Peder Bonnier, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1981
Chamberlain’s sculptures are inherently abstract; certainly redolent of a multitude of different themes and motifs, but resistant of entirely succumbing to any identifiable form. In the artist’s own words, “I always liked the way that there was no subject matter… any time you go to look at these amazing things, they never seem to be the same” (John Chamberlain quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, John Chamberlain: Choices, 2012, p. 27). Herein, the present work is an apt example of Chamberlain’s synthesis of late twentieth-century art movements. It is easy to ascribe some Pop art sensibilities; the sense of smashed damage directly recalls Andy Warhol’s early 1960s Death and Disaster series, which focused on horrific traffic accidents. Meanwhile, one could certainly say that the crushed chrome fenders speak of a post-industrial society where even objects of value cease to have meaning: “Their very physical substance is a commentary about our times, our conspicuous waste, our confused values” (Emily Genauer quoted in: Ibid., p. 195). In the lower half, deep red and dripped with dashes of colour, we see the unabashed influence of the Abstract Expressionists. Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline were friends of Chamberlain, and the power of their forceful multi-coloured mark-making undoubtedly prefigured the chromatic gusto on show in this work. To this end, it is notable that the artist only began adding colour to his metal sculptures when he returned to the medium in the mid-1970s. Prior to this he had merely manipulated the colours already inherent in his found objects.
This work also exemplifies Chamberlain’s fusion of American Pop and Abstract Expressionism with the European Nouveau Réalisme movement. Artists like Jean Tinguely, César, and Arman were worthy peers in the practice of appropriating and accumulating objects in order to manipulate their forms and create compelling new compositions. In particular we might observe the way César is able to convey a comparable sense of crushed density in his ‘compression’ series. His works also employ rippled, crumpled, and cut metal forged from spare car parts. However, despite the conspicuous destruction of the elements that form their work, neither César nor Chamberlain imbues their output with a sense of violence or vehemence. There is no sense of a specific accident or crash in the obliterated automotive parts, nor can we identify any specific dent or contusion. The present work is thus an excellent demonstration of the way in which Chamberlain did not produce microcosms of road collisions. His works are not the product of sadistic fascination, but rather of a fruitful confidence in composition and an almost bravura approach to appropriating found objects.
The abstract arrangement of Swans-52 identifies it with the very best of John Chamberlain’s wall-mounted sculpture. Across its rippled folds and through its brilliant flash of chrome, this work perfectly synthesizes the maelstrom of artistic styles which the late Twentieth Century brought forth in both America and Europe.
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