by Shraddha NairJan 17, 2022
The smooth sheen of a sleek automobile does not fail to catch the attention. When a similar glossy appearance is refashioned through the parts of automobiles moulded in entangled shapes of a sculpture, it leads to canonical oeuvre of the American sculptor, John Chamberlain. The art historian, Susan Davidson, has curated Chamberlain’s retrospective exhibition, Stance, Rhythm, and Tilt, at Gagosian gallery in New York. The exhibition takes its title from a conversation shared between Chamberlain and poet Robert Creeley, during which the former mentioned, “There’s all these different variations…coming out looking like the sculptures that are what you might call the signature mark. The stance, and the rhythm, and the tilt are all in there. But I went at the materials the way the materials evidently told me to. You squeeze one and you wad another, and you melt another, so these peculiarities were starting to pay off for me.”
Chamberlain was a member of the US Navy in the mid-1940s that unflinchingly influenced his understanding of scale and perspective. Consequently, it developed his distinctive aesthetic and techniques early in his career as an artist. To reach the three-dimensional collaged sculptures carrying volume and mass, Chamberlain compressed metals in complex folds and textures only to weld the disparate elements together. Chamberlain understood the inherent property of the materials that are visually communicated through the heterogeneity of his forms and the directness of his process. Furthermore, the wide display of work rightly demonstrates the recurrence of certain physical gestures. Besides the unique blend of colour and form, the poetic title of the sculptures in the exhibition is a reflection of the years spent reading the poet Charles Olson at the Black Mountain College, North Carolina, from 1955 to 1956.
In an interview with STIR, Davidson, who also organised the retrospective of the artist at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2012, gives an overview of the curatorial approach to let the works resonate with the current audience, “Chamberlain was recycling decades before such concerns became part of our daily efforts to reduce waste and tame climate change. He approached his unique sculptural style pretty much as a collagist." The works at first may appear to critique the daunting effect of industrial development on the populace, then Davidson is quick to mention, “He was not necessarily making sculpture as a commentary on consumerism but was propelled by the availability of material. His deep personal engagement in all types of science, however, surely informed his thinking about his work."
The exhibition includes his earliest work, a small abstract construction of steel segments, Projectile D. S. N. Y. The work is a precursor to the much larger and more colourful works of subsequent years. Along with this, the press release elucidates the chronological significance of the work to comprehend the steady shift in the artist's approach to his craft. Works made throughout the decades revisit motifs and hues; Diamond Lee and Leaning Tower of Youth both feature salvaged white-painted and chrome-plated automobile steel, while Colonel Splendid and Sugar Tit employ coloured metal in reflective and matte finishes. Wall-hanging sculptures such as White Thumb Four present varied, sometimes seemingly precarious, but always carefully arranged intersections of quasi-organic forms. Juxtaposing reflective surfaces with flaking paint and hard edges with exuberant curves, Chamberlain displays a fusion of technical mastery and formal verve that resonates with the exhibition title’s allusion to posture and motion. The aforementioned works—as well as more recent examples such as Dearie Oso Enseau and Tambourinefrappe — evince the pervasive influence of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism on Chamberlain’s thought and method; they also nod to the luxuriant drapery characteristic of high Baroque sculpture.
To many, the works, experimentation performed by the artist Chamberlain, could be a site of learning, and even unlearning to the contemporary artists. If Davidson does not have a direct answer to the observation - what are the creative possibilities open for the contemporary artist to absorb from Chamberlain’s artistic practice - the curator recollects what the artist once told her, “’I have done my job, now you do yours’, he was referring to the planning meetings we were holding in advance of his retrospective that I curated in 2012. His comment startled me, although it should not have. Chamberlain could be as tough as the metal he was bending, creasing, and folding, but he was fundamentally an open person who was driven to create. In considering what contemporary artists might learn from his experimenting with various materials and vibrant colours, I am confident Chamberlain would offer the same permission he gave me. Means, go forth, do whatever interests you. He liked to say that art was ‘finding out what you don’t already know’.”
On view, if there are just a few sculptures, yet there is a significant selection chosen from the remarkable body of work Chamberlain produced. The cherry-picked works invite the viewers to gauge the consistency of the abstract vocabulary he used over the course of long career. Davidson notes, “His works are full of contradictions—hard vs. soft, rough vs. elegant, masculine vs. feminine, balanced but toppling—like the man himself. The sheer inventiveness of his forms and the verve in which he manipulated his materials is unparalleled.”
Like the lustre of the automobile which braves the gnawing weather conditions to retain its freshness, “Chamberlain work is just as current today,” Davidson mentions towards the end of the interview, “as the first sculptures he made over 60 years ago.”
The exhibition Stance, Rhythm, and Tilt runs at Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, until February 5, 2022.