A Choice Selection: John Chamberlain’s “Choices” Show at the Guggenheim

As mentioned in a previous post, I attended the John Chamberlain show “Choices” at the Guggenheim.  (See the press release.)  Indiana-born Chamberlain was well regarded for his bringing the movement and energy of Abstract Expressionism into three-dimensions.  He brought color and texture into his works, violating some of the unwritten rules of Formalist sculpture which prefers monochromatic, sleek compositions.  Drawing from Pop art as well, he was well known for using recycled materials (in particular, car parts), giving his work an environmentalist bent. He passed away last year, you can read the New York Times story here.

Any artist’s work in the Guggenheim New York has to contend with that space’s architecture.  The sloping hall, spiraling upward at a noticeable angle, always curving, pulls the viewers’ eyes continually upward and along the interior atrium of the building.  Any work of art, no matter the material, has to contend with the building itself for attention.  Chamberlain’s pieces, I think, did so admirably.  The 100+ works on display ranged from small works that could comfortably sit on the corner of one’s desktop, to massive metal constructions over 12 feet tall in some cases.  The great thing about Chamberlain’s works is that even the large ones don’t dominate or oppress the space.  They have a fluid movement to them that draws the viewer in, but without overwhelming.

Overall, Chamberlain’s body of work could be described as displaying a sharp balance between being rough and elegant.  His steel compositions maintain a look of crumpled paper, they appear both fragile yet solid, compact, rhythmic and surprisingly light. To say he’s a great sculptor would be to simply repeat what many others have said before.  For our purposes here, then, I’ll examine a few of the pieces that I really enjoyed in the show.

This image* is of Hot Lady from Bristol, 1979. Approximately 82 inches tall, this piece rests gently against the wall.  The folds and bends of the metal are highlighted by the scarred paint.  The yellow “legs” of the piece visually provide a counterbalance to the upper white portions.  I particularly enjoyed this piece because of the way the color and the lighting on it play a visual game of balance with the viewer.  The white of the upper left portion visually blends with the wall to the point of seeming an almost extension of that flat surface.  That portion of the work seems lighter and less solid than the yellow portion.  The more cylindrical shapes present in the lower, yellow portion, as contrasted with the sharper angles of the white, upper portion tends to draw the eye upward into the lines of the work, which seems tenuously balanced against the wall.  The physical weight of the piece is belied by its asymmetry, providing a nice tension.  The work seems both solid yet delicate, teetering in a game of gravity.

I was immediately impressed by the above piece, Hano, from 1970.  I actually wasn’t aware of his resin-made pieces, so the few I saw in the museum caught me by surprise.  The photo, of course, really doesn’t do it justice, it’s about 37 inches at its longest point.  It has a shiny and iridescent glass-like look.  It looks incredibly fragile, and remarkably beautiful.  The way the light passes through the piece creating multicolored, overlapping shadows on the ground made for an intriguing and unexpected experience, and I found myself longing to be able to walk around the piece to see it from all sides, but its position up on a chest-high niche in the wall prevented that.  The translucent material of course plays into the light and fragile feel of Hano and while the crumpled, folded look of the piece is reminiscent of the metal sculptures in the show, the feel of the piece is much less angular, much softer and more fluid.  The juxtaposition of the resin and metal works together really expressed Chamberlain’s range.  The contrasts between smooth and rough, and light and heavy, played out in the exhibition hall as one walked up the Guggenheim ramp and saw his style and techniques evolve over the years of his career.

This piece, Women’s Voices, 2005, stands nearly 10 feet tall.  The lower portion of the piece is made from chromed steel while the upper portion is treated with white paint, flecked and cracked as in many of his other works.  At first glance the whole thing reminded me a bit of a potted plant, its stems reaching upward from a rounded pot. The piece is uplifting.  And I hate being that obvious, seeing how it’s such a strong vertical composition, but besides the physical quality of the piece, I found it to be emotionally uplifting.  As I walked around Women’s Voices, looking up into the twisting, spiraling tendrils, following the smooth, shining lines with my eyes, I couldn’t help but smile.  I  liked this piece, it made me happy.  That’s not a very academic way of looking at art, but there it is.  The upward ribbons of metal are arranged in random-looking bunch, with each end flailing in a different angle from the others.  Like a chorus of voices, united together in a single harmony, but each maintaining its unique character, the ribbons sway and cut into the space.  The chromed mid-section, above the base and from where the ribbons rise up, has a remarkably complex feeling to it, rhythmic and oddly regular, in spite of the variety of the shapes and angles used. Probably my favorite piece in the exhibition, Voices spoke to me in a light, music-filled voice, inviting my gaze to dance over its unpredictable shapes and lines.  (That’s perhaps not very academic either, but I think it sums up how I feel about it.)

As the title of the exhibition  suggests, there’s nothing random about Chamberlain’s works.  Every piece is the result of a series of choices.  Choices made by the artist which reflect in the shining, colored, crushed, twisted and bent metal constructions on display.  Each piece engages the viewer in a conversation through texture and presence.  The result, like any good conversation, takes one down unexpected tangents, and revisits familiar themes.  Chamberlain’s works are surprisingly subtle, complex and evocative.  Strolling up the Guggenheim’s ramp each piece pulls one up to the next in an uninterrupted narrative of form and volume.  The entire exhibition provides the viewer with a compelling and engaging journey through an extraordinary artist’s career.


*All images are from the Guggenheim museum website and can be seen HERE.  No copyright infringement is intended, images remain the property of their respective owners.  Use on this site is protected by Fair Use law.

Published by Dr. EMS

Art history professor and lover of all things contemporary arts. Teaching and living in Zhejiang province, China.

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