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John Chamberlain

By Malcolm Morley

I met John Chamberlain in the early 1960s, so I knew him many years. I’m going to talk about three experiences that I had with him. I am not going to talk about the vast history of innovations that he created, including, as I said to him once, putting color back into sculpture that hadn’t been there since the ancient Greeks. He rather liked that idea. I said to him, “You know, the Greeks would no more have had a naked figure of sculpture than a naked man running around the public park.”

The first experience was when I was walking down Fifth Avenue one day and John was coming towards me carrying a lot of books. I got closer and looked at them and saw that they had titles such as, “The Art of Speaking.” I made a comment, and he said, somewhat embarrassedly, that he had been awarded a medal at the Guggenheim and thought he should do his homework. I thought that was so nice.

The second experience I had with John was sailing with him. That’s an experience you’re not going to forget. I was on the wheel and he was bringing the sails about when a squall turned up suddenly. He was incredibly nimble, and asked me to move that rope here and that rope there. I’d gotten the wrong rope, though, and he said, “You idiot, you’ve got the wrong rope. Get this one. Get that one.” That was my experience sailing with John.

The third was that he had started making couches out of foam, and I had decided to commission one from him. In the afternoon, a huge square of foam—about twelve feet long—arrived at my studio. At eleven o’clock at night, John appeared with two huge butcher knives and some other stuff that would help him through the night (I won’t go into details). Then he said, “Go to bed. Get out of here.” I woke up in the morning and there he was, naked, spread out on the couch. He had cut around his own body the various forms, so that you would take the position that he had been in. Unfortunately the couch dissolved. They don’t stay around long.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters