Zig Zag: A Memoir by Klaus Kertess

BOMB 129 Fall 2014
BOMB 129

“You may have heard the sad news that John Chamberlain passed away last Wednesday morning. The Chamberlain family will host a public funeral this Friday, December 30th, beginning at 10:30 am at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. All are welcome; please come by if you can.” That was my only email this morning. His death became part of my life a week ago, when it was announced at the dinner I attended at which I spent the rest of the meal holding back my tears. Although I cannot say we were close friends, John’s art has brought much joy into my life. Out of Detroit’s detritus of painted metal automobile fragments he assembled dense layers of metal petals— flowers of thought—often visibly battered, their sharp edges and occasionally pointed folds harboring beauty’s potential pain; but never enough to seriously threaten their true beauty. Gardening, sex, and making art he deemed life’s three most noteworthy pursuits. He seemed most successful at art. In 1975 or 1976, when I returned from a month-long trip to Australia accompanying Lynda Benglis, the first person I ran into already knew that John had taken the apartment across from me at 4 East Eighth Street. I went into mild shock, thinking of the various times I had seen John really drunk—at Max’s standing up and throwing a punch at his good friend Neil Williams (then immediately embracing him), or at one Rauschenberg party or another—often threatening a retreating female. I thought I would never work again with him as a neighbor; however, he was a most gentlemanly neighbor. Occasionally John would come over to my apartment—I think mainly to get away from the woman he was then living with. He was not only polite but also very intelligent. In the years to come, I would write about John on a number of occasions. I once was asked to speak at a dinner in his honor at a dining room at the United Nations. Rather than give a lecture, I decided to read a list of a number of his titles that illustrated the kind of word play and invention taught by the poet Charles Olson, whose class Chamberlain had attended while studying at Black Mountain College. Chamberlain transformed Olson’s lessons in word play and improvisational accumulation of sound into sensuous accumulations of radiant and radiating petals accumulating into floriferous sensuality. This kind of improvisational accumulation and transformation appeared in the titles of Chamberlain’s pieces, and ultimately took physical form in his crushed car-part sculptures—where strips of painted metal replaced improvised word configurations

Angel Beyond Opio
Ultima Thule
Ultra Yahoo
Vulcan Rapid

Chamberlain was gruff but wise; he always answered questions a bit abruptly but right to the point. When his apprenticeship to the sculptor David Smith was over, he quickly and spontaneously invented his mature vocabulary. After deliberately running over the front fenders of an old Ford on Larry Rivers’s property in Southampton, he loosely joined them and called the result Shortstop (1957). Sculpture would never be the same after Chamberlain’s re-invention of modeling—virtually found modeling. I have written about John Chamberlain four or five times and learned more about his sculpture each time. He and Brancusi may be the two greatest sculptors of the twentieth century.

The reports back from the funeral were bleak. Artist friends like Larry Bell and Robert Irwin flew in from Los Angeles and with local artists and friends packed the cathedral. Word went out that John’s widow and one of his sons were devout Catholics—hence St. Patrick’s. No one spoke, except an altar attendant who announced the singing of Ave Maria, a song he claimed to be one of Chamberlain’s favorites. John insisted that his sculpture was based on ordinary everyday movements and materials—such as wringing water out of a wet towel, wadding an empty paper bag or cigarette pack, or squeezing a sponge. He would find the right fit amongst the plethora of industrially painted and battered metal car parts that filled his studio floor, looking like so many brushstrokes waiting their turn to find other strokes to conjoin with, mate with, and fit into the process of becoming a sculpted presence. John always employed the word “fit.” For each painted metal component, he would find the right fit with a mate or mates, in a kind of slow-motion orgy. He would unite the found color and accidental modeling of sections of car exteriors or trashed refrigerators or other metal detritus into a fluttering, layered, unexpectedly beautiful volume. Or he might simply take a piece of foam rubber and squeeze it and tie it with a cord so that it blossomed into a buxom form— occasionally recalling the sensuous torsos of the sculpted female figures so prominent in medieval Asian Indian art, a few examples of which John had seen and been impressed by at the Art Institute of Chicago, when he attended school there. As far back as I can recall, I have longed to have a piece of sculpture of John’s that I could commune with on a daily basis. It is not easy to contemplate a world without Stephen Mueller’s paintings and John Chamberlain’s sculpture. In another month, the Guggenheim Museum will open an exhibition of John’s work that will undoubtedly sate my need for his beauty for at least two months.

Now I recall the story recently alluded to in the newspaper about Rodin no longer having access to Balzac as a model for his full-figure bronze portrait, so he bought a coat in Balzac’s size that somehow he was able to fill—first in his imagination, then in a clay model, finally in metal. There is no related process I can imagine that would encourage me to fill with words the slightly baggy pants and jackets that so loosely and willingly embraced John.

Perhaps it is time to check in on Nabokov’s Speak, Memory page 186, which is the page I am on now. Nabokov is in school and refuses to participate in any of the extracurricular activities on offer to him. Everybody pointing to the example of his father’s many activities does nothing to change young Vladimir’s mind. As for my father, he’d come to visit me unannounced, whenever he’d travel to Boston on business. However, he was more likely to seek out one of my teachers than engage in any activity with me. He had already made it possible for me to charge records at the record store in the village and clothes at The Andover Shop, as I needed. Material gifts continued to take the place of emotional ones, in our relationship. And, what conversations we did have during my Andover years, were mainly taken up with his repeatedly telling me how intelligent my teachers were. Usually he would host a dinner for several teachers. I would be asked to arrive later than my teachers, so my father could have time alone with them. These dinners always took place in the spacious dining room of the Andover Inn, a stone’s throw from the back of the Addison Gallery where Pollock’s precious Phosphorescence hung. As I approached the table, I would frequently hear unfamiliar names floating around the table like barely recognizable guests from another world. Aldous Huxley, Albert Hofmann, Alfred Hubbard, MKULTRA, Timothy Leary, Owsley Stanley, Ken Kesey. Those blooms of the fast-blossoming psychedelic world, in the early 1950s and onward, would have little direct impact on my world. LSD seemed too violent for me; I’d have to wait for the velvet caress of opium to find a sympathetic drug. That would still be several decades away.

A car and driver would always be waiting for my father, as we adjourned from the inn. A light touch on my head, and he would disappear into the vehicle, usually leaving me to stand silently with my teachers, one of whom would then volunteer something like “your father is such an intelligent man.”

I do remember going home for a weekend once and asking who Aldous Huxley might be, while we were all sitting in the living room. My mother said he was my father’s most recent enthusiasm and his writing had encouraged my father to experiment with a drug called LSD. I asked my father what happened when he imbibed the drug. He told me he saw fountains of many colors—colors more distinct and beautiful than anything his normal, compromised vision permitted him.

“Tell your son about Jesus,” my mother suggested. Reluctantly, my father then recounted a visitation by a heavily bearded figure dressed in a white robe and making frequent signs of the cross with his right hand. They exchanged no words, but my father was quite convinced he’d had a vision of Jesus Christ, although he had no strong Christian beliefs. Writing the foregoing sentences brings back memories of the 1950s, and joins them with memories of my recent visit to Andover for the opening of an exhibition, curated by my favorite artist and friend (as well as Andover alumnus) Carroll Dunham. This exhibition included four painters, each with his or her own gallery, circling the large main gallery of the second floor of Andover’s Addison Gallery. Dunham, known to his friends as Tip, filled the gallery with an eclectic selection of paintings from the museum’s collection. He avoided the obvious highlights of the collection, in favor of sparking/ creating unexpected connections and reverberations with younger contemporary painters, and managed to make some clunkers look remarkably fresh and of the moment.

One of the four circling galleries was hung with a selection of Billy’s paintings— including two portraits of me; in one I am veiled with mosquito netting as I lay naked in bed early one morning on our short vacation in Tulum several years ago. Tulum is perhaps the last town left relatively undisturbed on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, now burdened with the designation of “Riviera Maya” and large tourist hotels. Years ago, we could walk for miles on the beach without running into more than one or two people. In the painting, a still life of fruit, including a pineapple, rests on a bright red table in the right foreground, adding some literal and metaphorical juice to the space of my recumbent body. Recently viewing the painting created a decade or so ago, I had a momentary flash of wishing my penis looked larger. The painting buzzes with serenity. Billy’s gallery is filled with an even and serene light. The other three painters, each with a gallery of their work, are younger than Billy, but their work is bracing and original. And we all enjoyed each other’s company. Sam—who is now officially my son, since my now-legal-in-New-York-State marriage to Billy—joined us. He displays ever more interest in art, as he develops his own sensibility. For several years he has been buying Pre-Columbian fired clay figures, often with distended stomachs and serene facial expressions that seem to recall Chinese sculptures of Buddha. And he has shown a growing interest in contemporary art and late modernist art, the latter collected by his grandmother— who gave Sam’s mother, who in turn gave Sam, some fine drawings, most recently a wonderful Dubuffet drawing of a scaly, demonically jocular figure. I too have made the occasional gift of a drawing to Sam on Christmas or on his birthday, and I’ve been made aware that what he especially hopes to inherit is the large Joan Mitchell pastel that she gave me. In my capacity as adjunct curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum, I curated a show of her pastels in the lobby gallery—modest in number but dynamic and vibrant in color, celebrating the fields, trees, and most joyously the sunflowers that grew outside her studio and that periodically inspired her to do other series of bristling floral radiance. And because her house and nearby studio stood on top of the hill overlooking the Seine—where a small shed once sheltering Monet’s occasional involvement with the landscape of Vétheuil stood—art writers frequently mention Monet as an influence on Joan, which truly annoyed her and rightly, so it seems. Van Gogh, Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse, and de Kooning were all important to her work. Most important was Van Gogh whose passionate outpouring of strokes had already impressed Joan as a child and might well have given her the courage as an adult to paint Cézanne’s signature mountain, Mont Sainte-Victoire, in the South of France. Sharing a subject with her artist forbears led her into fertile ground—as, in contrast, did the deaths by cancer of her sister and mother. This brought out the lugubrious side of her humanity—as did the cancer that returned, to finally strike her down—of course, in a blaze of beautiful painting. As I sat in her studio toward the end of her life and watched her struggle up a ladder with a paint-loaded brush in hand to reach the top of a large painting in progress, I asked her how she could paint with so little distance between her and the canvas. She turned and smiled and said, “I just think to myself that this fucking stroke better work, and then almost always, when I climb off the ladder and sit a distance away, I see that it has.” And then she would change the subject and want to know why I hadn’t sent her the writing I had promised. Often, she seems to stand in front of me and urge me on. She has been dead almost twenty years now and still she alternately prowls, laughs, and harangues from the spot she has claimed in my brain.

An unintended dark moment intruded, as I viewed Alexi Worth’s paintings in Tip’s exhibition at the Addison Gallery. One of his paintings (all painted on tightly meshed screening) unfolds an almost transparent layering of a hand seemingly wanting to wad up the material it is emerging from. The previous day I took a subway from Matthew Barney’s studio back to Manhattan after briefly interviewing Matthew about some issues raised by his early work. Two men accompanying four or five young people who clearly had some kind of mental disability, stood and sat opposite me. One of the attended was considerably older than the others and sat looking away from them. Gradually he pulled one piece of paper after another from one of the many pockets on the front of his jacket, crumpled it up, and let it drop on the floor. For three stations he continued, then he and his younger peers—I’m trying to avoid the word “inmates”—and their two guides got off the subway. When the doors closed and the subway lurched forward, I looked across to the space where the crumpler of paper had been sitting and saw the pile of wadded paper on the floor expressing the anger he was likely feeling but was unable to express or harness verbally. His crumpling contained none of the joy Chamberlain could release from his nimble fingers. He surely was more crushed than the paper was, or as crushed, in the knowledge that he could not successfully separate himself from his fellow travelers. Throughout his three-station travel on the subway he had remained utterly expressionless, while the younger travelers in his group laughed as their guides engaged them in verbal play and occasionally exchanged resounding high-five handslaps. For several stops, after the group’s departure, the crumpled paper continued to hold its shape before sliding around the floor and being purposely or haphazardly kicked and/or stepped upon. Off and on, during the rest of the day, the image of the crunched up and abandoned paper slipped in and out of my thoughts. The next day, suddenly it had accompanied me to Andover.

Andover’s campus remains unchanged after the fifty-six-year hiatus since my initial/first arrival there. Only the food served in the Commons seems to have changed, with its inclusion of more cooked vegetables and leafy greens. I had an all-vegetable lunch on our second and last day there. Two days of good company, good art, and good memories of drifting in and out of the Addison Gallery of Art, where Pollock’s Phosphorescence was encountered one half-century or so earlier. Unfortunately, it seemed to be hibernating somewhere in the museum’s storage space; but I still readily recalled the memory of its beauty, as well as my conviction that Pollock’s drawing with his fingers in the wet sand under moonlight had generated this dazzling eruption of light.

Klaus Kertess opened Bykert Gallery on 57th Street in 1966 in New York City. He represented Brice Marden, Barry Le Va, and Alan Saret, among others, and, later, worked with filmmakers Michael Snow and Paul Sharits. Kertess closed the gallery in 1975 and has since devoted his energy to freelance curating and writing.

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A selection of pages from Hands Up, Herbie!, a graphic biography of the artist and educator Herb Perr.

Sacred Folly: on Romain Gary’s The Kites and Promise at Dawn by J.W. McCormack
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A rediscovered novel and memoir depict a character we are lucky to have on the page. In life he would mortify us.

Four Memories by Jonas Mekas
Jonas Mekas Dog 01

Disastrous screenings, Nam June Paik’s meeting with Bill Clinton, and time spent as a dog.

Originally published in

BOMB 129, Fall 2014

Featuring interviews with Moyra Davey, James Hoff, Claudia Rankine, Matthew Weinstein, Ben Lerner and Ariana Reines, Valeria Luiselli, Tyondai Braxton, and Nicole Cherubini.

Read the issue
BOMB 129