The Staying Power of John Chamberlain’s Crushed Car Sculptures

Jackson Arn
Nov 29, 2019 1:00PM

The few abstract artists who have achieved superstardom tend to have simple, one-word trademarks—something for the public to sink its teeth into when faced with the question of what the artworks are “of” or “about.” Jackson Pollock had drips. Josef Albers had squares. Lucio Fontana had slashes. Piet Mondrian had grids of red, yellow, and blue. John Chamberlain, for better or worse, will always be remembered as the guy who made bright, sprawling sculptures out of cars.

All of these examples are reductive—sometimes ridiculously so: Pollock’s drip period, for example, lasted only three years. For well over half a century, Chamberlain was a mover and shaker in the worlds of Abstract Expressionism and Pop, tinkering with abstract paintings, films, photographs, and masks, as well as sculptures in foam, rubber, and paper. None of these projects have matched the staying power of the sculptures he made in the 1960s, which were crafted with mangled fenders, doors, bumpers, and hoods.

John Chamberlain
Wexler Gallery

During the last 50 years of art history, the car has inspired figures as different as Richard Prince, César, and Chris Burden. 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.

“Dark commentaries on the costs of American freedom,” read Chamberlain’s 2011 New York Times obituary, when the time came to describe the artist’s most famous works—the same works that Artforum’s Lynne Cook described as “sensual and erotic” and marked by an “irrepressible ebullience.” Yes, and no, and yes again: Chamberlain’s sculptures seem to sum up everything that’s ever been said about the car, ranging from the utopian to the nightmarish. A less charitable way of putting this is that they mean whatever you want them to mean. They’re “political.” They’re about “America” (or should that be “about” America?). They critique consumerist culture, but then again, maybe they glorify consumerist culture. No wonder they’re catnip for art critics.

Beneath their big, lumbering forms, something like coyness can be felt in Chamberlain’s work—a habit of implying something and then turning teasingly away from the implications. Chamberlain insisted that his sculptures weren’t intended to evoke car crashes or violence, though he must have known perfectly well that they did. He’d been mentored by two of the great Abstract Expressionist painters, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, but through his conceptual games designed to keep viewers guessing forever, he resembles his predecessor Marcel Duchamp.

John Chamberlain
MURMUR, 2002

Judging by the responses to his death, critics will continue debating Chamberlain’s cars for a while. Though controversy is no guarantee of immortality, the artist took other measures to ensure his legacy. A quarter of a million miles away, a tiny chip with a drawing by Chamberlain rests on the surface of the moon. Chamberlain drew it in 1969, on a ceramic wafer emblazoned with work by five other notable artists of the era. It’s hard to know for sure, but the wafer is believed to have been attached to the leg of the Lunar Module Intrepid. And so, Chamberlain’s art will still be around millions of years from now, long after every car and car sculpture has rusted away and every art critic has been replaced with a mild-mannered robot.

Jackson Arn