It's All in the Fit: A Report on the John Chamberlain Symposium

by David Tompkins

This article originally appeared in the Chinati Foundation Newsletter vol. 11, 2006

Projected on a screen before the audience in the Goode-Crowley Theatre, John Chamberlain’s signature seemed to float in mid-air like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Chamberlain himself wasn’t present at the symposium dedicated to his work that Chinati hosted on April 2223, 2006. But the brisk scrawl of his name, appearing periodically to hover above the stage, was an apt marker for the artist’s protean unpredictability.

The diversity of Chamberlain’s work, its resistance to simple interpretation or categorizing, was a theme of the weekend. Organized to fall within the closing days of Chinati’s exhibition of the artist’s foam sculptures and photographs, “It’s All in the Fit” featured two days of lectures on different aspects of Chamberlain’s oeuvre. Six months after the artist himself appeared at the Goode-Crowley Theatre to gruffly answer questions, nine critics, scholars, and art historians took the stage to discuss the prodigious range of his work. Interested parties from across Texas, the U.S., and beyond were on hand to listen.

At 9:00 Saturday morning, Chinati Director Marianne Stockebrand welcomed everyone with a ringing declaration: “John Chamberlain is one of the perfect artists of this time.” Describing the way Chamberlain’s work encompasses sculpture, painting, film, photography, and other media, Stockebrand hailed the artist’s 25 years of “restless, steady, consistent activities.” She observed that, despite his inventiveness and productivity, Chamberlain’s work remains under-recognized. What Donald Judd wrote decades ago—that Chamberlain’s work is “insufficiently known in its various aspects”—remains true today. The weekend’s worth of lectures, Stockebrand said, was designed to go some ways toward rectifying this situation.

Stockebrand introduced the event’s moderator, Richard Shiff, Director of the Center for the Study of Modernism at the University of Texas, Austin and a Chinati Foundation board member. Shiff began by agreeing that Chamberlain’s work is not well-enough known—”even by me.” Using a word that was to recur throughout the weekend, he then quoted Judd: “John Chamberlain likes things that fit.” Shiff noted the incredible diversity of Chamberlain’s artistic output and the multiple possible ways of reading it, then introduced the first speaker: Steve Nash, Director of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.

Nash’s lecture was historical in nature. He began by showing two slides side-by-side: the ancient Greek Winged Victory of c. 200 B.C. and Chamberlain’s Czar of 1959. Nash cited the works’ similar sense of movement, propulsion, wingspan, and liftoff. He then moved on to a consideration of Chamberlain’s sculptures, particularly the earlier works, in relation to the Russian Constructivism of the 1910s and ’20s. Juxtaposing slides of Chamberlain sculptures and works by Constructivists such as Tatlin and Gabo, Nash noted affinities in the use of industrial materials for their expressive potential. In the Russian word faktura, which the Constructivists coined to describe the way in which an artwork displays the process of its own making, we can glimpse how an idea animating all of John Chamberlain’s work was first explored by Russian artists in the early part of the century.

Klaus Kertess, a writer and curator, delivered the second lecture, which focused on Chamberlain’s student days at Black Mountain College in the mid-1950s and especially the courses he took with the poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Chamberlain was not a poet, but he was interested in words. Olson, a charismatic teacher, emphasized the importance of process, immediacy, and a concrete sense of the everyday in the composition of a poem. According to Olson, the fit of a poem was crucial—that is, its allover composition and physicality. A poem must operate with a sense of proprioception; it should be centered on bodily experience. Robert Creeley encouraged students to regard words as entities, as visual facts with their own distinct properties. Encouraged to collect words that caught his fancy, Chamberlain began putting them together solely on the basis of their looks, “blonde day” being a particular favorite. His time at Black Mountain was pivotal to Chamberlain’s development, and the inspiration he took from Olson and Creeley’s teachings immediately found its way into his work.

Following Kertess’s talk, everyone broke for lunch, most people electing to grab a sandwich from the Food Shark, Marfa’s new mobile catering unit, parked outside. After the break, Dieter Schwarz spoke. Schwarz is the director of the Kunstmuseum Wintherthur in Switzerland, where last year he curated an exhibition of Chamberlain’s drawings, reliefs, collages, and paintings. In his lecture he focused on Chamberlain’s drawings, first assembling a chronology, then a typology of the work. Next up was Adrian Kohn, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, Austin. Using Chamberlain’s lacquer paintings of the 1960s and the art criticism of the same era as a jumping-off point, Kohn described the way new kinds of art provoke a primarily intellectual, not intuitive, response in viewers. An intellectual response, he argued, often drives us away from the work, from the sheer fact of its presence before us. An intuitive response, on the other hand, allows for direct sensual apprehension. The writings about Chamberlain’s lacquer paintings and crushed car-parts sculptures, Kohn suggested, offer examples of the dangers of over-intellectualization.

During the question-and-answer session following Kohn’s talk, a speaker scheduled for Sunday, David Getsy, was roused to disputation. He argued that the intellect-intuition dichotomy was a false one and further accused Kohn’s approach of being “Greenbergian” and “Friedian,” two terms of abuse not often heard in Marfa. Kohn agreed that the difference between intellect and intuition was slippery; he claimed to be using the duality as a rhetorical device to point out the perils of thinking too hard when thinking about art. Getsy countered by quoting Charles Olson: “All hierarchies, like dualities, are dead ducks.”

Donna De Salvo next took the stage. De Salvo is chief curator at the Whitney Museum in New York. Her lecture focused on Chamberlain’s photographs, considering them within the context of the medium’s history and in relation to the artist’s other work. Chamberlain’s Wide-lux photographs, she suggested, contain all the “gestures and conceits” that animate his other work. This is true of Chamberlain’s films as well. He uses the camera as an extension of his body. To describe his approach, De Salvo quoted the artist: no matter what the medium, his method is to “wallow around in a given amount of material and see what I come up with.”

De Salvo’s talk was the last of the day. Speakers and audience members now dispersed to view the Chamberlain building and the temporary exhibitions before regrouping for a dinner at the Arena catered by Cueva de Leon of Fort Davis.

Francesca Esmay, Chinati’s conservator, was the first speaker on Sunday morning. Her talk focused on the process by which Chamberlain creates his sculptures and the problems that arise in preserving them. She showed a film clip in which the artist can be seen watching as a paper baler crushes and shapes one of his pieces. Esmay went on to map out the steps by which Chamberlain constructs and paints his sculptures at his studios in Florida and Shelter Island, New York, then described the thorny conservation issues attending the artist’s work. Because it’s steel, she suggested, people think of Chamberlain’s work as durable and strong, whereas in fact it’s quite fragile.

Speaking next was David Getsy, assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Getsy’s topic was the multiplicity and ambiguity of Chamberlain’s sculptures—the way they rebuff easy reading; the way they refuse, as it were, to stand still. Getsy dubbed the sculptures “oxymoronic”: that is, constructed from contradictory elements which the artists fits—or in Getsy’s preferred term, couples—together. Examples of those couplings: volume and mass; sculpture and painting; reference and abstraction. Referring to writings about the artist, interviews with him, and the titles he gives his sculptures, Getsy argued that the metaphors used to describe Chamberlain’s process are usually sexual. Sexual metaphors, he claimed, automatically raise the issue of gender. But any gender-specific attempt at reading Chamberlain’s work is doomed to failure; rather, gender in Chamberlain is “contingent, pressing, and fluid.” Chamberlain, Getsy declared, “mocks the idea that meaning has a single source.”

Wrapping up his talk, Getsy was immediately challenged by Adrian Kohn. Wasn’t a sexually or gender-based approach to Chamberlain’s work too reductive? Getsy replied that such an approach was one among many, and that rather than reductive, he found it liberating—he could now think about Chamberlain’s work in an entirely new way. Kohn suggested that Getsy was applying a theory to the work rather than his eyes. Getsy plumped for his right to an individual response and shrugged off the idea of a “pure visual experience.”

William Agee, professor of art history at Hunter College in New York, took the stage to deliver an appropriate summation for the weekend’s lectures. His topic was the relationship between Chamberlain and Judd. Agee reviewed Judd’s many writings about Chamberlain in order to trace the course of Judd’s evolving thought as well as the impact his fellow artist had on the development of Judd’s own work. Agee described the deep sympathy between the two artists, a feeling of fellowship which led, after a number of years, to the permanent installation of 23 Chamberlain sculptures at Chinati.

Next, all the speakers joined Richard Shiff on stage to take part in a panel discussion. Among the topics discussed was Chamberlain’s work as viewed in a classical context, with its own periods of baroque and rococo. Marianne Stockebrand then thanked the speakers and expressed amazement at the range, depth, and variety of their contributions—a tribute to Chamberlain’s own prodigal diversity.