The art historical importance of Chamberlain's crushed metal structures has long been recognized, and Shortstop stands as the definitive archetype of the found object being elevated to primacy in his work. From 1954 to 1957, Chamberlain had worked primarily in the more traditional welded steel or iron, but Shortstop marks the moment where he began to manipulate derelict automobile parts into his own forms with simplicity and grandeur. The artistic climate of 1950s New York was immersed in the dogma of Abstract Expressionism, its emphasis on the primacy of gesture and conviction of individual artistic ambition and statement. By adding the third dimension to the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism, Chamberlain liberated sculpture from the tradition of cast metal or sculpted stone. Similar to the New York School painters, Chamberlain never envisioned the end result at the beginning of a work. However, he alone among artists of the time brought this intuitive practice to sculpture. The Abstract Expressionist School’s interest in the physicality of paint and brushstroke was embraced by Chamberlain in his hands-on manipulation of metal forms into new shapes. Chamberlain combined different parts of automobiles or other machine scrap parts in an additive process where the endpoint bore no resemblance to the original object, and this occurs for the first time in Shortstop. Chamberlain embraced the urgency and violence of action that was so central to the art of Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and others, but by enlisting the automotive readymade he forged an unmistakable link to Duchampian precedent, and by introducing the raw face of a consumerist culture, albeit somewhat deformed, he anticipated the populist appropriation of Pop Art that became so omnipresent in the following decade. Thus in the many facets of its crumpled, fractured and twisted surfaces, Shortstop embodies a critical moment of art history, marking the juncture between disparate ideologies and, perhaps as much as any other single work, bridging the gap between Modernist and Post-Modernist attitudes in the middle of the last century.
Chamberlain's manipulation of volume forces the viewer to circumnavigate the sculpture when observing it, and his rigorous devotion to altering the very form of his materials ensures the viewer a complicated visual experience. A shadow of violence hangs heavy over the entire work, enshrouding its folded metallic carcass and serrated edges of torn metal with the memory of Chamberlain’s brutal action. Here we sense the visceral ferocity of an artistic event in much the same way as we may with a monumental black and white painting by Franz Kline. Yet at the same time, we may also detect the unavoidable suggestion of narrative violence, specifically the invocation of a car crash itself, which of course Andy Warhol would explore with such devastating effect several years later. Despite these powerful conveyances, Chamberlain also riffs on the presentation of a sanctified object of high art, turning industrial detritus into a beautiful sculpture composed of intersecting lines and dramatic forms that offers multiple suggestions of interpretation, from the physiognomic to the anthropomorphic to the archaeological. Although on initial viewing, one is tempted to read the activated surface in terms of violence, Chamberlain ultimately contradicts this facile interpretation. In interviews with Julie Sylvester during the early 1980s, Chamberlain commented on the early reactions to his sculptures, "I don't know why people think that my work is about violence. [Claes Oldenburg] got it and they didn't. He understood that there is a softness in the steel material, especially in the steel that covers a car." (Julie Sylvester, John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture, 1954-1985, New York, 1986, p. 15)
In the years following the execution of Shortstop, Chamberlain would elaborate his process and enhance the found properties of his objects by spraying multiple coats of automotive lacquer on the elements to give them a luscious, exaggerated visual effect. However, in his earliest sculptures such as Shortstop, one can revel in the raw and elemental nature of this momentous work, and appreciate Chamberlain's singular focus on the form and composition as primary over a set color palette. Diane Waldman noted, "Chamberlain was able to take advantage of a readymade situation which the automobile offered to circumvent the persistent problem posed by polychrome sculpture - that color appears to be an additive rather than an inherent feature of the work." (Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1971, p. 9) Although his process may appear haphazard, Chamberlain's sculptures possess a clear unity and Shortstop is a particularly cohesive and well-balanced masterwork of his formative period.
Chamberlain's crushed assemblages of automotive steel have secured him a place in art history and examples reside in nearly every major museum collection. In the world of sculpture, Chamberlain is celebrated for the introduction of non-traditional materials, for an unprecedented sculptural process of clustering and folding metal. His uncanny ability to humanize cold mass-produced machine parts is wrought with contradictions and complexities, but Shortstop provides the ultimate vantage point to access the invention of this extraordinarily influential artistic journey.
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