New York CityPaula Cooper
November 2 – December 14, 2019
So far and yet so near, the antithetical aesthetics of John Chamberlain and Donald Judd are provocatively at play in this compelling show of sculptures, wall pieces, and “paintings” from the 1960s and ’70s. The artists could be considered the alpha and omega of 20th century American sculpture.
Judd’s work is cerebral—composed of stacks, progressions, and boxlike forms in numerical sequences, lined up on the floor or hung from the wall—and demands that audiences mentally engage with the works, discovering new angles and volumes with every glance. Chamberlain is gestural, emotional, sucking the viewer in with the frantic, convoluted energy of a smashup.
These diametrically opposed notions of art meet in a series of seven geometrically abstract paintings included here. In shape, they suggest the hand and eye of Judd, but they are actually the work of Chamberlain. Composed of auto-related material, including lacquer and metal flake on masonite or formica, and depicting two sets of 12 painted squares, as perfect as Judd’s characteristically are. The paintings are faintly reminiscent of Mondrian’s squares—a dynamic and unlikely allusion.
Both Chamberlain and Judd experimented with materials and composition and used space and even shadow as materials. And while their works may appear diametrically opposed, both had roots in Minimalism, as tightly and loosely defined: Chamberlain stretched the definition to include jam-packed pieces that are uncontrived, self-reflective, inward-folding, and unfettered by external meaning and allusions while Judd’s work is starkly stripped down, totally non-referential, and wholly self-involved in form, structure and material. For both artists, the work proclaims “I am what I am.” In this way, it can be viewed as a form of self-portraiture—an unmistakable declaration of their personalities and predilections. A curious aspect of Chamberlain’s seeming randomness, however, is the fact that he maintained that the placement of elements in his sculptures were almost self-ordained—that is, he would take segments of bright-colored metal and find a natural fit for them. He rejected the idea of the found object, emphasizing that the pieces are instead “chosen”—more or less a matter of elective affinities.
The show, organized by Paula Cooper Gallery and Jim Jacobs, an art dealer and former assistant to Chamberlain, highlights the preoccupations of the two outrageously original artists—the exuberant, spontaneous Ab Ex-inspired Chamberlain, and the fastidious, theoretically-driven Judd. Both artists are very much of their time, and like America itself, they seem to be heading simultaneously in opposite directions. Each has a distinct vision yet fits into a clear place in art history. Chamberlain embodies the Baroque (Bernini), with its dramatic contortions, and Judd, Minimalism (Barnett Newman), in its strictest conception, his own.
Judd’s famous notion of the Specific Object—that is, neither sculpture nor painting, secure in its impossible-to-define spot—applies to the two artists. But it is their basic materials that unite them: industrial metals, concrete, Plexiglas, painted aluminum, and salvaged car parts. Judd even passed his unused galvanized-iron boxes on to Chamberlain, who would then crush them. In so doing, he’d shape the space within the containers, giving it volume, as in his unpainted Ultra Yahoo (1967), a slouched sad-looking object.
Both used industrial paint colors—the reds of cars and motorcycles—reds with layers of lacquer in Judd’s work, and the dirty rusted tones of Chamberlain’s crushed pieces, revealing the variety he could produce in color that was not readymade.
According to Dia Art Foundation curator Donna De Salvo, who worked with both artists and recently participated in a panel at the gallery with Jacobs and Ellie Meyer, research manager of the Judd catalogue raisonné, “Chamberlain maintained he was inspired more by de Kooning than by Pollock. De Kooning was ecumenical in his tastes,” as he told Thomas Hess in Art News (Summer 1958), “Art shouldn’t be fanatical.” Certainly that open embrace characterizes the sculptor’s process. Untitled (1961), a painted metal construction and collage on fiberboard, infused with layers of assemblage and Cubism, also hints of his worldly non-art influences. It is a powerful distillation of the forces driving his work, including his service in the Navy and time studying and practicing hairdressing. He had eclecticism in his DNA, never untangling the snarls.
Chamberlain’s emotion contrasts with Judd’s spiritual composure and the comfort he found in order: the dialectic of release and containment, two undeniable manifestations of beauty. Judd, who famously disliked his work being crammed in with that of other artists, would likely have been pleased with this installation in which each artist amplifies and illuminates the work of the other.