A survey of John Chamberlain's crumpled bouquets of steel from 1962 through 1990 is at the Paula Cooper Gallery. They’re cool, chrome-plated, and bear a striking resemblance to the vehicular shape-shifting Transformers in mid-metamorphosis. It's not an inappropriate comparison. After all, Chamberlain is known for using old automobiles and their dismembered parts to create sculptures with painterly surfaces. Some parts are marbleized and maintain a dripping, liquid texture. These are attached to other more solidly colored sheets.
Chamberlain’s abstraction doesn’t have an overbearing seriousness. The bright, saturated de Kooningesque colors juxtaposed with the polished luster are playful and punchy. Take, for example, Fuccimanooli (1990). It stands like a gawky figure made of folded paper, skinny at the bottom and wider at the top. There’s lightness to its vertical stance that belies the perceived heaviness of the zigzagged pieces of steel soldered into a towering form. Painted metal ribbons of pale pink, aquamarine, and cadmium yellow are crunched together into a dense mass.
Other pieces lean against the wall or recline on pedestals like trapezoidal odalisques. Wiley’s Island #1 (1997), a large, sprawling installation that looks like an entire living-room covered in a muslin sheet and laid atop a wool carpet, provides a stark contrast to the metal sculptures. Far from being furniture or a crowd of Chamberlain’s sculptures blanketed by fabric, it is actually made of urethane foam. Viewers are invited to sit on its surface, which is softer than it looks.
Chamberlain’s sculptures seem underrated today, compared with the work of his contemporaries Mark di Suvero and Claes Oldenburg. Yet his steel sculptures have a freshness that I see in the art of younger artists who work in similar modes of assemblage and transforming metal.
Image: Socket, 1975, painted steel, 23 x 27-1/2 x 18 inches; Dhuha Ditty, 1983, painted and chromium-plated steel, 71-1/2 x 51 x 18-1/2 inches. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.