Like water for the desert, New Media for New Mexico

Guggenheim: John Chamberlain, American Sculptor

The main exhibit at the Guggenhiem when I visited in early March 2012 was the work of sculptor John Chamberlain (April 16, 1927 – December 21, 2011). His signature media of steel junked car parts formed the bulk of the exhibit, though I also noted a few pieces that used polyurethene foam tied together with string.

I found myself feeling alternately fascinated, annoyed, and amused by the artist and his work. Chamberlain was a noted wild man in his heyday. Getting arrested after a major exhibit for fighting with a police officer was only one of his escapades. He left studies at the School of the Art Insitute of Chicago after arguing with his professors and accusing them of being narrow minded. He insisted that he worked with no thought of its meaning, and was clearly irked by the ever-present associations of the auto industry and car crashes with his sculptures. He claimed he used junked auto parts because there was a lot of the material lying around. Perhaps my favorite story associated with his work is that several of his sculptures were carted off to the trash as they were sitting outside of a gallery, waiting to be brought in for exhibition.

All of this definitely added to Chamberlain’s allure in my mind. Irreverence is a character trait I personally admire.  On that note, I had to wonder if his foam pieces were a “screw you” kind of joke on his patrons. When I saw one at the Guggenheim, I couldn’t stifle my laughter. It seriously looked exactly like the foam mattress I had myself tied up and put in the garage. I really couldn’t see what was going on with it, other than looking like, well, a junky tied-up foam mattress. Its form was not dynamic in any way. I don’t think it was conceptual art. I think it may have just been crappy art. A joke, conceptual art, crappy art… personally I feel if the viewer finds herself tossing these terms around to describe someone’s artwork, something is likely wrong.

His steel sculptures were another story. They do indeed look like abstract impressionist paintings in 3D. Twisted, huge, hulks of color and metal, they forced me to stand up and take notice. In fact, there was so much energy in his work, I could feel it propelling me excitedly from piece to piece. Some art invites you in slowly contemplate every nuance.  Chamberlain’s sculptures made me want to circle round excitedly, jump up and down, run back and forth… which I think I did actually, probably to the consternation of the other art admirers at the museum that day. The sculptures are vibrant, colorful, full of energy, full of life.

As a welder, I did peer closely to see if I could determine how his pieces were put together. There was nothing special about the welding, but I really have no idea how he twisted the metal to meet his exact idea of what each piece should look like. At first I thought he must be just making them on the fly, but the maquettes on display proved me wrong.

I read later Chamberlain veered from the steel car-parts sculptures to foam and other media only for a shot time in the middle of his career, and then went back to the car parts.  I opine that this was a good decision, for the energy, color, and form of the sculptures made from this signature media are unique and arresting.

One response

  1. Thank you for sharing this with us, Elizabeth. A nice piece of writing.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:29 am

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