PRINT February 1972

On Chamberlain’s Interview

CHAMBERLAIN’S DIRECTION REVEALS A GREAT deal about his character: he expresses himself without intellectual pretense in everyday slang vernacular. He is intuitive rather than methodical, revising a thought in the process of communicating it rather than referring to a set of fully formed predetermined referents which might form any kind of logical system. Both his basic nature as well as his means of expression ran counter to the ’60s’ vogue for terse, unambivalent (presumably factual) statements which disregarded emotional reaction, experiential context, or on-the-spot improvisation. The interview makes it clear that Chamberlain is, in terms of his attitudes both esthetic and personal, his life style, his self-contradictory moves and phrases, a personality of the ’40s or ’50s, rather than of the highly cerebral, buttoned-down and straightened-out ’60s, with its preference for the hard line, both in criticism and in art.

In his unwillingness to be pinned down or compartmentalized, in his elusiveness and restlessness and his drive to experiment without regard for the success or failure of the results; in his constant experimentation and search—for new techniques, materials, and forms—with no thought of context, Chamberlain reveals his affinity with traditional avant-garde values. During the ’60s, his art did not suffer, but his career did, precisely because of this streak of obstinancy and nonconformity. Even his nomadic life style touched on in the interview—the endless crossing and recrossing from coast to coast, the brief stays in New Mexico, the restless compulsion to move on—is reflected in his artistic development.

From a ’60s’ viewpoint, there seems no internal logic to Chamberlain’s development as there clearly is in the serial and systemic artists of the past decade, with their historicizing penchant for taking the next logical step. But it is precisely this disconnectedness that proves Chamberlain’s authenticity as an artist—an artist, however, of a different species than his contemporaries, the hard-edge, Minimal, Pop, and color painters. His belligerent stance, his subjective means of expression, his anti-intellectual phraseology, his obvious bias toward the improvisational, the raw and the existential “process” of making, as opposed to any preconceived system of imagery or theoretical set of values, distinguish Chamberlain from his own generation—and mark him at the same time as very much an Abstract Expressionist.

That Abstract Expressionism was not capable of generating a sculptural style is fairly obvious at this point. Sculpture by the artists of the first generation of the New York School is poor in comparison with the painting—so poor in fact that many collectors were forced to pair the paintings with primitive sculpture to achieve a balance in terms of expressive force. David Smith, the great sculptor of the period, was a Cubist until his latest work, which although still indebted to Cubism, shared certain new qualities of post-painterly abstraction. Curiously, genuine Abstract Expressionist sculpture was made later, and by younger artists. Both Mark di Suvero and Chamberlain were able to adapt the thrust-counter-thrust struggle for balance, the urban imagery and violent energy of “action painting” toward sculptural ends. Di Suvero’s imagery is obviously close to Kline’s. Chamberlain is, I think, not sufficiently clear in his own mind regarding his relationship to de Kooning’s paintings and tinted palette. He claims to have been more influenced by Kline (he never denies an affiliation with Abstract Expressionism), but the work clearly derives from de Kooning—in terms of its palette, use of curved and bent planes, use of chiaroscuro and linear elements.

Both di Suvero and Chamberlain are painterly sculptors, as were Rodin, Rosso, Degas and many other baroque sculptors of the first rank. Chamberlain arrived at sculpture in the same manner as Picasso and David Smith, but with different results. All three moved from painting into collage, finally freeing collage from the wall, propelling bas-relief into fully independent freestanding sculpture. But Cubist collage, the point of departure for both Picasso and Smith is fundamentally geometric and linear. Chamberlain’s collages—sensitive, fragile and fine works in their own right—are, on the other hand, a projection of de Kooning’s twisted, bent planes and curvilinear motifs, and of his painterliness, into a third dimension. For this reason alone his sculpture is deliberately tactile and not optical.

In the interview, Chamberlain speaks frequently of materials, for they are of essential importance to his expression. His disavowal of literary’ connotations in using junk is, I think, both sincere and correct. He used it, as Oldenburg, Kaprow, and Whitman used it, because it was free. He used it for the same reason Kline, de Kooning, Pollock, and Stella used Sapolin: because he had no money for more expensive materials. Chamberlain’s formation at Black Mountain College, where the Bauhaus course on materials was taught, may explain his sensitivity to materials. His own involvement with process, however, as opposed to tidy craft, is peculiarly American, and perhaps even more specifically, an aspect of the urban New York vision. Scrap metal, paper bags, polyurethane, and plexiglass are equally potential media upon which the artist imposes his sensibility. For sensibility and intuition, not logic or a priori esthetic concepts, arewhat tie Chamberlain’s oeuvre together. He remains, even in the awe-inspiring chambers of the Rand Corporation, with its power to, compute life or death solutions for our entire civilization, the unregenerate nonconformist. His commitment is to freedom of thought and action, authenticity of feeling and behavior—whether that feeling or thought is socially acceptable or not. In this, he disproves Marcuse’s thesis that the technological society has the power to extinguish all creative thought. Chamberlain’s Rand Corporation experience is in some ways a justification of the L.A. County Museum “Art and Technology” project, which so many have attacked on the grounds that it forced the artist into cooperation with the military-industrial complex. Chamberlain could not be coopted by Rand any more than he could be coopted by the esthetic of the ’60s, which was alien to his sensibility. I remember, for example, that for a brief period Chamberlain used discards of Judd’s steel boxes; he was forced by his inner drive, his tendency to violate and contradict, to compress and deform them. He scarred their manufactured surfaces, crushing them into his own form, which is concerned not with volume per se, but with an exploration of interior spaces, of hollows, darkened crevices, and recessions contrasted with protrusions and angry projections. Recently he has coated his plastic pieces in Larry Bell’s machine; but the result has not been the glossy mirrored transparent surfaces one associates with Bell, but a curious translucency of variable nuances that is distinctly Chamberlain.

I am impressed with several things about this interview, in particular, Chamberlain’s refreshing lack of any kind of historical pretensions. In point of fact, he influenced many artists, and his use of material as literally and concretely real had repercussions in terms of general thinking about the meaning of materials and surfaces. His spray paintings, begun in 1963, antedated the use of the technique by anyone other than Billy Al Bengston, whose work probably suggested experimenting with such a technique to Chamberlain. Unlike the sculpture, these paintings are related to ’60s’ preoccupations with emblematic images, frontality, flatness, and nonpainterly surfaces and techniques. They are much underestimated in my opinion and are among Chamberlain’s best works, especially in terms of their original color.

I am sorry the interview does not discuss Chamberlain’s photographs, which are among the most original work in the medium of the past decade. Original because they are experimental, evolving out of a personal way of seeing, rather than out of a fixed attitude toward photography.

Chamberlain’s critique of the Rand Corporation mentality is important because Rand’s thinking conforms to a lot of American thought: it begins with the answers, then adduces data to conform to these conclusions. His unwillingness to take this route makes his work particularly valuable right now.

I am also impressed that Chamberlain continues to believe that art is a way of life, not a small business. (He is a rotten businessman; even when he went into furniture, the interior decorators fled.) The work comes out of personal need, and in this sense it is always convincing. To my knowledge Don Judd and I were the only writers with anything good to say about Chamberlain in the ’60s. A new climate of opinion may revise attitudes formed by that time’s frame of mind. My own opinion remains unchanged.

Barbara Rose