John Chamberlain: The Artist

10:38 | Published on February 24, 2012 | 160 Views

Senior Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Susan Davidson traces the artist’s biography from his Midwestern childhood to his entry into the New York art world after serving in World War II and attending art school on the G.I. Bill. Once in New York, Chamberlain found himself at the confluence of Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, and Minimalism. Artist Lawrence Weiner recalls his first encounter with Chamberlain, the peculiarities of the social environment for artists in New York in the 1960s and ’70s, and Chamberlain’s inclusive nature in both social contexts and in his artistic practice. Davidson and Weiner also discuss the working process that underlay Chamberlain’s sculptures, whatever the material, and the seriousness with which he considered his occupation as an artist.

For more information, visit John Chamberlain: Choices.

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Susan Davidson, Senior Curator, Collections and Exhibitions: [John] Chamberlain was born in 1927, in Rochester, Indiana. His family had founded the town, and had supported themselves as saloon keepers. Chamberlain’s parents divorced early, and he moved to Chicago where he was raised by his mother and grandmother.

So he spent two years in the Pacific Theater and Mediterranean Theater. When he came back to the United States, he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago on the GI Bill, which was very typical for men of his generation who had an interest in art.

He spent one year at Black Mountain College, and it was there that Chamberlain met the poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, who really instilled a confidence of words in him. They also gave him the opportunity to read in a way that he never really had previously.

At that time, Abstract Expressionism is really finishing up, Pop art is emerging, and Minimalist art also is starting to take hold. And John finds himself right in the middle of this energy, as he says, a kind of electricity that he’d never experienced in Chicago, where he basically had been raised.


Lawrence Weiner, Artist: Oh, how did I meet John Chamberlain. . . . I was in a bar, and John went after my girlfriend. He was successful [laugh]. John was usually successful [laugh]. But it became obvious it was not a personal thing, and the times were a little different. So that’s how I met John. And putting it in this context, this was a time when many of the great artists of the Abstract Expressionist time were still in the bars, and still talking to people, and they were very open.

Davidson: I think the friendships that Chamberlain developed at the Cedar Tavern really influenced him in many ways. I mean, I think he takes the color from de Kooning, for instance, and he takes the gesture from Franz Kline, and those are very much major proponents of how you view the work today.

I think, New York, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was a very genuine time, and it seemed as if smoking and drinking were very much a part of what informed one’s social agenda. And as we well know, the Cedar Tavern was a place where all these artists came together and hung out and drank and smoked. And he was picked up quite early by Martha Jackson, a very important gallerist in New York City. And she gave him his first one-man show. From there, he receives representation by Leo Castelli, and in 1971 receives his first retrospective, which was here at the Guggenheim.


Weiner: Max’s was the outgrowth of a bar owner whose major interest in life was this interaction of artists, musicians, and fashion people. And he tried to make a cafe, a saloon, where they could all meet.

The Chamberlain in the front of Max’s was super. And, you know, the Judds and the Flavin in the back. But it was all about bringing a place where artists could have a tab. And they would hang out there. And everybody did make it every three nights a week, more or less, you were in Max’s some night at different times.

It was not a very pleasant place, New York in the ‘70s, especially if you looked odd or you were odd, but Max’s was a haven. Once you were in the door you were okay. You were part of the conversation. You were part of the dialogue. You might be insulted, you might be treated badly, but you were in the dialogue. And that’s where my relationship with John was, it was a constant dialogue. Because you built your own scene, and you did learn that important thing which Chamberlain knew as well: exclusion leads to nothing. Inclusion could be a pain in the ass, but it’s better to be inclusive than exclusive. And that’s in his work as well, every thing that came along that would be an influence on him he would jump at.


Davidson: Chamberlain became rather well known for crushing his cigarette packs. And that little bar trick, so to speak, actually becomes very important for him a little bit later on, when he starts to use that crushing aspect as a template for the galvanized sculptures that he makes in the late ‘60s.

During this seven-year hiatus from metal—which is what Chamberlain has said he was doing between 1965 and ‘72—he also got involved with that childhood practice of blowing up a paper bag and popping it. Once the paper bag was popped, he then in the palms of his hand, just as he had crushed those cigarette packs back at the Cedar Tavern, he started to manipulate and form a wad, if you will, the paper bag into what he termed “articulate wadding.” And these really, very elegant, very miniature sculptures, I think really underscore his working process.

You see it in the ‘60s. You see it in the way that he worked in the ‘70s, and in the ‘80s, and even with the work that he was doing today: that ability to kind of manipulate the sculpture.

A lot of the sculpture just rests on one or two points. It has this kind of fragility, and yet, there’s a great stability to the work. Those kinds of dichotomies that exist—the hard, the soft, the elegant, the rough, the masculine, the feminine—these very much inform, really, how he’s made all of his work over his career.


Weiner: He can do it with a cigarette pack. He could do it with steel. And then he would try to do other things that were a little different. Then he made the beds, which were brilliant. And functioned brilliantly. It was a solution for dealing with a spatial problem.


Weiner: I think it was because most people were vaguely self-taught, and in such a way that your life became the university. And John was an artist, that’s the thing that you can’t forget.

Davidson: He talks about how art was a job for him and that he really had no choice in that. And he was very proud of the fact that he did his job well, and that he had this ability to collage together these very unruly kinds of materials that he chose to work with.

One of my favorite quotes—which I think that really sums up his interest in art and the fact that this was his job that he took really very seriously, and that he was quite dedicated to it—he often said that, if you looked at things the way that everybody else did you’d be painting shower curtains in New Jersey. And for me that was such a funny quote, but it really summed up kind of his uniqueness and his singularity, and the fact that he had a particular vision.