John Chamberlain’s twisted metal sculptures line the Guggenheim’s spiraling rotunda like spikes on a cactus. Made from automotive scrap, the prefab shapes are folded, bent, twisted, and riveted into hulking forms. The sculptures look heavy, dense and brutish, beholden to gravity. Recognizable shapes appear in the tangled masses, betraying their origins as a fender, bumper, or door. There’s a clear affinity with Abstract Expressionism’s grand gestures and monolithic stubbornness but there’s also a lighter, more lyrical side to his work.

Chamberlain’s smaller pieces show a greater involvement with form and tend to be more varied in their sculptural movements. There’s greater definition in the shapes probably due to the technical limitations of working in this medium at large scale. The work’s titles also show a poetic nature and tend to be more about wordplay than descriptions of form: White Thumb Four, Rooster Starfoot, Sphinxgrin Two, Belvo-Violet. Color also makes a surprising appearance, while many of the pieces retain their original automotive colors there are sprays and drips of pigment that have been clearly added by the artist. Some works prominently feature the garish metallic flake colors favored by custom car finishers in the 70s.

American themes run throughout Chamberlain’s work. The choice of materials reflects the peak of industrialization and an association with the myth of the highway and Western expansionism. Although his sculptures are industrial in nature they mostly retain a human scale. The least successful works in the exhibition are based on small pieces of aluminum foil twisted into tubes and then enlarged to a point beyond recognition. The automotive pieces are surprisingly intimate – you can walk around them and easily encompass their shapes. Perhaps the most American theme of his work is reinvention. He took scrap and made art.

John Chamberlain “Choices” closes May 13.

Rooster Starfoot, 1976
Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum