Understanding Unlikeness

John Chamberlain: Choices, ed. Susan Davidson (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2012), pp. 45–55

15 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2020

See all articles by Adrian Kohn

Adrian Kohn

Massachusetts College of Art and Design

Date Written: February 24, 2012


Here is just some of what we are given to understand John Chamberlain’s art as being like: car wrecks and dancers, artichokes and mummies and giant phalluses, drapery, a football player, ornaments for an immense Christmas tree and monstrous jungle-gyms, a sucked egg, and Titans beside themselves with rage. Next, a long list of the art-historical movements that his pieces have brought to mind: the baroque and rococo, neoclassicism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, both Abstract Expressionism and Pop, and also Minimalism and Process art. And, lastly, a very long list of the artists whose works Chamberlain’s are said to resemble in one way or another: Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Peter Paul Rubens, Auguste Rodin, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, David Smith, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Mark di Suvero, and Donald Judd. Chamberlain himself has taken part in this frenzy as well. He mentioned in various instances how his objects are like jigsaw puzzles, like a girl he used to know in Philadelphia, like lasagna, and like sex. And why not? Certainly some will judge this breathtaking list of likenesses as ample proof of artistic achievement, a body of work so wide open that evidently this or that piece corresponds with about anything you could want it to. But one might also pause to marvel at the forced associations across fifty years of writing on Chamberlain’s art and wonder why we cannot get over trying to figure out what his creations remind us of, what they evoke, what they are similar to. We risk missing all that is new in the work when we cast about for likenesses to everything we already know.

Keywords: John Chamberlain, Adrian Kohn, Donald Judd, Willem de Kooning, Ernest Fenollosa, simile, analogy, metaphor, personification, metaphor

Suggested Citation

Kohn, Adrian, Understanding Unlikeness (February 24, 2012). John Chamberlain: Choices, ed. Susan Davidson (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2012), pp. 45–55, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2088680

Adrian Kohn (Contact Author)

Massachusetts College of Art and Design ( email )

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Boston, MA 02115
United States

HOME PAGE: http://massart.edu/faculty-staff/list/6236

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