A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant

A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant

Summary

John Chamberlain created monumental sculptures in ever-larger studios throughout his lifetime—culminating in a final workspace on Shelter Island

THE BOX from abroad was small and nondescript. Inside, bubble-wrapped packets of aluminum foil were twisted into arcs and circles, some sprouting multipronged feet. A kid’s toys? A drug dealer’s joke? “The customs agents opened the box and were unwrapping the foils—like, ‘Hey, what’s in here?’ " says Prudence Fairweather, the recipient of the 2012 shipment. Inside were original models for large-scale sculpture by her late husband, John Chamberlain, who’d shaped each one by hand. They were bound for a retrospective of his work at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. “We lost quite a few," she says.

It wasn’t the first time that Chamberlain’s artwork had been mistaken for jetsam. One of his free-form sofas made of rope and urethane foam had met a similar fate at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “They were looking for the art and untied the rope around the foam—they were looking for the art and destroying the art," Fairweather recalls. (An expensive mixup: Chamberlain’s foam sofas have sold for up to $225,000.) “Now we put stamps all over the crates: ‘This Is the Art.’ "

Chamberlain was a restless and prolific creator, and his catalogue raisonné numbers more than 3,000 works in a range of media often bordering on the Duchampian, from bristling towers of automotive parts down to the cigarette packs he would crush in front of an audience at New York’s Cedar Tavern in the late ’50s.

Since Chamberlain’s death in 2011, at 84, Fairweather and her daughter Alexandra have been working to safeguard the legacy of the pioneering artist, whose career bridged abstract expressionism, pop, minimalism and neo-dada without mapping neatly onto any of them. Like his friends Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Donald Judd, Chamberlain made art that resisted categorization. Still, his influence has continued to gain ground.

“His impact is very present, in ways that I don’t know are being fully acknowledged," says curator and art historian Susan Davidson, who oversaw the 2012 Guggenheim show. Davidson would like to see Chamberlain presented alongside younger artists in a way that communicates his contributions to new audiences. “Just his physicality," she says, “and then the elegance of the work—I don’t think there’s anybody like him."

In December, the Aspen Art Museum will mount a major Chamberlain exhibition curated by the Swiss-born artist Urs Fischer. All three floors will be programmed with work that encompasses the artist’s photographs, wall-mounted sculpture and freestanding experiments with compressed metal—many on loan from the Dia Art Foundation—as well as foam pieces, foils and his final, monumental efforts in painted and plated steel.

Fischer says that tracing Chamberlain’s evolution has been a revelation. The early photographs, literally shot from the hip with a Widelux camera, are “a gust of energy," he says, and the final metal sculptures in saturated hues are “like an everything bagel. The variety of his journey starts to materialize in this opulent, layered, powerful thing. You couldn’t come out of the gate and make that. There is a lifetime in these last couple years of work."

Although Chamberlain’s fame has rested on his so-called “car crash sculptures"—dynamic assemblages of auto-body parts—he hated the term, which he believed led to facile interpretation. He used scrap metal because it was cheap, available and came in pre-distressed colors. His additive process was spontaneous and intuitive. “It’s all in the fit," he was fond of saying. Violence was never the point.

“There’s a sexy quality to Chamberlain’s works—very intimate, a bodily quality," says curator Donna De Salvo, who came to know the artist in her roles at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at Dia. “It’s the artist’s hand in the world," she says of his output. “You bend paper, you bend cigarette packs, you bend metal—you bend the world."

Before finalizing selections for Aspen, Fischer traveled to Chamberlain’s former home on Shelter Island, New York, to see the pieces in person. Even in a studio with the dimensions of a high-school gym, they command the space. “Look at Roman sculpture of a lion taking down some kind of animal," Fischer says. “There’s a lot of that same physicality in [Chamberlain], in that appetite. I ask myself—with these appetites, what does he crush? Is it others, or is it himself?"

Chamberlain’s Midwestern childhood was short and unsettled. Born in 1927 in Rochester, Indiana, where his father was a saloonkeeper, at 4 he moved with his mother to Chicago after his parents’ divorce. Airplanes, engineering and classical music were among his early interests; school was not. He dropped out in ninth grade and made a road trip to California, enlisting in the Navy following an arrest for skipping out on a restaurant check. He was 16.

Back in Chicago after a three-year stint on an aircraft carrier, Chamberlain considered a life in jazz, then picked up more bankable skills at Syd Simons cosmetics studio. Until he could support himself as an artist, he worked as a hairdresser. Night classes with an illustrator led him to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then to Black Mountain College. There he studied poetry with Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, whose process of collecting words that were as compatible in look and sound as much as sense fired his imagination.

Chamberlain arrived in New York in 1956 and soon settled in at Cedar Tavern. At 6 feet 2 inches, with a handlebar mustache and forearms paved with tattoos, he became the embodiment of the macho male artist, getting into bar brawls and drinking hard to keep pace with two of his idols, the abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

During a summer stay at painter Larry Rivers’s house in Southampton, Chamberlain hit on the idea of using car parts to make sculpture with the sense of volume he’d admired in the veteran artists’ work. He tore the fenders off Rivers’s junked Ford, bulldozed them with his car, then welded the flattened metal to steel rods until it stood with a slight tilt. He named the 1958 piece Shortstop.

The artist’s reception in New York was slow to build, but his first solo show at Leo Castelli gallery, in 1962, sold out, with three of five pieces snapped up by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Donald Judd. For Judd, who had yet to turn to sculpture himself, it was the start of a lifelong commitment to Chamberlain’s work, culminating in a permanent installation he made for the artist in a former warehouse in Marfa, Texas, now part of the Chinati Foundation. Over the next decade, Chamberlain spent considerable time in the Southwest and in Los Angeles. Experimenting with new techniques—airbrushing and various methods of vacuum-coating plexiglass among them—he also began wrestling with urethane foam after coming across a pile of discarded packing supplies in a parking lot.

Returning East in 1980, Chamberlain had a run-in with the authorities in Essex, Connecticut, over what they considered the degenerate look of his outdoor sculpture. Instead of taking a stand, he decamped to Sarasota, Florida, and set up inside an 18,000-square-foot former lumber warehouse. Ever-larger metal pieces resulted, often patterned in glowing skeins of spray paint.

Eventually, says Donna De Salvo, a consensus began building that “John was languishing in Sarasota. Everyone was saying to him, ‘John, if you don’t get out of there by a certain age, it will all be over.’ " In 1991, Chamberlain moved to the East End of Long Island.

THIS ONE is early—late ’60s, I think," Prudence says of a gleaming metal sculpture some 5 feet high. “It’s a Ford."

“A Chevrolet," Alexandra corrects her.

The two women are standing inside a barn complex at the crest of a hillside on Shelter Island that trails down toward Gardiners Bay. A onetime horse farm on 36 overgrown acres, it has a sunlit exhibition space in a former riding ring, where large-scale pieces sprawl across poured-concrete floors; a network of dimly lit stalls are stuffed with ephemera, from flaking chrome fenders to furniture and other odds and ends. Walking its length, the women point out finished work bound for the Aspen show and a few material experiments.

Mother and daughter, 72 and 33, are more like siblings when they’re on the subject of “Chamberlain," as they call him. For the past 12 years, they’ve worked side by side running the artist’s estate—organizing his papers, creating a digital archive and navigating relationships in and outside the art world. Alexandra is based here and in Sag Harbor, while Prudence lives in Manhattan and the Shelter Island house that she and Chamberlain once shared.

The couple bought property here in the mid-’90s, a few years after they’d met. Prudence had been managing the studio of artist Dan Flavin, a friend of Judd’s and Chamberlain’s who was living in nearby Wainscott; she knew Shelter Island well, having grown up here. In the following years, she became Chamberlain’s wife and de facto business manager.

The couple renovated two houses on opposite sides of a street—one for living, one for working. The reality wasn’t so clear-cut. When he was on a roll in the studio, Chamberlain would keep his assistants going all night, fueled by big pots of pasta or chili and crashing in bedrooms upstairs until it was time to go back to work. “John would sit at what he considered his worktable—it was the kitchen table," Susan Davidson remembers. “It was more like the organized mess of a madman." Piled high with books and papers, a battered kitchen timer and a pair of pliers next to a vegetable peeler and a wad of tinfoil, that table remains just as he left it in the fall of 2011.

Calling any part of Chamberlain’s life conventional would be a stretch, but his time on Shelter Island approached a kind of stability. Despite three former marriages and three sons, he faltered at parenting early on. As he aged, domesticity became increasingly important.

“He had this concept that we should go out to lunch after school," Alexandra remembers. “He would take me to The Chequit hotel and teach me something new at each lunch—how to tell military time, how to tie knots." Chamberlain took Phoebe, Prudence’s other daughter, along to his saxophone lessons, and he bought her a clarinet. He would give both girls updos, and more fashion advice than they were looking for. “He had style," Alexandra says, noting his fondness for Borsalino hats and wildly patterned shirts. “It was all-encompassing, I think. How to decorate a home. How to dress. It was just who he was."

Alexandra’s grade-school proficiency with computers made her an asset around the studio. “I was answering emails from dealers, from art advisers, curators—really just thrown in there," she remembers. In her teens, she graduated to stretching canvases and helping with shipping and logistics. She got used to the convulsive snarl of the crusher and the fut-fut-fut of the blowtorch. “I was very tight with the blowtorch," she says.

When the girls began taking riding lessons at an indoor ring, Chamberlain fell hard for the soaring space. (“I’m working in a closet," he would complain to Alexandra as he dropped her off.) He was determined to make it his next studio, but Ellen Lear, daughter of TV producer Norman Lear, who had spent years negotiating with the town to build the barn complex with a partner, wasn’t selling. When it went on the market in 2013, Alexandra recalls, “We knew Chamberlain was making that happen—saying, ‘My artwork needs to be here.’ "

During his lifetime, he never wanted to discuss the fate of his work after his death. The horse farm suddenly seemed like a fitting place to install large-scale sculpture and, at some point in the future, present a fuller picture of Chamberlain’s oeuvre to the public. Prudence bought the property and has been hosting visiting scholars and other art-world guests to gauge how the space could be used for exhibitions—and to test the waters, she says, mindful of the fact that some on the island might not embrace the idea.

The laissez-faire village she knew as a child has just about vanished, but the fact that Chamberlain isn’t around to make his own case might be for the best, she says. Diplomacy was never his thing. “I was always nervous when we were invited to a dinner at the yacht club that he would tell the hostess that he didn’t like her dress or something."

Still, his perspective on the world guides their decision-making. “Chamberlain was always thinking about what art is, improvising and pushing the boundaries of what is possible," she says. “We are just hoping that people can sit in the space and, as they do, maybe rethink what is possible."

Like many artists of his generation, Chamberlain was loath to discuss the meaning of his work. When the Museum of Modern Art acquired his crushed-metal wall sculpture Essex in 1960—his first piece to enter a public collection—Chamberlain responded to a two-question museum form as follows:

Subject? “It is itself."

Significance? “For a better understanding look at it."

A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
View Full Image
A First Look Inside the Studio of an Art-World Giant
Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
more

MINT SPECIALS