BY Zoë Gray in Opinion | 31 MAY 24

Remembering Marc Camille Chaimowicz (1946–2024)

The curator of Chaimowicz's exhibition at WIELS pays tribute to the late artist, who saw domestic space as haven and inspiration

BY Zoë Gray in Opinion | 31 MAY 24

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, who passed away on 23 May 2024, modestly yet persistently sailed against prevailing artistic tides throughout a career that spanned more than five decades. Early on, he embraced the decorative arts and intertwined design, installation, painting, printmaking, collage and daily life into a highly personal vocabulary. A dedicated teacher for many years in both France and the UK, he had a significant impact on younger generations of artists. While his work often looked to the past, he lived with a vivacity and engagement with the present that was immediately discernible to all who met him.

Born in postwar Paris to a French Catholic mother and a Polish Jewish father, Chaimowicz moved as a young child to the UK. However, he maintained connections to the country of his birth throughout his life, despite never returning to live there. Moving fluently between both languages, he was Marc to his English-speaking circle, and Marc Camille to his French-speaking friends. Perceived as ‘continental’ by the British art world and ‘oh so British’ by the French, he occupied an in-between position which arguably delayed his market recognition, but also served as fuel for his practice.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Man Looking Out of Window (for SM), 2006. Courtesy: Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York

Writing an obituary is seldom a joyous task. In this case, endeavouring to put into words the life of someone who spent much of that life evading being pinned down feels close to a betrayal. Chaimowicz might even be piqued to learn – if he’s reading this from some pastel-coloured afterlife (hopefully well stocked with Suze and French literature) – that his date of birth, coquettishly kept secret for so long, is now public knowledge.

Despite featuring in his own work on occasion, either as a performer or in photographs, Chaimowicz was reluctant to be portrayed. The photographs of him as a younger man usually show him from behind, looking out of a window or reflected in a mirror. In recent years, when pressed for a portrait, he would supply an image reflected in a shop window, his features entirely obscured, only his outline – with his signature fedora hat – recognizable. Yet one of his last major works, The Hayes Court Sitting Room (1979–2023), was an eloquent self-portrait, which synthesized many of his lifelong fascinations.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, ‘Nuit américaine’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; photograph: Stefan Altenburger Photography, We Document Art and Mark Blower

‘I would like to send you my sitting room,’ Chaimowicz announced during an early conversation concerning his 2023 exhibition at WIELS, Brussels, titled ‘Nuit américaine’ (Day for Night), which I curated. In 1979, he moved into Hayes Court, an apartment building on the Camberwell New Road in south London. He painted the sitting room in his signature pastel palette, and patterned the walls with a specially made roller: poor-man’s wallpaper, as he described it to me. The interior he created – as Kirsty Bell noted in The Artist’s House (2013) – was more reminiscent of prewar continental Europe than 1970s London, a recollection, Bell suggests, of the Paris apartment where he lived as a child. ‘Decorative arts and textiles were not generally considered to be the domain of a male artist in the early 1970s, nor was the explicitly housebound setting Chaimowicz chose as his arena for creative production,’ writes Bell. ‘Stepping gently over the demarcations that cordon off feminine from masculine, he offered instead the possibility of an androgynous zone of creative activity.’ For Chaimowicz, domestic space was also the space for making art, both haven and inspiration. Writing in the third person in Dream, an anecdote by Marc Camille Chaimowicz (1977), the artist notes: ‘It was here that he could shelter from the external world; it was here within this privacy that he gathered energy for his spirit and re-acquired contact with his self.’

While the other rooms in Chaimowicz’s apartment became cluttered with the accoutrements of life, the sitting room remained a time-warp that affected the behaviour of its (select) visitors. In a catalogue essay for his 2005 show at Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf, curator Catherine Wood recalls dropping in for coffee: ‘Entering his apartment, I enter into a mood that is at a significant remove from the relentless city street outside […] In the elements and atmosphere of this room, of this meeting, so many aspects of Chaimowicz’s practice are revealed and compressed. The aesthetic totality of this living space, with its particular surface decorations, is evidence [of] the artist’s engagement with painting. It recalls the flat, patterned, diffusely lit interiors of Pierre Bonnard or Édouard Vuillard […] The artist’s collection of objects and furniture, and the design of his furnishing fabrics, weave the products of his own work in with his accumulated possessions to create a habitation that is simultaneously use-able, “in use”, and statically petrified as a fragment of his body of work.’

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, ‘Nuit américaine’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; photograph: Stefan Altenburger Photography, We Document Art and Mark Blower

For much of his life, Chaimowicz was resistant to changes in his environment. A sense of stasis enabled him to channel his creative restlessness solely into his work. Nevertheless, in 2019, he moved up the road to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, into a newly built complex to which he contributed various design elements, comprising Cabinet Gallery and his apartment. Shortly afterwards, the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on his life, his fragile health obliging him to self-isolate for many months. From within his refuge, he made works featuring the birds that swooped through the air and landed on his balcony. Although physically isolated, he continued his conversations with the world through Skype and email. From his kitchen table, he conceived his major retrospective, ‘Zigzag and Many Ribbons’, at the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain in Saint-Étienne (2022–23), finalized his monograph, Reverie, Its Practice and Means of Display (2022), and developed his new work for WIELS.

In February 2023, The Hayes Court Sitting Room – a stage set composed of four daises, fanning open in front of the visitor – was constructed in Brussels. The room’s contents had become artworks, to be insured, conserved, protected. Fragile or rare objets were moved out of reach of potential souvenir-hunters. The unmovable fireplace was re-created and painted with a new design. Discussing how to present his domestic interior in the post-industrial spaces of WIELS, Chaimowicz insisted upon theatrical evocation over the authoritative ‘museumification’ typical of preserved artists’ studios. As he put it: ‘It’s not Madame Tussauds!’ Upon visiting his exhibition, Chaimowicz recounted to me that the work had originated as a way of dealing with separation, which ‘by definition, can be painful. This procedure, however, of separating myself from the home in which I’d lived for 40 years became therapeutic, transcendental and, accordingly, joyous.’ Chaimowicz leaves behind a unique body of work. He will be so very dearly missed.

Main image: Marc Camille Chaimowicz, ‘Nuit américaine’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; photograph: Stefan Altenburger Photography, We Document Art and Mark Blower

Zoë Gray is Director of Exhibitions at Bozar in Brussels, Belgium and former senior curator at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, Belgium.