An Interview with John Chamberlain in 1972

by Phyllis Tuchman

  • Mar 18, 2020
  • © Artforum, February 1972, ‘An Interview with John Chamberlain,’ by John Chamberlain and Phyllis Tuchman.

In 1972, John Chamberlain had already developed his unique approach to the discovery and expressive reworking of materials—whether it was a couch, automobile metal, plexiglass or film—he was shaping the trajectory of abstract sculpture in undefinable ways. Below is an interview with the artist from that year, which illuminates Chamberlain’s artistic sensibility and freewheeling attitude. On his connection to form he responds with a grounded intuition , ‘If I choose a material, it’s because I like it. I really dig it.’

PT: In working with automobile bodies, did you intend any metaphorical reference? JC: No, they’re self-portraits. The portraiture had more to do with the balances and rhythms and spaces and areas and attitudes than it had to do with what one looked like. If you look at the sculptures, you can see that most all the sculptures I do, of one kind or another, have certain kinds of balance or rhythm that are characteristic of myself. That’s the way I feel about it; other people feel differently and read different things. I’ve heard those sculptures referred to as furniture of the highway—all sorts of things have been said about them. They put you in categories. They say de Kooning had been painting pictures of junkyards a long time before that. People compartmentalize my work and I don’t have anything to do with that. That’s their idea; whatever their ideas, I can’t concern myself. You know, it was just free material. I think that it was such an obvious material to use. Someone finally had to use it and use it in such a way that it showed something of their nature. Others think it’s about the material. I feel that the force of the anger that perhaps was involved at that time in my life had something to do with it. PT: Did you begin to use color with sculpture about a decade ago because that seemed to be a necessary issue? JC: I never thought of sculpture without color. Do you see anything around that has no color? Do you live in a world with no color? It never occurred to me that having color on sculpture was such a big number. I thought it was very obvious. All sculpture had color, even if it was rust color or just dull green or something. Whatever material was chosen was chosen because you were drawn to it. When I found all this garbage sitting around, it was amazing to behold. I remember I lived at Larry Rivers’ house in Southampton and he had a few parts from an old ’29 Ford. I tried to deal with the fenders and it turned out that I was dealing with one fender and then the other fender. It took me a while before I got both fenders together (they went together at a certain point). Previously I had been working with iron rod, pretty much like David Smith handled materials in the ’50s. I was trying to get away from it; I really didn’t like it anymore. I’d spent six months sort of wandering around and I came across this idea at Larry Rivers’. I remember that my second boy was about ready to be born and we were going back and forth to the city and all that. I’d spend a couple of hours wherever I could doing this number and I’d be thinking about it all the time. What it turned out to be was two fenders that I finally got together. I put rod around it—it was almost like wrapping it up with rod. That particular piece was called Shortstop. It was amazing. All of a sudden, I found junkyards. There was all this metal and color and things. That’s how I got into that. I could never weld. Everything broke or something would come together with only one place to weld. Things like that. Welding was the least important part of the whole thing. If I could have gone zap and pointed a finger and a big flash of lightning would strike across to fuse the parts into one piece, that would have been fine. PT: Had you intended to contrast sharp edges with deep negative spaces? JC: It had to do with fit. It was never “this red and that green” (sometimes you pay attention to that, but not really). It was more like whether the pieces fitted. That’s difficult to describe, but you can see it in the sculptures. Go joggle them or something and you’ll find that they fit. It’s like how something will fit in your hand when you pick it up. You can pick it up this way or you can pick it up that way. You have a certain sense of control by the fit. You can’t put a real automobile in your hand, but this cassette you can and what you can do with it makes it fit like this. That has a lot to do with it. So, you could literally take big pieces of material and throw them at each other and sometimes they would go chink, chink. There’s a wall piece owned by the Guggenheim Museum, Dolores James, that I finished in ’62. I had started it earlier that year and it had been going for a long time. I started it in the country and then I moved to the city and I put it up on a wall. I painted the wall one color and I didn’t like that and I put it on another wall with another color. Nothing worked. The piece was almost done, but I couldn’t figure out what it was that kept it from being complete. One time I came back really drunk and stood about 25 feet away and threw an eight pound sledge at it. It went right into it like a knife—only three inches of the handle stuck out. All the pieces went chink, chink, chink. It did just that. It’s amazing what you do in your own terms, of how you make things work. There’s no formula.

PT: Why did you start to paint the autobody sculpture? JC: It seemed like a reasonable thing at the time. In different parts of the country they deal with this material in different ways. So, its accessibility has different kinds of numbers. You can go to autobody shops and pick up pieces and squeeze them any way you want. Sometimes the whole front end can come apart; but who wants to deal with that? The point was that it was metal that had some color on it, that had some paint on it, and it was literally free. The squeezing of it or the compression of the material, that particular material, was interesting to look at in terms of what that squeeze did and then, when there was another piece, how they locked together and how they fit. So, there were a lot of other important points because of the material being able to be worked with that way—and it was of very little expense. But it’s the idea of the squeeze and the compression and the fit. Again, you have to transcend the material and see how it works for you. That’s where it gets to the nitty-gritty. PT: Have you ever tried to throw disparate things together? JC: That was the case with the collages, I remember. I could never learn to make collages. It turned out that what I needed was a staple gun. That allowed for the velocity, for the speed of the making. You just throw on the materials and the paper and staple them down. PT: How did you get involved with making the paintings which have sets of nine squares? JC: I was using auto lacquer—I really like to paint, too—and I like the procedures in which I use it. Those paintings had 100 coats of paint, but they were very thin coats, mostly a lot of clear lacquer with just a few drops of color. Whatever color you saw was just a build-up, like 100 I sprayed veils made a single color. There was some idea about how the squares worked so that I put down a lot of veils with the squares halfway in, like more veils. They took a long time to make. I feel that they were very successful, but I never got an awful lot of feedback. I must have done about 50 of them. They were all named after rock and roll groups. I have the Shangri-Las and Diana Ross has the Supremes. PT: Do you ever consider the small-sized paintings and the paper bag sculptures as exercises compared to the larger works? JC: No, it’s another thing. The size of it has very little to do with it. If the paper bag were larger, would it be any less or more delicate? It would be less delicate because the resin that it would take to hold it together would be heavier. It wouldn’t fly any faster, actually; it would just be larger. The scale is evident at this size and that’s what you want to know. And the inside and the outside of it is available at this size. So the size is correct for this scale and for what it is you want to know that goes on there. If another material came in another size, then that size would be dealt with with what you would do with that material. PT: Did you just have small paper bags around the studio, is that how they developed? JC: No, those developed out of an idea I was trying to do. You know when you blow up a paper bag and you pop it? I was trying to catch the pop. It was funny. After you look at it, if you get your eye in some place, it has a great scale to it. I’ve wanted to take pictures of pieces that I’ve done. I’ve always wondered if you could make it so that you wouldn’t know what size it was. I figured that that was the best way that I could ever define what scale was: when you can’t tell the size of it. PT: Has weight ever become a consideration in your sculpture? JC: Yes, especially in the paper pieces. The delicacy really is apparent in the paper pieces. I think what was also profound about the paper was that you could see the inside and the outside. You couldn’t literally see the inside, but you felt the inside because of the nature of the outside. Something like that. The lightness had a lot to do with that feeling. I didn’t paint the resin on them, by the way, I sort of dripped it around. It became like a webbing that held the paper in one place. The color on it became flashy like lipstick or eyeshadow or something for a girl. Whatever people put on as colors, they put on so that somebody sees it.

PT: Did you work with plexiglass in California, partly because the material was readily available there? JC: Plexiglass was in my head for a long time and certain ideas, if they’re good, they’re still good four years later. I had really wanted to melt boxes. It had occurred to me that any time I did that, the form would never be defined. In other words, you can feel your way into the structure as to how the structure collapsed, so to speak, under another condition. Heat is a condition that is inherent to plexiglass. You can’t consider heat with polyurethane; it just smolders. I feel that there are two components in those plastic pieces that are important: the form and how that form feels. What’s in the plastic or the box? How does the plexiglass feel in terms of being put in that kind of shape? I couldn’t have painted it. It would just fog out and there would be no transparency. No other color, it seems, would do it as well. A particular color affords a definition of form to a greater extent than it would without it. That means that to me any amount of that color has value on it, not that it’s covered perfectly. It has enough color on it so as to define what the terms of the form or the structure of the plexiglass is. Whether the plastic could be broken or cracked, or whether there’s fingerprints on it, has very little to do with its sensitivity. It’s not a product; it’s information. If you don’t deal with it as information, you’re dealing with it as a product. I try to use materials and equipment to do pretty much what that equipment will do. A lot of times, a lot of equipment, and a lot of material, will do a lot of things that people hadn’t thought of, of course, and that gives you a new idea about it or a new consciousness. PT: When you choose a material like flexible polyurethane foam to work with, is color as important a consideration as anything else? JC: Sure, everything has its color as we know it, anyway. If I choose a material, it’s because I like it. I really dig it. The flexible polyurethane is white in the beginning. But as you cut it up and expose it to the light—ultraviolet rays or the sun—it turns to amber (which is its original color). Now that process is more to my liking in terms of a process inherent to the material. If you inject color into the flexible polyurethane, it really isn’t that great because it doesn’t diffuse. I’ve used various kinds of watercolor—certain attitudes of throwing watercolor at it—and it changes a little with the dyes; but, its own natural color is terrific, and I prefer the process you see happening in terms of change from a white back to amber. If you take some of the couches and you throw things on them, say, you leave some shirts out for a couple of weeks and then remove them, the color is whiter there than in other places. The rearrangement of the tone and how light changes the color of this particular material is fairly interesting, but I’ve never heard anybody say anything about it. What I’ve heard mostly is that it disintegrates, it gets fuzzy and blah, blah, blah (all the things that everybody knows). They complain about it as though I were a bed manufacturer. It does disintegrate much faster than other materials we’ve been known to use; but there’s no need to say, “Oh, that’s terrible because it doesn’t last long.” We don’t either, in terms of other species on the planet. That has nothing to do with it. The material itself is fantastic. You deal with the inherent nature of the material and you like it because of the way it is, so why do you want to do anything else to it? You know what it is, what it’s about. What can you do with this material? You generally have to like a material to be involved with it. That’s why a lot of people like paint, color, marble, steel, paper, or what have you. Whatever materials artists use, they generally have a preference for those materials. I like a lot of different materials. I’m sort of intrigued with the idea of what I can do with material and I work with the material as opposed to enforcing some kind of will upon it.

I think that the presence of sculpture disturbs people’s space. Certain kinds of works can be put in a big room and wipe out the room for everybody.

PT: Do you ever consciously go looking for materials? JC: Yes. One time, for instance, a friend of mine and I were changing a mattress cover on a bed and the mattress cover always got smaller. So, shoving the foam rubber into the mattress was funny. It was such a peculiar material. So, I went out and looked around for foam rubber: how to get it; how it’s made; how it comes; how much it costs; and so forth. I started to squeeze it and tie it. That was the first thing. I did a few other numbers, but I always went back to tying. Getting into the couch number was a similar thing. I had a big block and I wanted to cut it in half and I didn’t cut it perfectly. The cut went at a slant; it became a perfect bed. You could just let yourself go and fall into it. Then somebody said, oh, that’s a terrific thing, but you really ought to make a couch. So, I started cutting some couches. The couches, I feel, alter your sitting consciousness—if it has no other function than that. If you like to look at it, if you find the knife marks pleasing or the particular cutting of the shape agrees with you, if you think this is all part of it, that’s OK with me, too. But all I’m interested in is that you alter your sitting consciousness; the couches should do this. They’re comfortable and strangely the knife markings work very well. I get specific knife marks from the specific way that I attack it. So, you find out a great deal by doing these things, about yourself and the material. The stuff isn’t terribly expensive, but it’s terribly bulky to move around and to store so you can’t just do it like people do paintings. In other words, your working habits change with the materials and also with the condition that you happen to be in. If everything were free, you could work a different way. If you lived next door to some kind of factory, you could have another attitude. Anybody’s choice is fine, as long as it’s relative to their own like or dislike of what they want it to do. PT: If someone had asked you questions about sculpture ten years ago, would you have talked about materials the same way? JC: If someone had asked me about sculpture ten years ago, there would have been very little I could have talked about. It’s taken me a long time, going to different materials and being engaged with different materials. My particular feeling is, as I’ve said, because I like them, I pay attention as to where they’re at. Then whatever I do to them, I can do to them and if it becomes something that hasn’t been done to them before in that usage, then I feel that there’s something there. And I play with that. I really don’t make an attempt at doing something to things that they don’t want done to them. The things should tell you by one means or another. Ten years ago I couldn’t have said that because I had only dealt with several different kinds of material. For me, by the way, the word sculpture connotes such heaviness. I prefer not to even use it. I always misspell the word. If I’m writing, I can’t remember whether the l’s or the p’s come first. So, I always misspell it and sometimes when you say sculpture or sculptor, I become confused. I think I don’t like the word because it sort of denotes a great deal of weight. Now weight—in whatever sense you want to put it—I really don’t like. Foam or paper or plastic or things like that afford a different kind of weight. Some of the heavy sculpture that I’ve made could hardly be moved initially; but it balanced out at some point where I could move it myself. Sculpture in general in the last six, seven, or eight years has gotten much lighter. But, for that matter, a lot of the issues are pretty light, too. PT: Do you think that any of your pieces have suffered from installations? JC: All the time, constantly. Sculpture has a certain presence which painting doesn’t necessarily have in terms of physically being in the middle of a room. A painting has a great deal of presence on the wall, but I don’t think it moves. I think that the presence of sculpture disturbs people’s space. Certain kinds of works can be put in a big room and wipe out the room for everybody. Sometimes they’ll say they don’t want that to predominate there and so they’ll put it someplace with a screen around it or something (I’ve seen that happen). A lot of the sculptures have frontal and backside views. You can go around and take a different position. I’ve found that I’m always, so to speak, standing in the corner. It’s a little strange to put these things up against walls so that it’s out of the way. But, that is the case a lot of the time. Then, in other places, I find that they’ll just jam a lot of sculpture together, a lot of different people’s sculpture. The works, then, will have nowhere in that space to exist—the scale of it, or how, and so forth. PT: How did you get interested in making The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez? JC: It had to do with people, getting interested in people. The people were, it seemed to me, what was hot about film. Taylor Meade is one of the greatest persons that anyone can film—finding the format or what you do with it is another thing. I think that he is possibly one of the greatest persons that you could possibly want to make a lot of movies with. That’s what I sort of had in mind. I thought that no one was taking any consideration of him. Someone came to town wanting to go look where Cortez worked. I said, why don’t we take these two people down and make a movie? It happened on the spur of the moment. Videotaping would have been just as easy, but at that time—even in ’68—videotaping was pretty young in terms of the equipment.

PT: Do you prefer videotaping now? JC: One time, when I was making a test with Viva, I realized the film business is just so archaic, whether it’s setting up or in taking real people to be unreal (things like that). It convinced me that videotape not only keeps you real, it demands that you be real. Once you become false or try to assert a different kind of image other than who you are, it shows. It would show on the monitor easily; it’s just fantastic. There’s an essence working either on the signal or by the phenomenon of electronics that keeps it somewhere where you can’t fool around. You’re either there or you’re not. Essentially what I like about the video is, in the true sense of it, it keeps things real. It’s indicative to me readily on the six o’clock news. A cat is telling you the news and has a certain image that he keeps up that’s inoffensive to anyone. But, if he goes to Queens and some chick’s out there blowing her stack about busing kids or hot lunches or something, she really comes off like gangbusters and you really know who she is in a minute. If you make some comparison like that, you find that out. If you watch a movie star on a talk show, it’s incredible, really incredible, how when they have to be themselves, they really fall apart; if they have to be somebody else, they can pull it off. That’s, then, another indication of how the real and the unreal work on television. I prefer videotape for that reason. PT: Did you find that working at the Rand Corporation involved your notion of Conceptual art? JC: What I was doing was literally dumping myself in a strange situation and having to deal with the process of that situation. Actually, as a process, it turned out to be very well defined for me. I knew I wasn’t going to decorate the walls. As a matter of fact, they suggested that. And I knew I couldn’t take in sculpture I’d done and put it in the foyer where everyone goes in and out. That wouldn’t have done anything. I got in there. I felt that I couldn’t deal with what they were working on. Whatever the circumstances, I couldn’t deal with their problems. When they talk about weather modification they’re talking about altering the orbit of the planet, they’re not talking about throwing some dry ice in a cloud. When they’re talking about subliminal warfare, what are they talking about? I had none of the necessary background. So, what was I doing there? Actually, I played the first movie I made, a film with Taylor Meade. I played that and it got banned. They all missed the point. I felt that I had gone out and made a movie without knowing how to make a movie. What I wanted to say to the researchers was, this is what I did without knowing how to do it. What do you do by not knowing how to do it? Everybody there starts out with the answer and works the process backwards to find out how to get there. They know the answer they want; then they determine how to get the process. I couldn’t really get any intelligence out of them. I tried to run a lot of things which just didn’t work. I wanted to do a sense relaxation number (that was one project). I asked them for a conversation thing, for a program of harassment and nuisance. They didn’t pay any attention to that. About two weeks after I showed the movie, I sent out a memo to everyone asking them for answers because Jim Byars was at the other think tank and he was going around asking for questions. I thought maybe they’d send me strange answers and they’d fit his questions. We’d do a collaboration that way. But, that didn’t work out (this is discussed in the Los Angeles County Art Museum’s “Art and Technology” catalogue). It occurred to me that what they really do at Rand is come up with answers. So, I structured a set of responses, including what are the circumstances to these responses? I was hoping that they would come up with some intelligent responses, but they didn’t. A chick wrote a review; she told me what she thought in her answer. She didn’t need unoriginal shit dumped on her head. I just dropped that line to: all shit is original. That was one of my responses and then others were: it’s important that everyone cheat; it means what it tells you; and it goes on like that. I set up circumstances, asking what are the responses and what are the circumstances to these responses. This all comes in two sections and it’s put together with a right-hand bind that can come apart. It literally came together that way. You can take the pages apart and shuffle them. They’re see-through pages, six lines to a page. The idea was you play with the information any way you want. Anything you do with it is OK. Throw it away. Start a fire with it. I don’t care. That was the outcome of the process of being at Rand and it taught me a lot. It probably taught me a lot more by being there than it did anybody else—except that I’m sure that they remember me. They remember the movie and it was very funny. The guy who introduced the movie was one of the top guys. He said that this movie is for everybody under 30 and it occurred to me that almost everybody connected with it, with the exception of Ultra Violet, was over 40. People were showing up there three days in a row sitting in the front seats. They banned it. That turned a few guys on: Banned at Rand, the place where the unthinkable can be thought about. Then here, all of a sudden, a silly little movie is being banned. PT: Have you ever taught? JC: I had a couple of weeks here and there, but I can’t really teach because I don’t know what to teach. I don’t know what to say. I have a difficulty in doing what a teacher needs to do to people who know very little about that particular subject. That is, to give them confidence, etc. I could never get it across either, to believe what you believe. If something infuriates you, you should believe it. If you’re the only one being infuriated by it, you should believe that too. You don’t have to believe it because everybody else is being infuriated by it. You should believe in your own direction: you’re on your own path, you’re taking your own trip. Your own trip is the most important one. It goes back to whether you’re going to believe your own sanity that’s inside of your skull or whether you’re going to believe the sanity of the social arrangement. We have to assume that there are several reasons why somebody won’t work that way or this way. Of course, there are a lot of times that it doesn’t occur to them. It may occur to them when they’re older. I still think that art is one of the few places where if you can’t make it at 22, you’re not over the hill. I imagine in science and a few other disciplines, you’d be over the hill at 18. But I think that art deals with a certain experience and the materials and the attitudes are all here. If a guy is 22, he hasn’t experienced what he will at 42. I think that experience is what goes into major artists’ major work. PT: Did you want to be influenced by de Kooning? Does anybody have a choice? I was really more influenced by Franz Kline. That had to do with power. It had to do with the power and the glory forever. The force, the velocity, that’s what I got out of Franz. I thought it was swifter and harder in the terms of the ’50s, it seemed to me more accurate for me, a reality, to be influenced by Kline rather than de Kooning. But either one of them, they were both terrific. I really liked them a lot. PT: What was it about David Smith’s work that caught your attention? JC: I felt that as sculpture, it was just itself. I saw it first at the Art Institute in Chicago. I felt that it didn’t represent anything and it wasn’t trying to tell the same great pronouncements, profound statements (all that about art). It was just some iron. As a matter of fact, it was one of the early agricolas and it took up a lot of space. It was aware of itself, I thought. There was something about having just the right amount of material and the right place and everything for itself. It just seemed that that’s what it gave off. It gave off vibrations and a kind of information that passes that you don’t ever know how it gets there, but that’s part of what art is about, I feel. The thing was itself; wasn’t anything else. I really believe you make a thing and as you deal with that object, the materials say, “You can do this and this and this to me.” Because of that, you’re making that number. Whatever uniqueness or perceptions, whatever things that you feel it to be, can be manifested in that idea that that thing exists only in those terms. When I saw this sculpture of David’s, I also saw some things by Joe Goto. Do you remember Joe Goto? When he put something together, you really knew that there was a function at that connection; he had great connections. Those were the two. At that time, I hung around and didn’t know what to do although I did do a couple of sculptures. That went on for a while and I could never talk to anybody about the function of the art object as whatever it was, without any connotations of representation or profound statements and things like that. What was its content that’s relative to unique perceptions of the person who made it? It was a long time before I found it. I finally got pushed down into Black Mountain College and they were the first people who were talking about the same things. I found William Carlos Williams and Pound and Charles Olsen, Bob Creeley, and a few other people. They had this whole idea going out. I was amazed. Why did it take so long to get out of Chicago? –

For our Art Basel Hong Kong Online Viewing Room, Hauser & Wirth will present a selection of works from 1960s until recent years, exploring form and colour, including work by John Chamberlain, 20 – 25 March 2020.