to define, yet easy to spot, Chamberlain’s works–comprised mostly of used, misshapen car parts– blur the lines between Abstract Expressionism and Pop, and painting and sculpture. The Guggenheim is currently showing John Chamberlain: Choices, the museum’s second retrospective (the first was in 1971) of the artist’s work. The museum rotunda is lined with dozen’s of Chamberlain’s collages and monumental sculptures, paying homage to the artist’s prolific career, which spanned over 60 years.
At first glance, the show may seem redundant and mundane. It’s junk. It’s trash. It’s easy. That’s what I thought too. But after learning more about the artist and his work (in the form of 7 museum tours and one curator-led lecture), I realize that I not only like the work, but I also understand its place in the Modern art canon.
At play throughout the exhibition is a dialogue taking place between artist and media. Chamberlain looked for car parts and other metal pieces that would fit together and complement one another. Though heavy and architectural, his sculptures are never clumsy. In fact, they are just the opposite. The fragments work together to support each other, and in the case of Fantail (1961), they can even achieve a sense of weightlessness and movement. He has taken abandoned “junk” and given it new life and purpose.
Chamberlain also understood the quirky, and even playful, nature of the medium in which he chose to work. He honored the charm of his materials by bestowing blithe, non sequitur names upon his works. These titles include Whirled Peas, Lord Suckfist, and Three Cornered Desire. They invite the viewer to experience and interpret the works as they please, rather than relying on the titles for guidance, allowing their museum experience to be as freewheeling as Chamberlain was himself.
John Chamberlain: Choices is on view through May 13, 2012.
Image provided courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NYC