John Chamberlain: Moving Metal

May 14, 2013 10:12PM

"Kline gave me the structure, de Kooning gave me the color." - John Chamberlain

John Chamberlain is indisputably the most important sculptor of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His iconic sculptures are composed of crushed automobile parts, which fuse the gestural spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism with the love for color of Pop Art and the modularity of Minimalism. Throughout his career, Chamberlain had worked with a broad range of materials, some as pliant as foam rubber and as ephemeral as brown paper bags. All the same, he always returned to his fervor of crushing, twisting and bending richly colored parts of metal. These large sculptures invite the viewer to fully engage in the artwork by following the complex topography of the three-dimensional surface, continually exploring the changing and revolving multiplicities of volume and color.

After moving to New York from Chicago in 1956, Chamberlain became close friends with Abstract Expressionist painters he met at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. Like other artists of his generation, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, his work immobilizes the performative gestures with vernacular constructions of collage. Chamberlain has been celebrated as having reintroduced color to sculpture after Modernists had sternly denied it in favor of a focus on form. Even though his metal assemblages are frequently read as a chaoticriff on Duchamp’s ready-mades, the character of paintings by Franz Kline and especially Willem de Kooning are viscerally present throughout his work. Yet Chamberlain’s sculptures also embody the removal of the referential, and the structured use of color and volume in space; all of which are pioneering themes that Donald Judd and his compatriots would further explore in Minimalism.

Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, 1990, is a magnificent example of Chamberlain’s artistic impact, dominated by the unique use of color and the intense compression of the large sculpture.The work was given the nickname The Flower by its previous owner because of the way the sculpture resembles the shape of a fresh bouquet of flowers with vibrant spring colors.The wonderful color palette of Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, 1990, ranges from deep shades of blues and greens, to lighter pastel turquoises and vibrant reds, violets, yellows and candy pinks. Many of the sheets have multiple colors spraypainted or dripped on them in an Expressionist manner; a gesture that points back to his early years working alongside the AbEx group in New York City.

Much like an abstract painter, Chamberlain rejected analogies between his work and real life such as the comparison to violent car crashes. He wanted the audience to view his work without preconceived ideas of the materials’ past. Chamberlain was interested in letting the raw beauty of pre-fabricated parts dictate the form and the color of his sculptures. The final configuration of the sculpture was unknown to him until he had added the last piece to the puzzle. The fact that most of the sculptures are self-supporting and only have spot welding points means that the individual parts don’t move when transported; a puzzle of permanence. This procedure of piling found objects follows the preconceptions of a ready-made and underlines the notion of chance and intuition of the artwork.

John Chamberlain’s compositions combine the lyrical with the rough and expressionistic.This juxtaposition reinvents the process of modeling volume and constructs a new kind of beauty. The delicate balance between grace and power invites endless adjectives and references, but none of them ever seem to fit. For this reason Chamberlain usually applied witty titles to his work such as Daddy- O-Springs, 1975, C’est What, 1991, Coke Ennyday, 1977, and Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, 1990. Ultimately the composition transcends the language of description and opens the door to an uncompromising richness of gesture, texture and emotion.

Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, 1990, will be offered in our Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 16 May 2013, in New York.

Additional image: John Chamberlain working in his studio, Sarasota, Florida, 1991 by Peter Foe.