John Chamberlain in Conversation with Klaus Kertess

Chinati Open House
Saturday, October 8, 2005
Goode-Crowley Theater, Marfa, TX

MARIANNE STOCKEBRAND: I’d like to welcome all of you today to our conversation and introduce the two participants. Klaus Kertess is an art historian and was the founder of the Bykert Gallery in 1966, where he remained director until 1975. Kertess has been the curator at the Parrish Museum in Southampton, and subsequently at the Whitney Museum, where he curated, among others, the ’95 Biennial. He was also adjunct curator at the Joslyn Museum. His writings include essays on Roni Horn, Robert Irwin, Barry Le Va, Brice Marden, and Joan Mitchell, to name just a few. But more importantly, for our context, is the fact that Klaus wrote the essay for John Chamberlain’s catalogue raisonné, which was published in 1986. He has followed John Chamberlain’s work for decades and can confidently be called the outstanding scholar in this field.


MS: [laughing] I made that up!

KK: I’m sure you did.

MS: Well, it would be redundant to say anything more than the name of our other, second participant: John Chamberlain.

JOHN CHAMBERLAIN: First, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for Marianne Stockebrand, and all that she did for this exhibition. It’s quite an undertaking to collect forty things from people and get them to loan ’em to you, with your promise to give them back to ’em. So I really want to let her know that I appreciate it quite a lot. Thank you, dear.

KK: So, can we talk about those urethane pieces a little?

JC: I thought we would lie a lot.

KK: We could do that too.

JC: Okay.

KK: This is really the first time there have been this many of the foam pieces shown. Could you talk a little about how you came to work with the urethane in 1966?

JC: [growls]

KK: That will take you three hours, right?

JC: About two hours.

KK: Okay.

JC: Well, to go back to the beginning, on my way to the studio one day, I decided to make a move—this was around 1965–66. I made a move on another set of materials, which were the extension of some drawings I was doing related to music, and the French curve. I guess that was the beginning of my approach to a seven-year event of working with odd kinds of materials. I wanted to see what I would look like if I worked with these different materials. So I did. I think foam rubber came in second in that particular event, which ran on until around 1972. Well, in 1966 I was tooling around the West, and thinking about what I was going to do when I got to L.A. That’s when I really liked L.A.—in the sixties. I’m not sure how it came to be that I discovered the foam, but I spent six months in a house on Malibu Beach. I was going around collecting all these specimens of materials and the foam rubber was one that kept coming back to me. So I tried squeezing them and tying them. And I thought that was so outstanding that I couldn’t stand it too long. They were so instant and so complete. I thought that it shouldn’t take anyone long to get it—meaning, if they’re ever presented to you, you would “get it,” you know. Well, it seemed to take forty years. I remember one instance when I had something like thirty or forty of them sitting around. But they were all like seven to nine inches, and I was quite taken with them. I was supposed to have this little exhibition with the Dwan Gallery, and the guy who ran it, Mr. Weber, came to see me, and I said, “Well, there’s the show.” He almost lost about three inches of intestine when he thought about this. I said, “No, no—it’s just like drawings.” I had to find a place. So he said, “Well, I went and found out where you get the foam.” I brought some in there and fooled around. I thought I was doing pretty well. Then we had the exhibition and no one really got it, which was surprising to me. Because I thought they were pretty erotic.

KK: They’re really erotic.

JC: They’ve got all these folds and everything, you know? Like, when you squeeze here, it opens there. I mean, what can you say? The only person that really liked them was Walter Hopps. Walter came to see me—I remember this very well—he was starting to leave, and he said, “You know, I’d really like to take one with me.” “Well, take your pick,” I said, “but you’ve got to pay.” So he says, “Okay, how much?” I said, “Twenty bucks.”

KK: That paid for the urethane. Judd really liked those works as well.

JC: Well, he liked what I did. There was no competition. There actually was no competition in art anyway—sometimes people like the very opposite of what it is they do.

KK: You refer to these a couple of times as instant sculptures. Was it true that, like squeezing a sponge, this came from reading Bob Creeley?

JC: I do this all on my own.

KK: You’re kidding.

JC: I never know where influences are. I just keep poking my nose around until I find things that fit. And then, if they fit, this is how you can handle it, or how long a certain attitude will last. The foam sculptures were good; I don’t think it’s a career. I thought the sculptures were good, and that they were necessary to be.

KK: Well, the proof of that is how good they look now. The show is pretty impressive.

JC: You should’ve seen them before they got dirty. They’re hard to clean, like some kinds of fish.

KK: The Stuffed Dogs look like they’ve all been kept in a vault, all those pieces from Dia, those small pieces, some of which have paint dappled on them, they look pretty fresh.

JC: Well, they were made later, because by then I had started to do the things I do with the metal. I always painted first before I used foam. Then I saw it, and tried to figure out how to paint these things, so I threw watercolor at it. It was how some of that speckled stuff got on. Then I got interested in a couple of other things and went on from there. And then, about a year ago, I went to Gemini and they wanted me to cut some more foam pieces and cast something.

KK: As different as that was, at the same time, it falls into the pattern of you more often than not using very common materials and performing common acts upon them. And then you went on from the foam—what happened after the foam? You did the galvanized pieces afterwards?

JC: As a matter of fact, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. During the seven-year period, I also made drawings. I actually lived in Santa Fe for a couple of months; that’s where my family lives so I had to go see ’em once in a while. So I made some sculptures there using the French curve as a beginning. I even have a few drawings left, but I don’t know what happened to the sculptures. I learned a lot from the sculptures, but they weren’t really any good. The next thing I went to was the foam, and everybody didn’t like that, so then it was the galvanized pieces and after that Plexiglas pieces. The paper bags fit in there too, around 1967. Then at the end there was aluminum foil. So I used all these materials in order to find out if I was going to be relegated to one kind of material. Or what I was going to do with that one kind that was fairly well known. I wanted to see what I looked like using these other materials. And I found out I looked pretty good. Except that there was no longevity with it.

KK: But they were all based on really ordinary activities.

JC: Well, yeah. I’m a pretty ordinary guy, you know?

KK: So I’ve noticed. But there were those of us who used to watch you wad up a pack of cigarettes at Max’s.

JC: That was preliminary to melting the glass boxes. Because I had these Plexiglas boxes made to the same proportion of cigarette packs. And I did that with the galvanized boxes too. But they were all big, big stubs there. And the galvanized pieces were in a show I had in ’71 at the Guggenheim. I think it was there.

KK: Yeah, it was.

JC: So they got shown at a warehouse on 108th Street. I had a show with Serra. And it was the first time that he had some kind of a show. It was when he was throwing hot lead on a floor. Yeah, what a piece. Anyway, a lot of this carrying on during those seven years made me feel like I wasn’t stuck with one material, I could find myself in any of these. By the time I got through the seven years, I was really glad to go back to this metals business. And since then I’ve found out how to rearrange that particular kind of material so that you can’t tell where it came from.

KK: That’s true.

JC: I’ve tried to get that car wreck image out, you know.

KK: While you were on your hiatus from painted steel, besides making two movies, you did a thing with Art and Technology, and there was one corporation you did something with called “Olfactory Sense Response,” and then you had a show that involved—what was it?

JC: Actually, you’re right, I left out two. I did go to the RAND Corporation in ’69. I went there under the disguise of somebody from the L.A. County Museum. Tuckman and Jane…

KK: I just remember Maurice. I don’t remember…

JC: She was at the Corcoran for a while…

AUDIENCE : Livingston!

JC: Jane Livingston! They were sort of in cahoots with like thirty-two artists… in some big commercial thing. And you’re supposed to come out of it having been influenced by being there. That was the thought. You know how thoughts are, they come real easy. I chose Dart Laboratories, and we went to see them, I remember, Jane and I went to see the chemist, and he wanted to know what we were going to do, de-da-de-da-deda. So I said to him, “Well listen, if you had your choice of something to smell right now, what would it be?” And he said, “Downtown Tokyo.” So I knew he was…he…uh, I loved him. So that was the beginning of a piece I wanted to do called SniFFter, which had two large F’s in the middle. But then they quit. They fell out of the program because of some other kind of thing. Larry Bell was at RAND, and he was terribly upset about RAND—for some reason, I don’t know. But they’re right there in Santa Monica. And I thought, “Wow, there’s a bar next door, there’s a hotel across the street…. Who could ask for anything more?” So I went there. I was there three months—they hated me. Oh, god. “What are you doing here?” Even the guards didn’t like me, you know? But they were really wonderful. The vice president said, “Well, here’s what we do here,” and he threw a blank piece of paper on the table. I was so astounded that somebody who was supposed to be a mathematical genius was saying this sentence. And I didn’t respond, I tried to behave myself too. So I got there and I asked a few questions—I don’t know. It turned out that there was another guy at another think tank who was asking questions, so then I thought I’d ask for answers— because answers is what they could do.

KK: That’s what you did at RAND.

JC: Yeah. I asked them for answers. Oh, god, I tell you…. You get a “yes,” “no,” “black,” “white,” you know, great. There was nothing poetic at all at this place. And so I made up my own answers and then I made up a bunch of questions. And none of them made any sense. I made them six to a page, and I put them in a binder so that you could take it all apart and shuffle the pages. You could take a sheet of responses and a sheet of circumstances, because circumstance and response are the main ingredients of work at RAND. And like old jokes, you know, they start at the end and they work backwards. “What do we want?” “Well, we want this.” “So, what do we got?” “We’re back here… How do we get to there?” That’s how they work backwards. I thought that was amusing. But I still haven’t figured out how to use that particular kind of information. So, yeah, right, I was at RAND. None of these stories last long.

KK: [to the audience] I think you can all gather how involved with theory John has been, and for how long. So then you went back to using the painted steel again, but you started painting it yourself much more than you had in the beginning.

JC: That is correct.

KK: Those foam pieces, amongst so much of your work, come not out of the head, but out of the heart and the gut more than anything else. Those foam pieces were done in ’66 and they predate, by at least a year, the work of Robert Morris when he cut and draped felt. There was all this talk about people using malleable materials where the process actually was the structure of the piece, whatever. It was Richard Serra throwing that lead against the wall, the process of making it that you ended up with. That’s what you ended up seeing. Morris wrote two articles in Artforum in ’68 and ’69 where he laid down the kind of rules for this kind of art making, and he referred to Claes Oldenburg as a precursor. And Claes used soft materials, and he never once mentioned your foam pieces or anything that you’d done.

JC: Well, I got a story about that.

KK: Oh, good.

JC: I have a piece called Toy, which is the name of my father. It’s a blue and green steel piece and so it hangs on the wall, and under the bottom part is a big piece of wadded, yellow plastic. I had this thing hanging on the wall—I did it in 1961 or ’62. The yellow piece was the kids’ Slip N’ Slide. It’s like a twenty-foot piece of plastic that they nail to the ground and wet it down and go slide on it. So when they were done sliding on it, I copped it one night and wadded it up and threw it in the sink. Well, this piece was particularly nice—anybody could wad it up and stick it in, but it had to have a certain area that it could bulge, both out and then onto the side. Well, I took it to Leo Castelli and we put it up on the wall, and he came in and saw that the yellow thing was attached but it was all down off the wall, out on the floor. There was another three inches of intestine, and he was beside himself, “Get this out of my gallery!” Blah, blah, blah. That’s when I sort of felt that, you know, I guess it’s his gallery. Well, the very next show was Robert Morris with all this shit coming out of the wall.

KK: Did you and Morris have any kind of dialogue at all?

JC: No, I never got on with him too much. There was something about him that struck me as being too serious.

KK: I don’t want to tell any Bob Morris stories, please. All right? And the movies? At the same time?

JC: Oh, right. I made a movie or two. Well, I made the movie for the same reason everyone else makes movies: they want to get laid. They want to go some place where nobody knows them and fuck everybody in town.

KK: And how far did that get you?

JC: I did it because I had the star and I did end up giving her milk, you know.

KK: You’re talking about Taylor [Mead], I’m sure.

JC: Listen, Taylor got laid more than anybody. Ultra Violet liked to make out like she was a very endangered species, so you had to treat her very carefully. It was our last fling. I made the movie so as not to forget what she looked like. Actually, the movie’s not too bad [The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez, 1968]. I don’t know if anybody here has seen it. It’s supposed to play over in the Mohair Building [now the John Chamberlain building]. People take a look at about the first four minutes and then they leave. And then they have to turn it off. But it was kind of a fun movie. There were a lot of peculiarities about making the movie. In those days you could take somebody to a strange place where they hadn’t been and they weren’t involved in their daily affairs. You know, they didn’t go home at night and become somebody else, and then come back and become that. There was no screenwriter. I filled their rooms with everything from Time magazine, Life magazine, the newspapers, you know? So, anything they said was all right. And they did very well without my having to prompt them.

KK: I haven’t seen the movie since it was shown at Hunter, which was the year after it was made.

JC: Something like that, yeah.

KK: It was pretty good then.

JC: Well, it’s about the same movie now.

KK: Okay. Questions from the audience.

AUDIENCE : You work with materials and your state of mind—where does criticism come in? Where do you tell yourself, you shouldn’t do that, you should do that. How does that work?

KK: I think he’s asking you that question.

JC: I was afraid that that was going to happen. Listen, I just do these things. I’ll answer the question this way. You see, first of all, I have to have a flow, a continuum. And then I have to be very close to the material I’m dealing with—I have to like it. This is my job. Your job is to respond. And if I tell you how to respond, and what I think about this and how I was trying to do that and da-da-da, you’ll take it at that, and you won’t exercise an act of discovery. Perhaps the only place you can exercise that act is with art. And if you’re too damned lazy to do that, then you’re out. Thank you. And again, I thank you. And have a pleasant tomorrow. It’s really crucial in this particular business to open up and make visible what’s invisible, as somebody once said. As to unprecedented information or knowledge, when something’s new, you take, look, listen. Look at this, I mean, squeezed foam—it took forty years to get. That sounds very “constipationable,” doesn’t it? I think that whatever response you have works, because you’re doing it yourself. But if somebody says, “Oh, well he does this and this,” and you let it lie there and you don’t investigate, you’re the one that’s out. You really have to apply yourself in this particular environment.

AUDIENCE : Could you talk a little bit about your photography?

JC: Oh, that. You had to go bring that up, right? Larry Bell gave me this camera around 1970. I didn’t really have a scheme. You can’t just send them to the drug store and get them back. Because they’re just a different size. And it’s different. It’s not a camera with a hole; it’s a camera with a slot. And the lens actually does this [moves hand left to right], and the slot in back goes the opposite way, so the light comes in and exposes the film. It’s a camera with springs and gears, and you have to wind it, you have to do this and you have to do that, unwind it, and take it out, da-da-da-da-da-da. It’s just a normal camera, except that it’s a little wide. I treat it like it was graffiti. I hold the camera so that it’s like a paint bomb or something. I never look through the hole where it says you look through. I’m always amazed that there are some good pictures. There was a time somebody told me that I got more good pictures per roll than most people do. That guy I believed. I found out I could get in a routine, like I could take these rolls to a place, and they would not only print it, but they would print it big and I’d have a contact sheet, a large one, so I could actually see the pictures. And I only had to pay a little money for it. It was amazing. I actually started to seriously take a lot of pictures in the late eighties, and some of the pictures that you see in the exhibition here are the result. Of course, there are all sorts of accidents. There’s no accounting for that. But I’m taking a brief breather—I haven’t taken any pictures for about a year.

AUDIENCE : What did you think when Judd first invited you to come down to Marfa?

JC: I thought we were going to have a good time, but he was so serious.

AUDIENCE : I heard he drank quite a lot of good beer.

JC: Well, listen, one time he put in a pool, and I said, “Why don’t you let me put in a piece down in the bottom of the pool?” He wouldn’t talk to me for six months.

KK: It’s very strange. Donald had the most neutral art writing style, almost more so than anyone. In the sixties, people were very involved in filmmaking and art making—real time acts. Donald’s art writing often felt like it was going on in real time. He almost never used adjectives. He wrote about John fairly often and one of the few adjectives I ever remember Donald using in his art writing was the word “amazing,” for John. So that was pretty far out.

JC: I remember that piece, and it wasn’t “amazing” as much as he said I used “Rooseveltian colors.”

KK: Yes.

JC: And since Franklin Roosevelt was sort of a surrogate father for me, I was very flattered. I’ve never forgotten that. I don’t know what else was said in the article.

KK: He said you were one of the few sculptors of the entire 20th century, possibly the only one, who had used color really well and was engaged with color. There was Calder, who used a few primary colors and black, and Caro, who used one color from time to time. David Smith occasionally put some paint on his sculptures, but there was no one that had been as polychrome as you.

JC: Why not?

KK: I don’t know.

JC: There are a lot of colors once you start to fool around. You really should use all of them.

KK: I think you probably have.

AUDIENCE : The works that are immediately around us, did you make those down here?

KK: Those are from the seventies. Oh, I’m sorry [to Chamberlain], you wanted to say something.

JC: I made most of those pieces across the street [in the John Chamberlain Building] in Texas. I must tell you—Amarillo. I was hung out to dry for six months at Stanley Marsh’s guesthouse. So I made those pieces there. Well, all of the ones that looked like they came from Amarillo.

KK: A few are from New Jersey, right?

JC: A couple of them are from somewhere else. Yes, that was another place I went during this particular time. But I was going to go back and say something. I think the reason that Judd liked my work was because it was hard to criticize. You really have to form your own opinions. See what it does for you. I always liked the way that there was no subject matter— I could never figure out what to do with subject matter. I always liked it without subject matter because any time you go to look at these amazing things, they never seem to be the same. I once saw a painting in Chicago by de Kooning called Excavation, which is sort of brownish. The color isn’t too hot, but so much is going on in it, and when I saw it, I swear, I thought it was like the whole universe. I saw it again a couple of years later and it got slightly smaller. And this went on for about four more years before I could really see this picture at this real size, which wasn’t this, it was much larger. But I had this experience with this one painting, and if there had been “subject matter” in it, I probably wouldn’t have had another thought about it. But every time I went to look at it, it was different. But it wasn’t different, I was different. And you pull that in and you find that works without subject matter are more interesting to me. I always thought Bill de Kooning gave away too much with the Women. You know, like you look at these things, and you can’t get past their teeth, for christ’s sake. Can you imagine what that does? I always thought you get more mileage out of stuff without subject matter than you did stuff with subject matter. There are enough cartoonists in the world that tell you their opinion about this or that. When are we going to dinner?

AUDIENCE : Could you say a little bit about how you physically put those heavy pieces together?

JC: I hire somebody. Not to dismiss your question—things are not as heavy as they may seem. There are a lot of parts—it’s an irregular set. They may all look alike, but none of them are similar. You have to fit them together. So you have a fit, and you have a form, and you have a color. And so all of these three parts are… I’m running out of words.

KK: They’re having…

JC: They’re having a good time together, if you put them together well. If you don’t put them together well, then it looks like shit. So you really have to know something about how things go together. And then I paint a lot of stuff beforehand and I think that there’s a big secret there, painting stuff beforehand. I found out that that was the difference between making a sculpture in color and just painting something after you made it. And a lot of people do that. I think that’s sort of…not much.

KK: You used the phrase that the parts “have a social engagement.”

JC: That’s for them.

KK: That’s probably a good place to end, or do you want to go on?

JC: I don’t want it to end.

KK: You don’t want it to end.

JC: Let’s eat.

KK: All right.

JC: Think you can turn on the lights now?

KK: I think they’ll do that so we can get up and walk away.

AUDIENCE: Do you ever worry about what the critics are saying about you?

JC: You can’t pay too much attention to them. It’s all intuitive. Sometimes you don’t know what to do. You have to wait to find out what to do, and then you do it. But anyway, I want to thank you all for coming. I’d like to leave you with this thought, which occurred just the other day when a ranger on a bird preserve caught this guy roasting a stork on a spit. So he says to the guy, “Listen, you can’t do that, that’s an endangered species.” And the guy says, “It is? Hmm. I didn’t know that. I was just getting something to eat.” This is very much like in The Gods Must Be Crazy, when the guy kills the goat. It is the same kind of setup. So then the ranger has to take the guy in, and they arrest him. So while they were driving in, the ranger says to the guy, “ Listen, tell me, just between you and me, what does stork taste like?” And the guy says, “Well…somewhere between bald eagle and flamingo.”