The painter Wynn Chamberlain recently passed away at the age of 87, the New York Times reported on Sunday. Friendly with Frank O’Hara and other poets of the New York School, a fixture in the Andy Warhol orbit, Chamberlain achieved notoriety in the mid-1960s for his series of hyper-realist paintings of nude poets.
One of the most famous and amusing of these paintings was “Poets Dressed and Undressed” (1964) — a double portrait of Frank O’Hara, Joe LeSueur, Joe Brainard, and Frank Lima — which caused quite a scandal at the time.
Here’s how Brad Gooch describes it in his O’Hara biography, City Poet:
“Working from photographs taken at his studio, Chamberlain had painted nude photo-realist cavnases of personalities from the world of art and poetry, including Ruth Kligman [Jackson Pollock’s lover], John Giorno, Bill Berkson, Tony Towle, and Allen Ginsberg. O’Hara appeared in the middle of two group shots — one clothed, one nude — with Brainard, LeSueur, and Lima. The show’s flyer, featuring nudes of Kligman, Giorno, and Chamberlain striding forward, was banned by the postal authorities … Allen Ginsberg wrote an introduction, meditating on his feelings on seeing his own naked body. With the press getting wind of the scandal, the gallery was forced to post a security guard at the door to keep out minors.”
In the book In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art, Russell Ferguson writes:
“Wynn Chamberlain’s audacious double portrait of 1964 first shows O’Hara, LeSueur, the artist Joe Brainard, and the poet Frank Lima dressed in bourgeois office attire. They stare somberly at the viewer. In the second version they are completely naked, and all four sport cheery grins. Chamberlain overtly invokes the playful quality that some gay men of the period could bring to the masking and unmasking that was an unavoidable part of their lives.”
In the show’s catalog Ginsberg wrote:
“Why am I interested in seeing myself naked? Because for years I thought I was ugly. I still do, but I no longer look at myself through my own eyes, I look out – my eyes look outward at my Desire, and I reach out to touch the bodies I love without fear that I’ll be rejected because I’m ugly. Because I don’t feel ugly now, I feel me – more than that, I feel desirous, longing, lost; mad with impatience like fantastic old bearded Whitman to clasp my body to the bodies I adore. So I’m interested in nakedness, I love my old loves’ nakedness. I love anyone’s nakedness that expresses their acceptance of being born in this body, in this flesh, on this planet that will die … So Chamberlain has painted every body naked – modern Joves, Ganymedes, Aphrodities, etc., if you want a tradition – modern friends as they really are to themselves with their naked babies lifted in triumph on bacchic friends’ shoulders stepping forth from the picture toward society; happy, victorious, still alive, photographic, fleshy, truthful to their own birth without clothes.”
The Times obituary for Chamberlain opens with a description of an event that suggests the exciting confluence of different media and art and literary movements in the mid-1960s — a huge gathering that Chamberlain hosted in 1965, at which William S. Burroughs read from his work. On April 22, Chamberlain’s studio loft
“became the center of hip, artsy New York when Mr. Chamberlain, who was best known at the time for painting poets in the nude, hosted a literary gathering that featured a reading by William S. Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch.
The crowd of 130 people — including the pop artist Andy Warhol, the painters Larry Rivers and Barnett Newman, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, the poet and art curator Frank O’Hara, and the photographers Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon — was appreciative as Mr. Burroughs read, with his characteristic eccentric delivery, a futuristic short story. As The New York Times described it, he ‘livened up his one-syllable-at-a-time reading with sudden bursts of dramatic activity, eventually ripping down a white-sheet backdrop and uncovering a painting of horrifying tarantulas.’
Mr. Chamberlain, who was a pal of the poet Allen Ginsberg and the avant-garde composer John Cage as well as a member of the Warhol cohort, was clearly at home in a gathering of eclectic artists, perhaps because his own career in the arts was pretty eclectic.”
Chamberlain was close enough with O’Hara that he visited the poet as O’Hara lay dying in the hospital after being struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island in 1966. Gooch relates that just as Willem de Kooning (who absolutely adored O’Hara) emerged from visiting the gravely injured poet in his hospital room “he was faced with Wynn and Sally Chamberlain holding flowers. ‘Bill de Kooning came out crying,’ recalls Wynn Chamberlain. ‘I’ve never seen him like that, just weeping. When we went in we realized Frank wasn’t going to live. He looked like a Francis Bacon.'”
Chamberlain had wide-ranging interests — as the Times notes, “in addition to painting, he produced an early play by the satirist playwright Charles Ludlam; he made a movie, ‘Brand X,’ that some consider an underground classic; and he wrote novels set in locations like Morocco and India, where he spent a great deal of his later life.”
Chamberlain’s experimental film “Brand X,” vanished from sight for many years and was only recently rediscovered; in 2011, it was screened at the New Museum in New York for the first time in 40 years. The New York Times had an interesting piece at the time on the origins and fate of the movie:
“We thought we were making an art film,” Mr. Chamberlain, now 83 and based in Morocco, said in an interview recently. But eventually “we realized that it was a populist film.” A satirical take on television, with fake programs and commercials, “Brand X” anticipated TV and movie comedies of the next decade like “Saturday Night Live,” “SCTV” and “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” though in a more absurdist vein and with a more political view.
The film, which featured Abbie Hoffman, Sam Shepard, Sally Kirkland and the Warhol superstars Ultra Violet, Candy Darling and Taylor Mead, was released in 1970 in New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Vincent Canby endorsed it in The New York Times as “a tacky, vulgar, dirty, sometimes dull, often hilarious movie” with the tone of “a liberated college humor magazine.”
… [Chamberlain] wrote a script, cast Mr. Mead as his lead and cobbled together $10,000 from supporters. Much of the rest of the cast came together “sort of by osmosis,” Mr. Mead, now 86, said in a telephone interview. “There were just 100 of us downtown hanging out at Max’s Kansas City,” he said, “and we melded.”
Sadly, Taylor Mead passed away in 2013, just a year before Chamberlain himself. Today, the kind of inter-artistic “melding” that went on at places like Max’s Kansas City seems a long way off. You can find out more about “Brand X” here.