May 2012: Remembering John Chamberlain
I first met John when I was 20, and he was 47, in the summer of 1976. I was visiting my parents in East Hampton. I had a car that I felt I didn’t need anymore because my life at UCSB in Isla Vista, could be maintained pretty well on a bike. At a cocktail party John had mentioned to my folks he needed a car for the summer and so a sale was arranged. It was a pale yellow 1971 Datsun station wagon. He came over, took it for quick test drive and cut me a check for something like $1500. The next morning my mom and I were in town to get the newspaper and there was the car, with the front all smashed in, parked in front of Mark, Fore and Strike on Main Street. We just thought that was the funniest thing in the world…the car smasher’s, smashed car. When we got home Annie called John to see if he was all right. “Yeah, yeah..” he said, in that particularly Mid-western drawl he had… especially when he was dealing with things not to his liking. It was certainly not his first wreck. The most famous one happened when he was driving his pal Neil Williams’s truck on Park Ave close to 100 mph and they got “t-boned” at a cross street, which threw Neil through the windshield giving him that distinctive scar he had on his forehead for the rest of his life.
The next time John came into my radar was when I had graduated college in late ‘79. I had moved back to New York the first day of ‘80 renting Roy Fowler’s loft on Walker Street. John had recently gotten married and had bought a house in Essex Ct. He had set up a studio there to work. Apparently the village of Essex would not allow him to store his metal outside on his property though he had taken some measures to hide the material from view. Essex became intractable about it. Lawsuits were entertained. He bitched about it to my dad and Syd suggested that he set up a studio in Florida. This was Syd’s way of having friends around during the winter, by selling them on the advantages of the Florida studio. Quite a few artists moved down there on his advice too, attracted to the ability to work and play outside, the lack of state taxes, cheap labor and real estate. Conrad Marca-Relli, Jimmy Ernst, James Rosenquist and Bob Rauschenberg had all set up on the Gulf Coast and John followed suit. As I was fresh out of college and knew the area from growing up there, I was offered up to be the assistant without my knowledge. In late March, John called and invited me over to 76 Vestry, his huge New York studio, the whole floor of the building, it was 100’ x 100’. In the subdivided spaces, hard to call the size of some them “rooms”, where sculptures in various stages of completion. One room was full of music equipment. That was Jesse’s band’s practice room. The band The Necessaries, were a hot pop-punk band, with bassist Ernie Brooks and world-class guitarist, Chris Spedding. Jesse was the drummer, a very great drummer by the way. (RIP Jess) John had three sons, Angus, Jesse and Duncan. The boys’ mother Elaine had died tragically when they were around 10 to 14. The boys landed on John’s doorstep, so to speak, in the middle of his wildest period. What a scene that must have been, Ultra Violet with three adolescent boys and John.
I understood that Elaine was the one who suggested John attend Black Mountain College, which was a turning point in his career, but the Times obit says he met her after Black Mountain? Anyway, Vestry Street had room after room of works, scrap metal, welders, etc., a very sparse place otherwise, with few amenities, not much furniture, a big kitchen, and some of his foam couches draped with parachutes. It was an artist’s place, through and through. My “interview” was typical of John. At that point I was not used to his way of communicating, the truncated phases and allusions, very tangential to the context of the discussion. It was the way he tested people, to see if they could or would follow. I must have passed. He told me he liked my work, a sure way to get a young artist’s attention. He’d seen some pieces of mine at my parents’ house. Because I understood assemblage and process he felt I would “get” how he worked and could I learn to weld? Would I be up for working for him in Florida? This was the first news I had of the plan to work down there. With what was going on in Manhattan in 1980, it was a major choice for me. Stay or go? I wasn’t very happy and struggling to make ends meet, and he’s great man, it’s a rare opportunity so, I accepted the offer.
When I got to Florida a month later, I went to a house John had rented in Venice. The night before he’d gotten into an altercation at a local bar and also with the police (This was a rather normal occurrence, I later learned.) We had to pick up his car, a 2002 BMW at the police station, so he needed a ride. One of the ridges that detail the hood had been dented by a cop’s nightstick. It was the first of many dents in car metal that I was about to experience. His son Duncan was there and I think Jesse was around for that weekend then too. They had rented a ski boat which, somehow, they had trashed. What is going on with this family, I thought to myself? Anyway after we got his car back, we drove over to the Nokomis junkyard. John had rented a half an acre in the back end and constructed a pole barn. It consisted of a metal roof, 12’ up over a big cement slab floor. No walls, but big posts every 8 feet or so apart. In one corner there was a mid size paper bailer. John used bailers to crush his metal. In one section was a pile of chrome bumpers. John said, “ You can start here. Cut off all the non essentials, then cut them up, into twos, anyway you like.” Trying to confirm what I heard I said “Ok, so after I get rid of the lights and other stuff, I cut them in half.” He said, “No, that would be impossible. Cut them in two.” So began my assistantship with John. The next week a flat bed drove up and unloaded a huge pile of chrome bumpers. With summer approaching it was getting hot and John was elsewhere. One day it occurred to me, “Here I am, alone out here in a rattlesnake infested junkyard, in the summer cutting chrome bumpers, with a torch, in Florida, in the summer. How the hell did I get here?” Meanwhile John was off being feted in Germany and Italy by Heiner Frederic. Welcome to the world of art assistantship, sucka.
Then he was back. There was a trailer that we used as the office at the junkyard. I came to work one morning and John was there with Chip Meyers. Chip was a boat guy and had just gotten in after sailing John’s boat, the Cocola, down from Connecticut. It was a 32’ Laurent Giles design sloop, all wood, built in Italy in the 1960s. Chip would be hanging with the boat that summer. If I wasn’t cutting up metal, I was to help on the boat, varnishing the bright work. I got used to the routine, cutting and crushing metal in the morning and working on the boat in the afternoon. We had John’s three-quarter ton for transportation or our bikes. We sailed it some to keep the wood wet otherwise in that heat it would dry out and start to leak. It turned out to be a fun summer, because of the boat. John would come and go. This went on into the next fall.
Having decided to keep working in Florida, John bought a huge space near downtown Sarasota. It was 18,000 sq. feet, a building that had been used to manufacture Donzi race boats. He hired a number of people including a childhood friend of mine, Heidi, to organize things. With more space and assistants the place became a real assembly line. I never became great at welding but I found other things to do. My project became the “Tonk” pieces, small sculptures made from Tonka toy trucks and cars. I sought them out in thrift shops, processed them by taking them apart, crushed them, and painted them. Then John would come along and select the parts he liked, assemble them while I soldered the parts together. He told me once, “I’m the only one that can make a mistake.” This assured that whatever I did in processing, it was ultimately his choice to use or discard the parts.
Sometimes we would talk about art. I would show him my work on occasion. We had a nice dialog and he was always encouraging. From time to time I would suggest things. I got him into a little trouble with one suggestion though, the titling of a work. He had made a beautiful midsize wall relief. The color was unusually livid, tropical, and predicted some works he made much later, in terms of palette. I had been listening to Captain Beefheart’s latest record and one cut really got me, and it got to John too. It was “Tropical Hot Dog Night”. It was so what John was doing, the influence of Florida and fauna in his color. There was a line, “like two flamingos in a fruit fight, everything is wrong at the same time it’s right”. We laughed every time we heard it. There were great trombone parts in that song too. So we figured it’d be an honor to Beefheart for John to title the sculpture, after the song. A few years later Beefheart discovered it and he had Lester Bangs hassle John about it. Why Don, why? We worked on and off on various things for a few years but then I had to move on, to get out from the influence, so I stopped working for him. We actually became better friends after that.
Years later, he moved out here, first to Elaine de Kooning’s house in Northwest, then up to Sag Harbor and then to Shelter Island. I invited him and Robert Creeley over to see Ossorio’s estate The Creeks, when I managed it. Eventually he settled and I was happy to see him around. Prudence Fairweather made a huge difference in his life. He would have died years ago without her.
We always had a tradition of calling each other on our birthdays. David Budd and Neil Williams, too. The group got smaller and now, with him gone, it’s over. I have his last happy birthday message to me on my answering machine.
One thing I have to say, about the various things coming out now about his work stimulated by the extremely well selected show Choices at the Guggenheim, John’s work has nothing much to do with cars as message or “content”. John saw the material he used - car body metal - as something akin to the human body. In an interview with me he talked about the “viscosity” of the metal as being close to that of the body. John’s work has an aspect to figuration, perhaps more than people imagine. His titles prove that, “Lord Suckfist” and the like. His “figures” sometimes display a kind of pomp and circumstance or absurd exaggeration. The works’ relation to de Kooning can’t be under estimated either. My wife Claudia hit it dead center though, (They shared hair cutting stories for years). “John’s work is sensuous, all about flesh and folds. Women get his work.” The origin of his material is simply that, metal derived from the auto industry. It was free or inexpensive, durable and able to be manipulated and joined. John transformed found material into something for his own purposes. The association people make to cars is like saying if you use house paint, your work must be about houses. It’s just silly.
His work is authentic. His peers regarded him as unequaled- Stella, Judd, Flavin, Bell, Johns, etc. That’s how you know what his real stature was, how his friends saw him. The last show he had at Gagosian was absolutely valedictorian…what a way to go. I will miss him.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief