If John Chamberlain hadn’t planted his flag and declared himself crushed car guy back in 1957, somebody else probably would have, and they’d probably be famous today. But I doubt they’d have done as much with the territory. All but one of the eighteen sculptures in “Stance, Rhythm, and Tilt,” an exhibition at Gagosian in New York, were made from beat-up car parts. It’s one of those rare gimmicks that transcends mere gimmickry, so packed with symbolic import (the waning of America’s manufacturing base? the violence endemic to American society? something about America?) that you could almost miss the subtle mastery of the execution.
The most impressive thing about this show, with all due respect to the art, is that the word “car” never appears—not in the title, not in the press release, not anywhere. Form is the star. This is probably the way Chamberlain, who died in 2011 at the age of 84, would have wanted it. He always denied that he was trying to evoke crashes or industrial decay, or even that he made sculptures “about” cars. In the past, I’ve found these disavowals a little coy—Duchampian pot-stirrings meant to keep critics guessing. But this show raises the possibility that Chamberlain chose to sculpt with an overdetermined medium because he liked a challenge. Making iconic art is hard enough; making iconic art from the scraps of something already iconic separates the grownups from the kids.
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In decades when other artists regurgitated flags and Marilyns and balloon dogs, happy to coast by on what the public already recognized and then take credit for “interrogating” it, Chamberlain turned his icons inside out. The sculptures at Gagosian are as vertical as cars are horizontal, as impractical as cars are useful, and as grandly aristocratic as cars are populist. Some, like Dearie Oso Enseau (1992), have folds of steel that look as soft as the satin in a Renaissance Madonna’s lap; others, like Diamond Lee (1969), have jagged limbs or tails. Although the sculptures were made with tremendous inward pressure—smooth planes scrunched rough, obtuse angles bent acute—they seem to push back on their surroundings. They are so un-carlike and so completely, unnervingly themselves that one wants to tame them by comparing them to other stuff (the evocative, often-goofy titles don’t hurt). Reviewing them is like reviewing a mountain.
It’s hard to talk about these sculptures without making them sound bombastic, and in another artist’s hands they probably would be. But a Chamberlain gets better the longer one spends with it—he’s so invested in the little details that the initial wallop of discovery is among the least interesting parts of the encounter. His color choices are always shrewd: he likes hunks of bright, opaque oranges, greens, reds, and yellows placed side by side, but usually he’ll lighten the load by wedging in mirror-like bumpers and fenders. By the ’80s he’d begun painting already-painted metal and then scratching away some of his own additions. The sculptures at Gagosian from this period, such as White Thumb Four (1978)—a lip-smacking confection of blues and limes—are some of Chamberlain’s best: the shapes are tautly elegant and the colors have a casual splendor, stumbled upon rather than insisted upon. One sees why the car crash comparisons annoyed him: there is an implicit violence in these works, but it’s a quiet, erosive violence, measured in eons instead of seconds, harder to notice or, once noticed, to shake.
This sense of slow inevitability may be Chamberlain’s greatest trick, and it explains why the later works in the show are the least satisfying. The patterns get louder and the textures more inertly uniform—there’s still plenty to admire, but whereas the best sculptures here command attention because they don’t seem to need any, a kandy-kolored monstrosity like TAMBOURINEFRAPPE (2010) demands to be looked at, never quite lives up to those demands, and starts to feel like plain-old gimmickry. Spicing up what was already well-seasoned, Chamberlain turned out more like a car manufacturer than he realized. But first, he had a good, long run.