If John Chamberlain hadn’t planted his flag and declared himself as a crashed car guy in 1957, someone else probably would, and he would probably be famous today. But I doubt they did the same with the land. All but one of the eighteen sculptures in “Stance, Rhythm, and Tilt,” an exhibition at Gagosian in New York City, were made from parts of demolished cars. It’s one of those rare gadgets that transcends the mere gadget, so laden with symbolic significance (the decline of the American manufacturing base? The endemic violence of American society? Something about America?) That you could almost miss the subtle mastery of execution.
The most impressive thing about this show, with all due respect to the art, is that the word “car” never appears, neither in the title, nor in the press release, nor anywhere . Form is the star. This is probably how Chamberlain, who died in 2011 at the age of 84, would have wanted it. He has always denied having tried to evoke accidents or industrial decay, or even having made sculptures “on” cars. In the past, I have found these disavowals a little timid – Duchampian brews meant to make critics guess. But this exhibition raises the possibility that Chamberlain chose to sculpt with an overdetermined medium because he enjoyed challenges. Making iconic art is hard enough; make iconic art from the leftovers of something already iconic separates adults from children.
In decades where other artists regurgitated flags, Marilyns and balloon dogs, happy to rub shoulders with what the public already recognized and then take credit for having “questioned” it, Chamberlain turned his icons around. . Gagosian’s sculptures are as vertical as cars are horizontal, as impractical as cars are useful, and as nobly aristocratic as cars are populist. Some, like Cherie Oso Enseau (1992), have folds of steel that look as soft as satin on the knees of a Renaissance Madonna; others, like Diamond Lee (1969), have jagged limbs or tails. Although the sculptures were made with enormous inward pressure – smooth crumpled planes, acutely curved obtuse angles – they seem to repel their surroundings. They’re so un-cartoonish and so completely, bewilderingly themselves, that you want to tame them by comparing them to other stuff (the evocative, often wacky titles don’t hurt). Reviewing them is like reviewing a mountain.
It’s hard to talk about these sculptures without making them seem grandiloquent, and they probably would be in the hands of another artist. But a chamberlain improves as he spends time with him – he’s so invested in the little details that the first blow of discovery is one of the less interesting parts of the meeting. His color choices are always wise: he likes chunks of bright, opaque oranges, greens, reds and yellows placed side-by-side, but he usually lightens the load by tucking into bumpers and fenders. mirror shape. By the 1980s he had started painting previously painted metal and then scratching off some of his own additions. Gagosian sculptures from this period, such as Thumb White Four (1978) – a lip-smacking confection of blues and limes – are among Chamberlain’s best: the shapes are elegant and the colors have a laid-back splendor, tripped over rather than emphasized. We can see why car accident comparisons annoyed him: he is an implicit violence in these works, but it is a calm and erosive violence, measured in eons instead of seconds, more difficult to notice or, once noticed, to shake off.
This sense of inevitable slowness may be Chamberlain’s biggest trick, and it explains why the later works in the series are the least satisfying. The patterns get stronger and the textures more evenly uniform – there’s still a lot to admire, but while the best carvings here get attention because they don’t seem need everything, a kandy-kolored monstrosity like TAMBOURINEFRAPPE (2010) demands to be watched, never quite meets those demands, and begins to look like an old gadget. Spicing up what was already well seasoned, Chamberlain turned out to be more like an automaker than he realized. But first he had a good, long race.