Divine Ricochet: John Chamberlain at the Guggenheim

All photos by Andrew Russeth

“I believe that common materials are the best materials,” the artist John Chamberlain, who died late last year at the age of 84, was known to quip. Sure enough, his retrospective at the Guggenheim, “Choices,” is filled with the stuff: his famous automobile parts are present, but so too are foam and parachute fabric, galvanized steel and aluminum foil.

The generation of Minimalists that Chamberlain worked alongside used those materials too, of course, but he usually managed to push them toward comparatively exuberant ends, making pieces that are twisted and manic instead of rigid and cold, like those of LeWitt and Judd.

When he came close to making a Minimalist work–white, rectangular pieces that he produced beginning in the 1970s–he made them out of foam and covered them with fabric, letting people relax on top of them. At the Guggenheim, you can pop off your shoes at the top of the rotunda and have at it.

Guggenheim senior curator Susan Davidson’s survey is a carefully edited overview of the artist’s career, beginning with 1950s and early 1960s sculptures–welded steel pieces indebted to David Smith–and collage wall pieces of metal, paper and paint, Kurt Schwitters with a sharper edge, a dash of neon.

Seeing so many pieces, one after another, in relative isolation in the cells of the museum’s ramp, Chamberlain’s skill as a colorist comes forward. In Whirling Peas (1991), for instance, a series of tall thin steel slabs standing up like pieces of grass, he puts you in mind of a midcareer de Kooning, with a few hints of Richter abstractions in his bright violets, scuffed whites and raw, polished steel.

Though his later work has a sameness about it that can become grating, there are plenty of exciting moments to outweigh that letdown, like his 1970 plastic pieces and the bizarre, large-scale aluminum foil sculptures. And then, of course, there are the artist’s titles, sometimes composed by writing words on index cards and shuffling them: Toasted Hitlers (From E.J.), Miss Lucy Pink, Divine Ricochet.

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