Most of the way down the chronologically ordered spiral of Choices, the John Chamberlain retrospective now on view at the Guggenheim, you might find yourself leaning against the white balustrade of the ramp in front of a sculpture like Nutcracker—an early, seemingly modest piece that pulls you out of your museum drift before you know what has stopped you.
Nutcracker is a mid-sized accumulation of faded polychromatic car parts that is characteristic of Chamberlain’s best work. Linear strips of doorframes act against some force pushing outward from the deep interior of the piece, binding the folded metal sheets that enclose this void into a taut, listing, compact form. An intuitive formal balance is achieved through the simultaneous effects of tension and compression made possible by the presence of a space within. The piece embodies the aesthetic dream of arrested motion.
As is so often the case, the most famous work, the first mature work, the kind of work that Nutcracker here stands in for, really is the best work. It is the work that carries the force of a moment in which some transformation in the artist’s own practice is inextricably bound with the transformation of a broader culture, and cause and effect become impossible to establish. Nutcracker is complete in itself as an aesthetic thought, and yet carries with it a whole range of narratives and associations drawn from the cultures it mingles with: the epic of the American automobile, say, or the latent apocalypse of the Cold War. The critical potential of abstraction. The reconstitution of mass culture as art. This work contains the world, without needing to explain or even acknowledge it.
Chamberlain’s work has challenged sculpture in several ways: through color, through material and process, through form and space. The work is at its best when it is at the edge of the medium (or where the medium once was), when the color approaches painting, when the material approaches refuse, when the form approaches architecture. This is the productive function of a disciplinary limit—of choosing a medium—retrogressive as the idea may sometimes seem today. Limits do not impede, they beg you to break them, and tease you ever closer.
Unlike Richard Serra, whose best works are linear surfaces that alter the sites that contain them, Chamberlain’s best works are site-less, drawing force from their interiors. Like Nutcracker, they are understood in the round, and the crumpled metal sheets are gathered around one another in such a way that they bulge and break and enclose a void, a deep black recess into which you can never quite see, an interior form that cannot be mapped or fully comprehended.
This is the province of architecture—the disjunction between interior and exterior, the obscured presence of something within that makes itself known on the outside. But Chamberlain’s works are decidedly not architecture. The sheets that enclose these interiors are monolithic. The pieces do not address the scale of human inhabitation, or the force of gravity as it acts on larger structures. There are no Gehry technologies here, ensuring the structurally sound or spatially accurate relationship of the parts to the whole. In fact, if you loiter on the ramps long enough, you might be fortunate enough to witness a distracted tourist knock a piece banging onto the unforgiving floor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s continuous room. And yet, by approaching the limit of sculpture, by enclosing space and thereby pushing up against something other than themselves—architecture—the best of these sculptures can be understood to contain architectural problems of informality, assemblage, surface, and fold, and to therefore prefigure projects that have carried through architectural form and discourse for almost a half-century.
An introductory assignment: draw a section through Nutcracker, and then explain why Nutcracker never required a section drawing.