Marc Camille Chaimowicz obituary

<span>Marc Camille Chaimowicz with his work Jean Cocteau, 2003-2012, at Tate Modern, London, 2012.</span><span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Marc Camille Chaimowicz with his work Jean Cocteau, 2003-2012, at Tate Modern, London, 2012.Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s recent exhibition at Cabinet Gallery in London, which closed five days before the artist died, aged 78, was typical in its arch mix of art, decor and autobiography.

The show featured a series of sewing exercises created by the artist’s mother when she worked as a seamstress at the House of Paquin in Paris during the 1940s. The geometric patterns she produced as she practised her stitching in the immediate aftermath of the second world war were then reflected in a floor-to-ceiling cascading curtain by her son, rendered in tasteful pastel blue and mauve, and in a series of framed, patterned wallpaper sheets.

Chaimowicz was interested in how decorative objects, or interiors, could become emotionally and even politically charged, in a body of work that combined the melancholic and camp, the romantic and cerebral. The maternal influence intermingled with an interest in Marx and gender theory while Chaimowicz was at art school. He explained that “because it was so male-driven, and black and white, the dominant leftwing ideology seemed as alienating as what it was contesting. Colour was seen as decadent and pleasure as reactionary, and for me that had to be recalibrated. And so domesticity became a sort of metaphor for me.”

His breakthrough was a work titled Celebration? Realife, first staged in 1972 at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, and recreated at various points in the following decades. A vast array of seemingly disparate objects – mirrors and beach balls, religious statuary and cameras, dying flowers in vases, a woman’s single shoe, bras and women’s underwear, masks of all types – were illuminated by spotlights and a glitterball revolving from the ceiling. A record player (later a CD player) in the corner played a soundtrack of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and the like.

In the original version of this disco the artist himself was present, with visitors welcome to speak to him, or not. Each object, like the pop music that blared out, acted as a cipher for an emotion or a memory. The work also, the critic Tom Holert argued, challenged the “role of the artist, who in this defining work simultaneously becomes art director, choreographer and participant”.

This multi-hyphenated approach became Chaimowicz’s calling card, nowhere more apparent than in the south London flat where he lived for 38 years, a Gesamtkunstwerk in which he designed every aspect and every object. Blurring the lines between the private and public self, images, recreations and elements of the apartment were shown throughout his career.

At the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2016, Chaimowicz created three rooms, the same number as in his Camberwell home, filled with sculptures built out of found vases and chairs. He opened his retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2018 with Bespoke Coat Hanger for Decorated Items (2011), the artist’s own customised outerwear hung on a self-designed coat rack against his hand-painted wallpaper.

Chaimowicz was born in Paris, to Marie (nee Tailhardt), who was French Catholic, and a Polish Jewish father whose first name the artist never revealed. His father worked as a mathematician for the medical research centre Institut Curie. Believing the English education system to be better than the French, the family moved to Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, when Marc was eight, and then to Ealing in west London.

When he was 16, Chaimowicz went to Ealing Art College, followed by Camberwell School of Art in 1964. There, “applied arts were seen as taboo. I was interested in questioning that”, he said, and he took an internship at one of the last traditional silk design studios in Lille. After returning from France, having taken part in the Paris revolts of 1968, he took a master’s in painting at the Slade School of Art, a course that led him to largely abandon canvas as a medium.

In 1971 Chaimowicz had his first solo show, at Sigi Krauss Gallery in London, with the Ikon show and shows at Gallery House and Serpentine Gallery, both in London, the year after. Installation, and initially performance, became his mainstay. Table Tableau (1974) featured Chaimowicz sitting at a dressing table, his back to the audience, his face only glimpsed in a mirror as he applied makeup; a metaphor for how he both revealed himself in his work and hid from the viewer.

“I’m doing less art these days,” he explained in an interview at the time, “but I’m more committed to what I do – and to living in general, to doing things at the right time and with totality.”

In 1979, Chaimowicz moved into the red-brick mansion block flat on Camberwell New Road and started its transformation. He said of home, writing in the third person: “It was here that he could shelter from the external word, it was here within this privacy that he gathered energy for his spirit and re-acquired contact with his self.” The following year, Chaimowicz first staged Partial Eclipse, a performance in which the artist paced before a projector screen, his shadow interrupting a slideshow of images documenting what seem the tentative dates of a love affair.

Against the hubbub of the 1990s YBA period, Chaimowicz’s cerebral work fell out of favour, and he did not show in Britain for a decade, though he exhibited steadily in continental Europe.

In 2000 he had the first of several shows at Cabinet. In the following decade several of his exhibitions were in homage to his heroes in French literature, including Jean Cocteau at Norwich Gallery in 2003, in which he created an imaginary apartment for the poet and playwright. He returned to the city in 2011 with Jean Genet... The Courtesy of Objects at The Gallery at Norwich University, which included a fictional casting session for Genet’s 1947 play The Maids. A second act to that exhibition was held later that year at Nottingham Contemporary.

In 2017 Chaimowicz designed the cover of the Pocket Tube Map and an Oyster card holder for Transport for London.

• Marc Camille Chaimowicz, artist, born 25 January 1946; died 23 May 2024

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