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John Chamberlain, Toy, 1961, painted steel with plastic, Art Institute of Chicago
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John Chamberlain

Feb. 24, 2012 

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A huge character whose life was one long adventure, the late sculptor John Chamberlain (1927-2011) hated the idea that people associated his abstract sculptures with car crashes and auto junkyards. Well, you can’t always get what you want. “John Chamberlain: Choices,” the collection of approximately 100 works now on view at the Guggenheim Museum, undeniably reads like a DIY handbook for crafting fine art out of junkyard recyclables. It’s this angle that makes his work fun, and so much easier to understand than, say, the paintings of Willem de Kooning and other first-generation Abstract-Expressionists whose esthetic he shared.

Chamberlain was an intuitive artist, and once he had devised his “art machine” -- using a “crusher” in the studio on the unwanted discards from auto body shops -- he rarely ventured outside the box. Alternately suggesting golems, boutonnières, plant stalks and crumpled sheets of paper (several fist-sized works from 1969 are exactly that), the sculptures also pass through a typical variety of materials, including not only auto scrap and chromed bumpers but also galvanized steel, urethane foam, metal-flake car parts, luminescent polymer resin and, in some amusing final works, aluminum foil.

In her presentation of the exhibition, Guggenheim senior curator Susan Davidson noted the artist’s personal history, which paralleled the rise of what might be called “mechanical America.” He was born during the consumer boom of the 1920s, when Henry Ford was producing a car a minute, and had learned to fly a propeller plane by the time he was 11. He served in the Navy, which was important to him, and even worked as a hairdresser, which could be why some of his work looks "coiffed," Davidson said.

True enough, but a better context is found closer to home, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic spiral, which seems like an emblem of neat rationality when set against the orderly chaos of Chamberlain’s sculptures.

Following its appearance in New York, “Choices” is scheduled to travel to the Guggenheim Bilbao.

“John Chamberlain: Choices,” Feb. 24-May 13, 2012, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128

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