Nutcracker twists upward in a complex configuration of distorted car parts, bent and curved in a tensile vortex of robin’s egg blue, cream, black and brick red. An old fender contorted into a deep V shape fences in the core of the work: shiny black crags cleaving a central ivory blade. A dark red swath cascades gently down, echoing the sharp acute angles of the sculpture’s circumscribing exoskeleton. The juxtaposition of curves and hard edges, solid metal facets and negative space, bold color and worn surface coalesce in a single dynamic gestalt. These concavities and crevices reveal the very signature of Chamberlain’s artistic process, indicative of the creative ingenuity behind this innovative approach to mark making. Chamberlain’s manipulation of an industrial and non-traditional material into an active and kinetic force characterizes the very best of the artist’s output, including the present work. Although initially perceived as haphazard and even violent, Nutcracker possesses a clear harmony and sensuality in the organic forms of the metal. In interviews with Julie Sylvester, Chamberlain commented: “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.” (The artist, quoted in Julie Sylvester, John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture 1954-1985, New York, 1986, p. 15)
Chamberlain was born in 1927 in Rochester, Indiana. In 1951, he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; although Chamberlain would leave a year later, it was here that he first encountered a work by David Smith, an artist whose tendency toward abstract sculpture would open Chamberlain’s eyes to the possibilities of the medium. His enrollment at the avant-garde Black Mountain College, North Carolina in 1955 catalyzed his creative sculptural practice. Of this formative period in the artist’s career, Julie Sylvester writes: “Encouraged by [Charles] Olson’s emphasis on direct procedures, and fully sympathetic to his antipathy to the interference of the conceptual, Chamberlain began to make spontaneously calligraphic pen-and-ink drawings and abbreviated word-collages of nonsense – emphasizing the junction and disjunction of sounds more than Freudian word association. The poetics of structure were becoming sensate. Chamberlain’s drawn and written word-play is at least as significant as the [David] Smith-influenced sculptures he continued to construct at Black Mountain. The word collages presage the melodious non sequiturs that he often still uses in the titles of his sculptures to create verbal parallels to his images.” (Ibid., p. 28) Chamberlain moved to New York in 1957, the year before he created Nutcracker, which brilliantly exemplifies the poetic word-play in which he engaged at Black Mountain. Indeed, the lyrical title of the present work pops onomatopoetically, the “crack” of Nutcracker aurally echoing the fissures, ridges and creases inherent in the work.
In addition to his training at Black Mountain College, Chamberlain was heavily influenced by his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Nutcracker not only brings to the three-dimensional plane the gesture and action of his peers working with two dimensions, it also liberates sculpture from its traditional mold of carved stone or cast metal. Chamberlain’s initial use of color-coated steel was fortuitous, born out of his shortage of traditional material. Chamberlain noted: “I wasn’t interested in the car parts per se, I was interested in either the color or the shape or the amount. I didn’t want engine parts, I didn’t want wheels, upholstery, glass, oil, tires, rubber, lining, what somebody’d left in the car when they dumped it, dashboards, steering wheels, shafts, rear ends, muffler systems, transmissions, fly wheels, none of that. Just the sheet metal. It already had a coat of paint on it, and some of it was formed. You choose the material at a time when that’s the material you want to use, and then you develop your processes so that when you put things together it gives you a sense of satisfaction. It never occurred to me that sculptures shouldn’t be colored.” (Ibid., p. 15) Chamberlain manipulated different parts of cars and other machines in an additive process that resulted in a final thrust that is striking in its bold colors and jagged edges, elegant in its curvilinear form, and bears no resemblance to the original machine from which it came. Nutcracker is among Chamberlain’s initial pieces constructed from the metal as he found it and is characterized by its more muted color palette. For its velvety surface, swollen curves and ever-changing visual experience, Nutcracker’s stands as paradigm of Chamberlain’s early work and epitomizes the artist’s singular focus on form and composition.
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