Friday, June 10, 2011

Gagosian Gallery 555 West 24th street. John Chamberlin, through July 8th

John Chamberlin is one of the major sculptors of the second half of the 20th century, and would be considered an art star by any measure. That star first began to rise early in the 1960's, and unlike a lot of his contemporaries, it didn't fizzle out. Today he's rightfully seen as one of the leading figures of the Post Minimalist movement. Actually his rise happened chronologically around the same time as the Minimalists, but he's considered a Post Minimalist. Now, if you're thinking "Matt, what the hell is a Post Minimalist you pretentious basterd", I'll be happy to tell you. After Minimalism became popular there were a number of artists who rebelled against the principals and conventions of the movement, while embracing some of the freedoms it made possible. These were the Post Minimalists. I suppose the same could be said about the Post Impressionists, or the Post anythings, I guess. Anyway, that's a different discussion.
The Minimalists made hard edge industrial materials, not only acceptable, but preferable for art making, and made inorganic unornamented symmetry the norm. What John Camberlain did was take the industrial, shiny metallic, materials the Minimalists made possible, with all the confrontational honesty that comes with them, and used them to rebel against Minimalism's clean, reductionist aesthetic. He took discarded automobiles, and twisted and crushed them into strange and organic shapes, thus replacing the Minimalist aesthetic with a felt, spontaneous asymmetry, that was even baroque in form. It could be said (and I believe has been) that his messy intuitive aesthetic owes more to Abstract Expressionist painting than to Minimalist sculpture. His forms are more painterly than most paintings I know. I've actually heard some people say that his sculpture looks like Willem deKooning's paintings in three dimensions. I wouldn't say that, but if you want to say it I won't try to stop you. Hey, it's a free country. See if I care.
When Chamberlin is at his best his violently smashed and twisted metal sculptures have a paradoxically playful quality, and an elegance and grace that contradict the materials size and weight. That's a pretty neat trick when he can pull it off, and he pulls it off more often than not. It's also a treat to see the way he merges high concept with technical virtuosity. His use of color is also very thoughtful, and interesting. And, like Abstract Expressionist painting, it looks random, but it isn't. There was a time when it was a real challenge to get past Chamberlin's "junkyard" materials to see the grace and beauty in these sculptures. Clearly that's not really the case any more, but they are still very powerful. I have to say that I think some of the work doesn't quite live up to its aspirations, and just looks large and heavy. Eh, you can't win them all.
This is all new work though, and the fact that the guy is 85 years old, and still turning out this level of sculpture is pretty impressive. I wonder if he has help.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Matt,
    I never thought of John Chamberlain as a Post Minimailis, is that different from Postminamalism, one word? I do agree though that part of the beauty of Chamberlain sculptures comes from it playful quality that contradicts the materials hardness and weight. I will also add, that since he works with the bodies of junked cars he produces abstract work with a very American sensibility. I would say that it is major part of his appeal. Cars, Detroit, is as American as apple pie.