Master & Commander

By: Robert Plunket

I first heard of John Chamberlain when I was a freshman in college. I was taking a survey course in art history and finally, after Greek, Gothic, Renaissance, Old Master, Impressionism, and Abstract, we reached the present day—1964. The professor singled out two artists as emblematic, and he made it clear that he hated them […]


John Chamberlain at his Sarasota home in the early 1990s.I first heard of John Chamberlain when I was a freshman in college. I was taking a survey course in art history and finally, after Greek, Gothic, Renaissance, Old Master, Impressionism, and Abstract, we reached the present day—1964. The professor singled out two artists as emblematic, and he made it clear that he hated them both. The first was Andy Warhol with his Brillo boxes. The second was John Chamberlain with his car crash sculptures. That art had sunk to the level where you became famous for reproducing commercial images or displaying a wrecked automobile infuriated the professor so much that veins appeared on his forehead and his hands would turn to claws. I thought he was going to snap his pointer. He couldn’t wait to get back to analyzing the finer points of Manet’s chiaroscuro.

I sat there in the back row thinking, gee, these guys sound cool.

Now, 50 years later, I cannot remember the professor’s name, and Warhol is considered the great artistic genius of the 20th century. And nudging him on the throne is John Chamberlain, who died in December in New York. What the professor couldn’t see was that the two were redefining art, not in a calculated way, but through the force of their own artistic vision. They broke the rules, and in doing so they struck a chord in the world’s unconscious.

The Chamberlain retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum is ending this month, but since February it’s been the must-see event of the Manhattan art scene, and the reviews have cemented John’s position as the great sculptor of Abstract Expressionism, plus Old Master of Pop, worthy of the astonishing prices his work now brings. (One piece recently sold at auction for $4.7 million.) But for Sarasota there is a subtext to the exhibit that adds another level—a number of the works were created right here in that big yellow building near the corner of 10th Street and Cocoanut Avenue. It was here, and in the wooden house next door, now covered in vines, where John lived from 1980 until 1995, when he moved to Shelter Island on Long Island. So this is home-grown art, sourced locally and put together by a team of Sarasotans—welders, painters, assistants—and influenced by all sorts of local tie-ins, from John’s love of the water and the tropical landscape to his run-ins with the police department.

John’s years in Sarasota were the most productive of his life. With an enormous space to create in—the yellow building was originally a boat-building facility—he made work that became larger and larger. Though extremely social by nature, he was not part of the Sarasota social scene. He did go out to dinner parties (I remember being at one where he fell asleep). The people who were important to him—his old friends and fellow artists, his dealers and collectors—were in New York and Long Island. “All my calls are long distance,” was how he once put it.

But he did have a coterie, a group of younger artists, many of whom worked for him at one time or another. After he died last December, they began to reminisce, some on a special Facebook page called “Friends of John Chamberlain in Sarasota,” about the John Chamberlain they knew. To some he was a mentor or father figure; to others, a playmate, companion—or lover.

Like most people who move here, John was drawn by the area’s natural beauty. Particularly the water. “He loved the water,” says Scott Senior, who worked for him for 23 years and developed many of the paint techniques that made Chamberlain’s sculptures so distinctive. When he got a chance to trade some of his art work for a big 1927 motor yacht, The Ottonello, John moved to Sarasota from Essex, Conn. For a while he lived aboard The Ottonello, which he kept at the former Flying Bridge on Casey Key and at Marina Jack’s downtown. “It was a great big boat, close to 100 feet long, with lots of teak,” says Mike Pender of Cavanaugh and Company, who was his accountant at the time.

When Chamberlain decided he wanted to live on the 10th Street property, Pender helped arrange for him to donate the boat to the Sarasota YMCA. John also owned a number of sailboats while he was in Sarasota, including a trimaran called The Clydie, which he kept at the Sailing Squadron on City Island, a sort of bohemian yacht club that personifies the free and easy Sarasota of the old days.

 

In the vast space of an old boat-building facility, John Chamberlain and his assistants welded together both iconic works of art and close relationships. Still remaining there today, clockwise from left:  a work suspended from the ceiling, stacks of old bumpers, assorted equipment, Elitisprovacateur.John was one of the few lucky artists to whom money wasn’t a problem. He was successful early in his career, and throughout his life his work was always in demand. So he could live and work almost any way he chose.

What he chose was to make the property on 10th Street, which at the time was a two-lane shell road, both his studio and his home. Gradually, he bought most of the lots surrounding his property. He was forever getting in fights with the city commission over an alley that ran through them. John wanted to close it off. Mayor Fredd Atkins said it had to remain open for emergency vehicles. The city finally won, but only after years of scheming on both sides.

After he moved off the boat, John slept in a quiet, womb-like room in the office area of the studio. The studio was 18,000 square feet, an enormous space made of corrugated iron with 30-foot ceilings and skylights. He often left the big sliding doors, which faced the street, wide open, and locals driving by could look over and see one of the country’s most acclaimed artists at work. The size and scale of the building enabled him to create much larger and more complex pieces than he ever had before. Inspired by the tropical landscape, he also experimented with color, adding explosive patterns and hues to his sculptures. “Sarasota influenced my colors, as though I invented a fourth primary color,” he once said.

In Sarasota, John created much of the work that defines his artistic vision. The process, which some criticized as being little more than welding crushed automobile parts together, was actually much more complicated. Scott Senior says they developed a 23-step process, with crushing, welding and the application (or removal) of color as important points in the process. Raw material was always being sought out. There was a standing order with a van conversion place in Bradenton to buy all the van tops after they were removed from the vehicles; and even long after John moved away in 1995—up until 2010, in fact—his son, Duncan, would pick up van tops in Bradenton to be prepared for use at 10th Street, then drive them up to Chamberlain on Long Island.

Crushed metal wasn’t Chamberlain’s only medium during his career. He also did series of photographs and worked with ceramics, plastic and tin foil. He even made several experimental films, influenced by his pal, Andy Warhol. His most famous is The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez, starring Taylor Mead and Warhol superstar Ultra Violet. “I think he made the movie mostly as an excuse to get close to Ultra Violet,” recalls Scott Senior with a chuckle.

 

John Chamberlain ArtworkJohn has sometimes been compared to Hemingway as a heavy-drinking womanizer. Alcohol, and to a lesser extent, recreational drugs, were factors in his life that waxed and waned over the years. He sought out women who would “save” him, who would lead him away from his demons, and who would help arrange his life so that it was happy and productive.

Two women were integral to John’s years in Sarasota. The first was Josa Gruelle, who died a few years ago in Miami. Josa was a bonafide Sarasota character in her own right, and was a regular at most of the art events in town, which she would attend solo or with an entourage from the studio in tow. In addition to being John’s girlfriend—a term neither of them would ever use—she was his gardener and linguistic muse. Scott Senior describes her as the concierge of the studio. She made sure there were fresh flowers around. People are often puzzled by the bizarre titles of John’s work—Awesomemeatloaf, Lipstick Canteen, Schizoverbia, Anything Goethe. Many were the result of notes and cards Josa kept that she and John would play with endlessly, putting together puns and alliterations and in-jokes.

John was influenced by the poets he met when he studied at Black Mountain College in the 1950s, and the lighter side of poetic wordplay remained a major pleasure through his life. He loved words almost as much as he loved metal. He was always looking for how words are related to each other, in ways both silly and profound—just as he looked for ways that pieces of metal related to each other. During his squabbles with the city over use of the alley that divided his property, John and Josa got the idea of getting a cat and naming it Nails. Thus they could, and did, put up a sign that said “Beware of Nails.” This kind of behavior would drive the city commission crazy, and the crazier they got, the more delighted John and Josa would be.

The other woman in John’s life in Sarasota was Heidi Anderson (now Connor), who started working with him in 1980. She is credited with straightening out John’s somewhat chaotic life and getting him back on track. Heidi coordinated all his business dealings, including his finances and the documentation of his work. She helped engineer a very profitable deal with the prestigious Pace Gallery in New York, whereby John was paid a stipend against his future earnings, which ensured plenty of money to support his busy studio. “I took care of everything so John could create art,” she recalls.

A late sleeper, John would appear around 11 a.m., and he and Heidi would usually go out for a late breakfast or early lunch. They would discuss what needed to be done that day, and what was going on at the studio, where there were often eight to 10 people working. “Heidi set him straight,” Scott Senior says. “She made it so he could really start cranking out art.”

There were two distinct areas in the studio, based on where the air conditioning stopped. In the air-conditioned area on the southwest side, the “office group” toiled with administrative issues and paperwork. In the large, open space of the former boat factory (and later a rug remnant warehouse), the “studio group” assembled the sculptures. “It’s all in the fit,” was a frequently heard expression. The key was not to crush the metal right, but to assemble the pieces together in just the right way. This was John’s job. His assistants prepared the raw material, but it was John who did the assembling. That’s where the art came in.

The studio group was all men. It included Scott Senior; Jack Crawford, a welder; Duncan, John’s son, who would quietly keep things organized; and assorted characters who would appear and start helping out and sometimes stay around for years, like Carl Lamplighter, better known as Dawgfish.

Brad McCourtney joined the group in 1988, when a photographer, cowed by John’s eccentricities, quit and fled in the middle of the job. Brad was told to show up at midnight. “Bring your shit and take a picture,” was how John phrased the summons. It was the beginning of a job and a friendship that would last more than 10 years.

First impressions were crucial with John. “He tested people,” Brad explains. He would mumble and grunt, act socially awkward, and many people—most, in fact—found him impossible to relate to. But those who stood up to him, who mumbled back or didn’t flinch as he swung the bottle of Courvoisier too close to their faces—those were the ones who were chosen to work in the studio.

Not that “work” is quite the right word. There was a lot of play involved. The atmosphere was that of a pack of overgrown Lost Boys turning everything into an adventure. Three pinball machines were kept busy, plus a dart board, and John would suddenly say, “Let’s go and shoot arrows,” and the troop would adjourn to the back yard for some archery, followed, perhaps, by touch football or paintball. Gaudy, old-fashioned pin-up girls adorned the walls and smoking was permitted, even encouraged. Custom-welded ashtrays were everywhere.

The rhythm of the studio was ruled by two of John’s contradictory traits: his short attention span and his tendency to sit and watch. “He could watch things for hours,” Brad recalls. There were often three or four TV sets on, but something more mundane might catch his attention. Brad remembers John watching someone type for what seemed like hours on end. He thinks John spent this time to come up with new ideas.

On the other hand, “If John had one thing going,” Scott Senior recalls, “he had five in the fire.” He was always experimenting—with paper, plastic—“anything he could crush.”

Sometimes John’s famous friends from the larger art and literary world would drop by. Robert Rauschenberg would visit from his own studio in Captiva, or writer Tom Robbins, author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, would be the next to show up and participate in the fun and games. Or a bus tour of art-loving little old ladies might inexplicably appear, and John would gleefully act the eccentric artist, grunting and acting very eccentric indeed. “He reminded me of a pirate,” says Brad.

Back in the day, from far left: building crates for shipping (the young boy is Heidi Anderson’s son, Chris); Chamberlain; the studio crew, including Garth Francis, Jack Crawford, Doug Appleton, Anderson (now Connor) and Scott Senior; front row, Josa Gruelle and John Connelly; Anderson with German art dealer Thordis Moeller; Chamberlain and his son, Duncan. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF DUNCAN CHAMBERLAIN, HEIDI CONNOR AND SUSAN MCLEOD)

Guided and protected by Heidi, mothered and pampered by Josa, and exhilarated by the guys in the studio, John became more prolific and creative than ever. He began experimenting with photography—Brad helped him install a darkroom and printer—and his increasing output meant more money was coming in. Around 1991 John decided it was time to expand operations.

The first thing he did was to renovate the old house that sat on one of his newly acquired lots. He hired architect Yehuda Inbar to add a second story to the wooden structure. The result was a roomy, elegantly rustic loft hidden away in the trees yet right in the middle of town. What seemed like the perfect move at the time, though, turned out to be the beginning of the end.

Two groups had evolved at the Chamberlain studio, and the addition of the new house began to separate them. Increasingly, there was the house group, doing business in an airy, flower-filled environment, paired off against the rough-and-tumble crew in the workspace. The constant interaction that once had united everyone disappeared, and a new mood took over, one of suspicion and wondering exactly what the other group was up to. Then came the break-in.

John’s property had always been in a rough part of town. There were crack houses to the north, and homeless people often wandered the streets. At first the wacky group of artists fit right in. Prostitutes would come to the door, curious about what was going on in this strange building, and feral cats strolled across the property. Neighbors heard stories about the famous artist and the incredible value of the art that was just over the chain-link fence.

One night the inevitable happened. Two young men broke into the house while John and Josa were there, tying them up and demanding money. John was pistol-whipped and ended up at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Suddenly, the happy-go-lucky atmosphere vanished. Barbed wire was added to the fences and a pair of Rottweilers were now on patrol. The men in the studio stopped visiting the house. With the fierce dogs and fences, it was too much of an effort. John’s confidence in the safety of his home and studio was shattered. He began spending more and more time up North. And when he was in town, he no longer slept at the house but instead checked into the Hyatt. Josa was drifting away, and the sad fact was becoming clear: The Sarasota heydays were approaching their end.

When John began seeing Prudence Fairweather, the longtime assistant of artist Dan Flavin, his life took a new and final turn. Like some of the other women in his life, Prudence helped John subdue his demons. She encouraged him to stop drinking, she took care of him after a serious heart attack (followed by triple bypass surgery), and she also made it clear she wasn’t interested in staying in Sarasota; her focus was the more fashionable world of New York art dealers and the Long Island haunts of East Hampton, where John had purchased Elaine de Kooning’s guest house. When they married in 1996, John’s burst of Sarasota creativity came to an end. He created a new workplace close to their new Shelter Island home, where he lived with Prudence until his death at 84 on Dec. 21, 2011.

This photograph of John with Lump of Arches, taken in the Sarasota studio, became the poster for an exhibition in Spain.And what about the old group? What has become of them? Duncan Chamberlain is still in town, a sculptor in his own right. Scott Senior, who masterminded the amazing color technique that became such a Chamberlain trademark, is still working and recently had one of his pieces purchased by the Naples Museum of Art. Brad McCourtney’s career flourished, and today he is recognized as one of the leading photographers in the region. Heidi Anderson Connor still lives in Sarasota and is the historical collections manager for Michigan’s Edward Lowe Foundation.

John’s death and the triumph of his Guggenheim show have stirred up a lot of memories. To those like me, who knew him as a glamorous but distant figure who livened up the pre-boom Sarasota scene as only a world-famous celebrity can, he remains a kindly enigma. (I still treasure the cigarette pack he crushed to show me how it’s done.) But to those who worked with him, he is more: a major influence in their lives, perhaps the major influence. “He was magical for me,” Brad McCourtney says. “He was a mentor, a trickster, a wild child, an entertainer. I kind of fell in love.”

The 10th Street studio still stands, as does the house. They have been on the market for years, but various zoning restrictions make them a hard sell. The bright-yellow paint is fading, and vines are growing over the old wooden house in a way that John would have found exciting, an enormous sculpture created by nature.

Inside the studio it’s tantalizingly easy to picture the old days. Stacks of bumpers dot the vast cement floor, and everywhere are old tools, work tables, even some half-completed sculptures.

In the office area, yellowing posters and letters are still tacked to the walls; there’s the kitchen with its midnight blue refrigerator, where Josa cooked meals for John, and in the next room, Heidi’s old desk, still cluttered with paperwork and dusty telephones. On the floor sits an electric typewriter, probably the one John liked to watch in action.

And out in back is the garden. Josa did a good job here. It’s an evocative place, part bright sunshine, part tropical shade. Her vegetable patch has disappeared, and no one can quite remember what happened to the hot tub. But John would still feel right at home, lighting another late-morning cigarette before ambling into the studio to galvanize his troops to create yet another work of art to confound, confuse, and dazzle the world.

 

Interior and exterior of the old Sarasota studio today, with Duncan Chamberlain at the desk; John’s house on the 10th Street property, now shuttered and overgrown with vines.

 

A Chamberlain Timeline

1927
Born on April 16 in Rochester, Ind.

1943-46
1943-46: Serves in the U.S. Navy
Serves in the U.S. Navy

1951-52
Attends school of the Art Institute of Chicago

1955-56
1955-56: Attends Black Mountain College in North Carolina; meets poets Charles Olson, Robert Creeley
Attends Black Mountain College in North Carolina; meets poets Charles Olson, Robert Creeley

1956
1956: Moves to New York
Moves to New York

1957
First solo exhibition at Wells Street Gallery in Chicago

1958
First New York exhibition, at the Davida Gallery. First one-man exhibition in NYC takes place in 1960

1968
Makes his first film, Wedding Night, starring Ultra Violet

1971
1971: Returns to New York; John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition opens at Guggenheim Museum
Returns to New York;
John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition opens at Guggenheim Museum

1977
Receives a second Guggenheim fellowship

1980
1980: Moves to Sarasota
Moves to Sarasota

1982-85
Extended exhibition of his sculpture at Dia Art Foundation, New York

1984
Receives Brandeis University Creative Arts Award medal in sculpture

1986
John Chamberlain: Sculpture 1954-1985 at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

1987
Joins Pace Gallery in New York

1990
Elected member of American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York

1993
Receives Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture from International Sculpture Center, Washington, D.C.

1999
Receives Distinction in Sculpture honor from Sculpture Center in New York

2000
Selected Chamberlain sculptures from the Menil Collection and Dia Center for the Arts shown at Menil Collection, Houston, Texas

2011
Dies on Dec. 21 in New York City

2012
2012 - John Chamberlain: Choices retrospective show at Guggenheim Museum follows Chamberlain’s death.
John Chamberlain: Choices retrospective show at Guggenheim Museum follows Chamberlain’s death.

In addition to many exhibitions around the world, Chamberlain’s works are found in the permanent collections of the Albright-Knox Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Ringling Museum, the Musee National d’Art Modern, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Guggenheim, the Tate Gallery and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others.


John Chamberlain changed my life. In the 1980s, he kick-started my career as a realist artist by awarding one of my paintings first place at a Ringling alumni show. The painting was nothing like the work he did—but he saw something in it.—Joan Kresek, Facebook post on “Friends of John Chamberlain in Sarasota”

My grandfather was by far the most thoughtful and generous person I have ever met. Every second with him was full of laughter, surprise, and excitement. The last time he was in Sarasota we went shopping because he wanted me to have “classic pieces of clothing” because “you only have one chance for a first impression.” I miss our weekly phone calls and his packages he used to send me and the letters he used to write me. I miss everything about him.— Layni Chamberlain, Facebook post on “Friends of John Chamberlain in Sarasota”

Back in the ’70s John came to hear me play [Royal is a pianist] often. We became friends. He had a couple of boats at Marina Jack and we’d cruise the bay—I loved our conversations. He said he did with color and shape what I did with sound. Those were sunlit days for sure! —Michael Royal, Facebook post on “Friends of John Chamberlain in Sarasota”

 


This article appears in the June 2012 issue of Sarasota Magazine.

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