The work of John Chamberlain recently enjoyed something of a moment in New York. With simultaneous exhibitions on view at Pace and Gagosian, not to mention a show at Paula Cooper in April, his art was for all intents and purposes on retrospective view, allowing for a clear entryway into his aesthetic development. What emerged undoubtedly is that Chamberlain is one of the major sculptors of the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s not clear that this was evident before. Despite being the subject of over 140 solo shows, it seems that only now has Chamberlain’s strength come into full view. Regardless, considerable problems also came to the surface. By and large, these can be boiled down to Chamberlain’s problematic employment of many small elements in the construction of a whole. Another way to put it is that he fails when he attempts to solve too many problems at once. This was most evident at Pace. The major lesson to emerge—that less can be more—is something that Chamberlain’s more recent work, on view at Gagosian, seems to have digested. There, Chamberlain’s eccentricities found a more subtle means of expression and a more clear foundation against which to syncopate. Within these limits, his sculpture flourishes.
At the Pace Gallery, which sampled Chamberlain’s art over the last four decades, two separate problems haunted much of his work: an overabundance of color and too many spatial loose ends. Works such as Phonetic Shortcut are simply marred by too many disparate color juxtapositions. The problem is compounded by the fact that the colors sit on the surface of the work, seemingly detached from the larger form. They clash with themselves to the disregard of the larger construction of the work. The piece therefore pulls in two separate directions, with shape and color failing to form a simultaneous conviction. In simpler terms, the sculpture’s logic is confused. Something similar can be said for a piece like Smndtyrqurd. But it suffers even more because of its inability to integrate the space which weaves through it. In other words, it is dominated by the space infiltrating its center. Lacking any discernable assertion, the work seems to be all too dictated by space. It takes on too much of it and ends up conceding more than it should to the gallery in which it sits. It too fails to demand anything in particular.
Yet if they do nothing else, these works signal Chamberlain’s ambitions. Sometime over the course of the last two years, he seems to have realized that if he wants to achieve more, he needs to ostensibly attempt less. But attempting less simply means refining his aesthetic vocabulary and paring down his means. At Gagosian, this effort largely succeeds.
An especially strong work is AWESOMEMEATLOAF. The top portion of the piece clearly comes out of Chamberlain’s earlier interest in using a plurality of thin, long, warped sheets of metal, such as in Phonetic Shortcut. Yet in this employment of that same method, the metal is not confused by sharp color contrasts applied to its surface. Instead, the cool, dark tones of white, blue, and black seem to be completely fused with the sculptural form itself. The shape and color, because they emerge as a whole which cannot be further reduced, allow the top section of the work to fuse with that below it. The piece becomes entirely whole. Further, because much of the sculpture dominates the space in which it sits instead of allowing it to weave in and through its center, the work asserts much more clearly its strength. Both of the major problems of his earlier sculpture are solved with one principle: a delimitation of means. TAMBOURINEFRAPPE does much of the same kind of work. Yet the most surprising piece in the exhibit, C’ESTZESTY, is a towering work of some eighteen feet which seems to move even more fully beyond Chamberlain’s earlier approaches to space and color. Its scope of scale may signal yet another direction for Chamberlain’s future work.
That Chamberlain’s art can be uneven is not a strike against it. This is true of all artists. Despite his flaws, his work says something important about this history of sculpture: that it can continue to develop as a model for thought. If sculpture of the past one hundred years, as William C. Agee once mentioned to a class I was part of, has on the whole given us less to be confident in than has painting, then Chamberlain’s art challenges this situation. He is among a small number of late modern sculptors who have plowed through and continued to explore sculpture’s possibilities with sometimes remarkable results. For this he deserves the attention he has recently been given.
(Cover image: Installation view, Chamberlain At Pace. © 2011 John Chamberlain / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by: G.R. Christmas / Courtesy The Pace Gallery.)