Metalic Folds, Smashed Up Cars, & The Light Touch of Sculptural Stuff (John Chamberlain at the Guggenheim)

(John Chamberlain, Hillbilly Galoot [1960])

Went to the Guggenheim to see the big John Chamberlain exhibit. Chamberlain (1927-2011) is famous for taking scraps of metal from old cars and bending them and folding them into sculptural objects. I didn’t think I was going to like the exhibit as much as I did. Art critics Karen Rosenberg writing in the Times called them “gorgeous and terrifying,” like “mangled wrecks on a speedway.” That’s not what I saw. ( I’m usually pretty cynical about cynicism.

I think what I saw was the afterlife of an object. You expect something hard and jagged, and that’s not what you get. What struck me the most is how soft sheets and ribbons of folded metal look, and how much softer still they become as the image recedes into memory. There’s something here that reminds me of the folds of clothing and curtains in baroque art and sculpture.

Keywords on the wall texts are “bend,” twist,” crease,” and “crevice.”

What I liked most of all is how the sculptures mounted on the wall seem to float. This of course is the obvious, intended effect. Less obvious perhaps are the sculptures that stand on the floor or on the low, flat pedestals. They stand there with such delicacy, as if on a dancer’s foot set on a single point. They appear to stand or lift or fall with a very, very light step for such big, heavy creatures. For their part, the smaller pieces are cute, and precious, as if invested by some kinetic intelligence and machinic sense of animal humor.

The spiral interior of the Guggenheim then creates one more effect on the sculptures, cutting them up into visual ribbons when you look across at the image up and down over at the opposite side of the atrium void. This is what you can do with hard, metalic materials, what you can do to soften them and to animate them.

In his obituary for the NYT, Randy Kennedy quoted Chamberlain, “I think of my art materials not as junk but as garbage. Manure, actually; it goes from being the waste material of one being to the life-source of another” (

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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