The Cars That Ate the Guggenheim


by Eric J Baker

Quiz: Which one of these things is not like the other two?

A. Early 20th Century painter Kandinsky

B. Early 14th Century painter Masaccio

C. A bunch of twisted, rusty pieces of automobile wreckage 

An image more relevant to today’s review than you can possibly imagine.

The answer is B, because you won’t find Masaccio on special exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York this month, and you will the other two.

Taking over almost the entire museum through May 13th is a career retrospective on American sculptor John Chamberlain (1927-2011), whose Abstract Expressionist-cum-Pop Art creations are built mostly from wrecked cars, although he was known to use airplane parts and architectural metals of both functional and decorative origin. In my walk-arounds of the objects, I also spotted the drawer of a file cabinet in one piece, and another appeared to be constructed of mangled holiday tins and serving trays. Those crazy Americans and their war on Christmas! Where will it end?

The early works, situated at the beginning of the Guggenheim’s long, circling ramp, are mostly rusty segments of beams and rods twisted into shapes that evoke some other object (depending on the viewer’s imagination), but those gave way to more colorful designs made from bent, welded-together strips of car hoods and fenders. These shapes were the most organic on display, as the tears and dents seem to have been put there by bad driving that took place long before Chamberlain got hold of the materials.

On that note: The next time you get drunk at a bar and crash your Buick into the side of a Burger King on the way home, don’t think about your insurance going up; think about your vital contribution to the arts.

So anyway, as evidenced by the next series of objects displayed, Chamberlain began to convey motion in a way that evokes the Futurist works of Boccioni from a half-century earlier. Though the bends and creases still look accidental, these sculptures are assembled so as to be unfolding or rising from another form. I’ve discussed such in a previous post, but damn if this type of art doesn’t remind me of Transformers movies.

Artists need to stop ripping off Michael Bay.

No, I’m not a Transformers nerd. I never saw the cartoon and only went back and watched the first film after seeing the second (which, I believe, makes me a masochist, not a nerd). But it’s hard to see car metal in motion and not think of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee fighting Decepticons. Get out of my head, Michael Bay! Haven’t you hurt enough people?

Meanwhile, back at the Guggenheim, where everyone but me and the security guards was speaking German (what is it with Germans and postmodern art?), Chamberlain’s creations become increasingly fanciful as one nears the top of the rotunda. Here his works are paint-spattered and airbrushed and purposefully bent and warped to evoke strange ocean creatures and surging geysers of shiny metal. Your long climb will be richly rewarded when you get there, but don’t miss some of the oddities along the way, including sculptures in seat foam and Plexiglas.

Easier on the eyes: a Plexiglas Chamberlain piece.

The Kandinsky show, Kandinsky at the Bauhaus, is tucked off to the side in one of the special exhibit rooms and features works the Russian-born painter produced while teaching at the famous German art school in the 1920s and early 1930s. His geometry-driven aesthetics force the eye to wander over the entire canvas in search of a focal point, and I’d love to see some sort of steam-punk sci-fi flick with an art design based on Kandinsky’s look.

At the same time, the idea of trying to identify a “universal” language of art is disturbing, as within that thought can be found the same seeds that begat communism and fascism. Thank you Kandinsky and friends, but I’ll decide what I find aesthetically pleasing.

Yes, I am ashamed of my own pretentiousness right now. Allow me a moment to compose myself.


The following item in the exhibit is a fun one, as it lacks the overlapping forms and lines that characterize many of Kandinsky’s other paintings of the period. To me, it almost appears as a doctor’s tray with a neat arrangement of surgical implements. These are Kandinsky’s tools… the shapes and forms he uses to create his other pieces, here laid out for easy access:

Kandinsky’s “Decisive Pink” 1932

The Kandinsky show runs through April 25, but I believe most of the paintings belong to the Guggenheim, so they should be back on the walls as soon as John Chamberlain: The Transformers Years is shipped out in a couple of months.

The rest of this story was supposed to be a restaurant review, as I planned to hit Brother Jimmy’s BBQ on Second Avenue and 78th after the Guggenheim (because nothing goes together like pretentious 20th century art and pulled-pork sandwiches with fried pickles). Jimmy’s regularly shows up at number three on lists of ten-best barbecue joints in New York, but it was number one on my list of barbecue joints that are walking distance from the museum.

Damn it, though, looking at art makes me hungry! So, despite my vow to not buy overpriced dog shit at a museum café ever again, I hit up Café 3, conveniently located behind the Kandinsky exhibit. There, I paid 12 bucks for a premade tomato and mozzarella with basil sandwich and an Orangina. I didn’t hate it, so let’s call that a victory.

In place of my would-be Brother Jimmy’s review, I’ll talk about Joey G’s Grill & Bar, where we did dinner on the way home. It’s in central NJ, where you will probably never go, so feel free to enjoy This Week’s Brunette instead of reading the rest (though you’ll miss an amusing bit or two).

Danica Patrick isn't my favorite, but what other brunette makes you think of wrecked cars?

I ordered the pear salad, which included pear slices, dried cranberries, walnuts, and grilled chicken over greens with a raspberry vinaigrette, which was a surprisingly complimentary mix of flavors (though the chicken was on the dry side). The accompanying cornbread had jalapeño peppers baked in, which leads me to ask: What, you ran out of bacon?

My traveling companions each had the rack of ribs and claimed they were too oily, although one of those companions is my wife, who thinks football leather is undercooked. I wouldn’t know, because I don’t eat animals with hooves. Since I can’t decide if I want to be a Jew or a Hindu, I’m leaving my options open.

Comments: 10

  • Bryan Edmondson March 26, 201211:37 am

    I love your post titles. They are clever. I love this post focusing on Art. You are becoming a poly-media critic, from Godzilla to Guggenheim and I like the variety of posts. Good Job!

    I saw a John Chamberlain car sculpture at the World renown Menil Collection in Houston. Next to the Menil Collection is the Rothko Chapel. The Menil Collection is the world famous private collection of the stinking rich Danon Yogurt Baroness. I mentioned this a while back, if you ever make it to Houston, you two can stay at my house and we will go.
    There are dozens of original works by Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, Dali, Pollack, Warhol, and many others. A dozen or so are the works shown in the Standard Janson Art History Text..
    These 20-40 million dollar paintings simply hanging bare without any glass, just the original canvases that security guards make sure no one touches. If you touch I think that they cut your hands off.

    Good to read your post. Pretty soon you can hob nob with the elite at private parties.


    • Pure Film Creative March 26, 201211:47 am

      Dear Bryan:

      I don’t know if the Dannon Yogurt detail is both misspelled as well as a joke. The de Menil’s fortune comes from oil exploration. Baron de Menil himself was a banker before marrying Dominique Schlumberger and taking over her family’s business in Texas. They are delightful people, if absolutely bonkers.

      • Bryan Edmondson March 27, 20124:19 pm

        James, thank you for correcting my hideous mistake; I am mortified to make such blunder in a comment at the most art and media savvy blog that I frequent.
        My publicly posted legend of the Menil Yogurt Baroness is an honest to goodness delusion beyond my control. I have been recounting this story, with much conviction and authority, to many people for the last 15 years. The buck stops here.
        I cannot defend this error, but I can say a person whom I very much trusted long ago told me this story, which never seemed to make any financial sense (even at the time.) I always wondered how Ms. Menil sold so many yogurts and why her name was not “Dannon” instead of Menil. Your version makes a lot more sense.
        I would like apologize for maligning the name of the Dannon Yogurt corporation. I also apologize profusely to the Menil family.
        I do hope that the real Dannon yogurt Baroness and I am going to just assume that one exists, does not sue me penniless. I also hope that the benevolent Menil family does not have sued, publically tarred, feathered, and then finally imprisoned. I would like to say to both of their respective legal departments that I have purchased Dannon yogurt loyally, and that I have frequented the Menil Art Collection regularly, doing both for most of my adult life
        I also lastly, and quite humbly, I beg that PFC does not black list me. If I do go down, all that I ask is that you let me take Baker with me.
        Thank you.

    • ericjbaker March 26, 201212:49 pm

      I like the sound of stinking rich yogurt baronesses better, mainly because it is such a weird string of words.

      If I ever make it to Houston, I will definitely go to see those works with you. Although, with your typical selfishness, I can’t really understand why you won’t bring them to me.

      If you want to get your greasy fingers on a priceless painting and ruin it, head to the National Gallery in D.C. I saw a guy with a wet jacket lean against a Seurat painting and no one said anything.

      • Pure Film Creative March 26, 20121:49 pm

        I’ve been chuckling about the “war on Christmas” all morning, by the way. Lots of Christians in Santa suits being chased around the Coliseum by lions. Yes.

        • ericjbaker March 26, 20121:59 pm

          What you said really happened. I read it in a Glenn Beck historical novel.

  • James Tuttle March 28, 20125:37 pm

    Great review of the exhibit, Eric! Thanks for putting it together, brunettes and all. I hope to hear more about this barbecue place before our next trip out there, too.

    • ericjbaker March 28, 20128:23 pm

      My next trip in will either be Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem which, despite the cheesy name, is said to be excellent, or the aforementioned Brother Jimmy’s. BJ’s is a few blocks from the Frick Collection, so it’s likely to be there.

      Thanks for reading!

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