The 84-year-old Abstract Expressionist sculptor John Chamberlain works in a studio nestled among trees on the idyllic sands of Shelter Island, accessible only by ferry from Greenpoint or Sag Harbor in Long Island, a two-hour drive from New York. Although he has recently been suffering health problems -- he uses an oxygen tank, and divides his time between his home and a Manhattan hospital -- it would seem that he is experiencing something of a renaissance: earlier this year, he switched galleries for a triumphant exhibition of major new works at Gagosian Gallery, and he has a retrospective planned for the Guggenheim Museum in February 2012.
In the meantime, his first show of mural-scaled, color photoworks opens at Chelsea’s Steven Kasher Gallery, Sept. 15-Oct. 29, 2011, and, in anticipation of the event, Kasher hosted a preview visit to his studio this week, though sadly, Chamberlain himself was absent. Instead, the tour was supervised by Chamberlain’s assistant Nico, or Nicolas Alessandro Pissarro Sherman, a young, dark-haired Texan of Neapolitan descent who is himself a practicing artist. As he let us in the side door on Tuesday afternoon, Nico gestured towards a black BMW, sheathed in dust and parked in the driveway. “That’s Lichtenstein’s car,” he said, smiling. “Roy Lichtenstein. We don’t really know why it’s here.”
Chamberlain’s studio is attached to his home, and it is jam-packed with artworks, some in progress and some completed, that are scattered amidst his personal things like unfinished thoughts. Among the bits of metal and tools are an abundance of random tchotchkes, including a Homer Simpson clock and an old wooden sign hung on a door, reading “Laundry Room: drop your pants here.” An exercise bike is buried under piles of folded shirts; old film reels are stacked next to a snapshot of his daughter-in-law doing ballet.
Aluminum maquettes -- crinkled twists of colored foil that had never left his studio until 2006, when some of them were used as models for large-scale sculptures -- sit in rows along a window sill, shimmering in the sun. Sculptures, including two early works in hammered iron that recall Alexander Calder mobiles and were apparently made when Chamberlain was a hairdresser, cover tabletops and the floor. Standing out in the visual cacophony is the creamy, skin-hued Miss Lucy Pink (1963), his earliest car-part sculpture.
The walls are covered with glossy photos that he has taken over the years with a Widelux panoramic camera, startling images that manage to capture and recreate (in color) his crumpled-metal esthetic. We see fish-eye distortions of his own features, abrupt changes in scale and depth, mirror reflections in windows, and the beaming face of Prudence, his copper-haired wife, whom he met when she was working as Dan Flavin’s assistant many years ago. Abstract and representational at once, they even document a personal calamity: one pictures Chamberlain wild-eyed against the night, a bundle of striped fabric perched on his head and streaks of red coursing down his cheeks. “When he lived in Florida, he was robbed -- and the first thing he did, before calling the police, was to take a picture of his bloody face,” Nico explains. “The man’s committed.”
He leads us from the studio through the kitchen and den, where Chamberlain spends most of his time when he is at home, and into the recently constructed section of the house, which now connects the living space and photo studio with the gargantuan barn that is his metal shop. Its 40-foot ceilings harbor mountains of car parts arranged by color or size, some stuffed in gigantic shopping carts, some littering the floor, along with welders, car-crushing machines, saws, drills. The sculptures, larger and taller than any I have seen, reach almost to the roof. They are glorious turrets of unfinished metals, lacquered metals and varnished metals, mangled hoods folded back on themselves and affixed to a trunk or a bumper. Nico points to a round, orange armchair, tattered and torn, sitting among the sharp rubble: Chamberlain’s throne, from which he orchestrates construction. Step back and the scene comes together like a landscape under the sea, knotted corals of every variety twisting and stretching towards the sun.
The photoworks for Kasher’s show -- “Pictures,” as Chamberlain insists they be called -- are leaning against the walls in the hallway. They are no ordinary photographs: each extends eight-feet high and is comprised of three to six stretched canvas panels on which are printed digitally altered, enlarged panoramic photographs drawn from Chamberlain’s personal archives. Their source images have been highly processed -- stretched, cut, tinted, filtered for contrast and vibrancy -- often to the point of total abstraction. Chamberlain himself figures frequently, as does the New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham and, curiously, images of sunglasses. A passel of candid images of his children at various ages plays counterpoint to myriad photos of him and Prudence kissing. Landscapes and cityscapes reveal what Nico says is Chamberlain’s passion for Paris.
Conceived and developed between 2010-11, the more recent of the Pictures boast stark contrast, exaggerated depth and simplified, almost geometric forms, while the earlier panels are a riot of pattern, texture and color, recalling, in their frenetic horror vacui, psychedelia, or the sun-drenched palette of a Pierre Bonnard.
Nico explains that like many of Chamberlain’s sculptures, these too begin with maquettes: each manipulated image is printed on a small strip of paper, which simulates the canvas panel to be used for the final work. They are then arranged and re-arranged by Chamberlain, who tests different juxtapositions, like collage, until he is satisfied, and the selected groupings are printed, large-scale, onto the stretched canvases.
Their nimble compositions reveal the artist’s capability for subtlety, which seems a striking departure from the staid, majestic power of his iconic sculptural works. In their presentation of scenes from his personal life, Chamberlain’s Pictures offer an unprecedented glimpse into the interior world that he has kept largely separate from his art.
“John Chamberlain: Pictures,” Sept. 15-Oct. 29, 2011, Steven Kasher Gallery, 521 West 23rd Street, New York, N.Y., 10011.