John Chamberlain: Choices at the Guggenheim

John Chamberlain: Choices

By Sarah Kate Jorgensen

Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim’s retrospective of John Chamberlain’s (1927 –2011) work is the first museum exhibition of the artist’s work since 1986.  The exhibit includes approximately 95 works that were selected from various periods in his 60-year career to illuminate the complex underpinnings of the artist’s oeuvre including multiplicity of forms, language, car culture, and simplicity of process.

Chamberlain introduced the automobile and its color to sculpture. He was a rebel, working common recycled materials into his work. He created energetic, vibrant sculptures from old car parts. These brightly colored sculptures resonated with pop art’s critique of American consumer culture. However, for Chamberlain, artmaking was ultimtely about material; this gesture was one of reclamation. What he achieved was an imaginative three-dimensional form of abstract expressionism.

When he arrived in New York, Chamberlain was poor, so he scavenged junkyards for automobile metal, which he could repurpose as sculpture material. In his first sculpture that used car parts and welded rods (Short Stop, 1958), he took the painted, chromium plated steel car parts he found and rammed them over with his car to flatten them.

Miss Lucy Pink, ca. 1962

Miss Lucy Pink, (1962) blends tonalities of pink on red and hints of yellow into a pleasing form. The parts come together as though they belong together. It evokes the artist’s mantra: “it’s all in the fit.” The piece is also an example of how his freestanding sculptures often rest on a single point, yet there is a grounded-ness to them. Dolores’s James (1962) explodes with color. We see shimmering metallic golds and shades of blue and matted red.

Untitled, 1966
Luna Luna Luna ca. 1980

The Guggenheim show retraces Chamberlain’s forays into different mediums. In 1965, Chamberlain began a seven-year period during which when he set aside car metal and pursued unconventional materials, such as fiber, resin, water color, and tin foil. He played with plexi materials: folding out, heating, tying, and warping urethane. Plexiglas forms colorfully refract light into rainbows. Foam sculptures are soft edged, organic sculptures that resemble sea life. These works are a refreshing departure. The reveal the artist’s careful consideration of material and the range of effects and forms his selected materials can provide.


192 7/8 x 165 3/8 x 145 5/8 inches (490 x 420 x 370 cm)
Private collection
Installation view: John Chamberlain: Choices, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February 24 – May 13, 2012
© 2011 John Chamberlain / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

The exhibition also puts on view the vast range of scale in Chamberlain’s works. A monumental aluminum foil sculpture (SPHINXGRIN TWO, 2010) that reaches to the second floor of the Guggenheim’s atrium greets visitors as they walk in. Small sculptures sitting on spice boxes, such as City Service (1962), offer a sweet contrast to the masculine works of automobile armature.

Chamberlain loved language and its sound. The shape and forms of words interested him and his works are multi layered and humorously titled.  He had confidence in his word choices, selecting words that had visual or auditory appeal to him, shuffling them to create seemingly nonsensical titles. Poets such as Robert Creeley and Charles Olsen-  whom he met while attending Black Mountain College –influenced his artistic development.   Examples of titles from the exhibition include “Hillbilly Galloot,” “Glass Ala Adagio,” “Velvet White” and “Endless Gossip.” In 2006, he began combining words into one uninterrupted string of capitalized letters befitting the monumental scale of his more recent works.

Untitled, ca. 1960

Paper, metal, painted and printed tin-plated steel, printed paper
fabric, and paint on painted fiberboard
12 × 12 × 5½ inches (30.5 × 30.5 × 14 cm)
Private collection
Photo: Kristopher McKay

Understanding form, composition, color, texture, shadow and word play made Chamberlain a master at collage. Untitled (1960) is comprised of paper, metal, painted and printed plated steel, printed-paper, fabric and paint on painted fiberboard. In this piece, colorful metal shapes unfurl from a textured patchwork of paper and fabric.

Whirled Peas, 1991

Painted, chromium-plated, and stainless steel
139 1/2 x 75 x 48 1/2 inches (354.3 x 190.5 x 123.2 cm)
Private collection
Installation view: John Chamberlain: Choices, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February 24 – May 13, 2012
© 2011 John Chamberlain / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

As in any retrospective, you see transformations in the artist’s style, motifs, etc. Chamberlain moved from very tightly composed, galvanized steel forms like Ultima Thule (1967) and White Thumb Four (1978) to almost vegetative, flower like forms such as Lord Suck Fist (1989). In the 1990’s he created work that was of a substantially larger scale and more compact in assembly, such as Whirled Peas (1991). His later pieces swell with muscularity, such as Peaude Sole Musk (2011). One piece HAWKFLIESAGAIN (2010) plays with present day car parts. For this piece he managed to find a chrome bumper. What was once junk has now become vintage.

In “John Chamberlain: Choices” we witness the process of  active selection in which disparate found parts are stretched, warped, taped, welded, twisted and shaped into a cohesive, expressive whole.


“John Chamberlain: Choices”

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

February 24–May 13, 2012