During the last 50 years of art history, the car has inspired figures as different as
. Burden, for example, displayed at the New Museum
a 1974 Porsche that he restored alongside a 390-pound meteorite, so that it seemed at once prehistoric and hypermodern. This sort of temporal confusion is already apparent in such early Chamberlain car sculptures as Homer
(1960)—a work that might suggest, depending on how you look at it, the ruined form of what was once a car, or the raw stuff from which a car might someday be made.
If Chamberlain’s sculptures seem to foreshadow the works of so many major artists, it’s largely because he came along at a time when automobile-worship was transitioning from a cult to a full-fledged religion. In the early 1960s, cars seemed to represent the best America had to offer: freedom, wealth, and cutting-edge technology. The critic Dave Hickey later wrote of the era: “I learned car math and car engineering, car poli-sci and car economics.…All these came to me couched in the lingua franca of cars.” In his sculptures, Chamberlain acknowledges that lingua franca even as he reduces it to babble; like the science-fiction author J. G. Ballard, who penned the seminal (in every sense of the word) 1973 novel Crash, Chamberlain tips his hat to the glacial beauty of painted steel, even as he sees the destruction rumbling underneath. Consider, for instance, the colors of Untitled (1965): turquoise, cherry red, canary yellow. They’re as pure as the shapes are twisted and broken, so that the sculpture as a whole seems at once juvenile and jaded, optimistic and apocalyptic.