In The Face of Adversity
Despite an acute facial-recognition disorder, dyslexia and severe paralysis, Chuck Close creates massive-scale portraits that have solidified his place among the modern masters of the art world. And for the next four months his work is right
The artist Chuck Close is on the phone from his summer place in Bridgehampton, recalling his heretical early phase, circa 1970. “The eyeball realists attacked me for working from photographs,” he’s saying. “It got so bad that when I gave a lecture at the Alliance of Figurative Artists, I got spit on and they threw beer cans at me.”
Let us pause to imagine Close on the other end of the line: powerful shaved head, white goatee, black Le Corbusier glasses, tufted eyebrows—a stately art world figure, probably the most recognizable American artist since Andy Warhol. “A lot of people saw what I was doing as reaching some sort of line in the sand,” he continues. “I’d gone too far.”
To understand what Close means, we must drop in on those turbulent years. He had spent the early sixties imitating his personal hero, Willem de Kooning, slathering colorful shapes onto broad canvases. “I didn’t like what I was making—these loose abstractions,” says Close, whose multifaceted print work is now on view at the Bruce Museum through January 26. The Abstract Expressionism of Pollock and de Kooning was fizzling out anyway, displaced by Pop art and Minimalism, and soon enough by Op, Process, Earth and Conceptual art as well. What Close needed was a fresh start, a “purging” of his old gods and old methods. (When he finally met de Kooning, in the eighties, Close told him it was nice to meet someone who had painted more de Koonings than he had.) But what could he make that was entirely his own? In the late sixties, Close observes, everybody was saying that painting was dead (sculpture was the thing). Figurative painting was deader still, and portrait painting deadest of all. As the great critic Clement Greenberg put it, “With an ‘advanced’ artist, it’s not now possible to make a portrait.”
So Chuck Close made a portrait—a self-portrait. “It wasn’t just that I was doing a portrait,” he says. “It represented as drastic a change from what I was doing as possible. I got rid of color, I got rid of all my tools [namely brushes, in favor of airbrushes and electric erasers], and I found another way to work—through photographs—so there were rights and wrongs, yeses and noes”—a liberating change from Abstract Expressionism’s sense of open-endedness. To walk into a museum and come face to face with Big Self-Portrait, completed in 1968, is to be sucked into its mighty orbit. You can’t walk past it. It commands you to stop and stare—at the monumental head with scraggly locks, the horn-rimmed glasses, the burning cigarette in parted lips, the hooded eyes gazing down at you with ne’er-do-well imperiousness. You stare closer—at every pore, every lash, every strand of hair, every sprout of razor stubble. It’s a photograph, surely, a nine-foot-tall, aggressively unflattering, deadpan funny headshot of the decidedly unstately artist. Or…? You walk up close, eye-level with the hairy nostrils, and see, gasp, paint.
It is then that you understand Close’s mind-blowing technical fluency. “All Chuck used was an airbrush and a tablespoon of black paint,” notes Carol LeWitt, a onetime studio assistant of Close’s who later married the artist Sol LeWitt. “For him to have constructed those early images with those limitations was an extraordinary feat.” According to Close biographer Christopher Finch, “[Big Self-Portrait] had the unfakeable look of an authentic breakthrough painting, a masterpiece in the medieval guild sense of the word: a painting by which a young artist proves himself to be a master.”
Then why the beer cans? Realist figurative painters—painters who paint bodies, scenes, still lifes—were then a put-upon bunch, dashed into obsolescence first by Abstract Expressionism and then by Pop art and its infatuation with mass-cult objects. It’s true that Philip Pearlstein had begun to revitalize figurative painting by marrying it to the poster-like flatness of Pop art—his nudes were almost as hard-edged and uninflected as a Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup. But no beer cans for Pearlstein: He worked the old-fashioned way, from models in his studio. Close, on the other hand, worked like a billboard painter—snapping a photograph, gridding it with pencil lines, gridding his large canvases proportionally, then translating the visual information into paint, square by square, over the course of months. The figurative traditionalists considered this cheating—unaware, still, that the illustrator-god Norman Rockwell also worked from photographs, projecting them onto canvas and tracing them out.
But Close’s point eluded them. The camera does not see things as humans see them. Its ultra-sharp focus here, its fuzziness there, reflects the artificiality of the camera’s eye, an eye that increasingly mediates our perception of the world. In this light, one could view Big Self-Portrait as a really high-minded joke: The tip of the cigarette is blurry, the bristles of the mustache are hyper-clear, and the strands of hair behind his ears are blurry again; which is to say, this isn’t a painting of a person at all, but a painting of a photograph of a person. The notion at play concerns the way we see things now, toggling back and forth between reality and illusion. Less cerebrally, the sheer scale of Close’s early portraits invites us to see the human face as a landscape—“each wrinkle a canyon, the nose a mountain, lakes for eyes,” the formidable critic Robert Hughes wrote. “[Close] is perhaps the only artist of his generation who has really extended the meaning of portraiture.” Not everyone appreciated these portraits. In 1971 the New York Times’s Hilton Kramer judged Close to be “a particularly gruesome” practitioner of the new realism. Close’s work picked up on Pop’s “exploitation of the ugly and the banal,” Kramer wrote, and was “interesting only as evidence of the kind of rubbish that follows in the wake of every turn in the history of taste.”
The detractors were not always critics. Around 1978 Close invited a class of third graders to his studio in Manhattan’s SoHo district. “I was making a very complicated three-color painting—it’s actually the painting of [the artist] Mark Greenwold that’s in the Met,” he says, a painting that took over a year of single-minded labor to make. “I thought it was pretty impressive. This little boy sitting in the front row raised his hand and said, ‘Can you really draw, or do you just copy photographs?’ I thought, ‘Holy shit, it’s happening again, out of the mouths of babes.’ So I turned over a photograph and drew a freehand Mickey Mouse, and they all went ‘Wow!’ That impressed them—that I could draw Mickey Mouse freehand.”
GETTING A “HEAD” OF THE GAME
After Big Self-Portrait, Close made almost exclusively “heads,” as he calls them. “They’re not portraits in the traditional sense, which have psychological characteristics or maybe a sense of the sitter’s personality,” says the artist Keith Hollingworth, who taught with Close at UMass Amherst before each migrated to New York. “These are more like documents. I felt Chuck was breaking new ground—opening a door through which many followed.”
Close almost never works from an image of someone smiling or frowning (inveterate smilers Robert Rauschenberg and Bill Clinton are exceptions); what he wants is not overt expressiveness, but a certain “flat-footedness” that has the paradoxical effect of creating mystery. (Edward Hopper achieved the same effect, painting in an entirely different vein.) A famous early Close painting, Keith, shows Keith Hollingworth with his big sweep of blond hair, thick-frame glasses, and slightly skewed mouth; he looks like a man formulating a bitterly ironic thought but unsure whether to let it out. “Well,” Hollingworth says with a laugh, “I guess I’d better get into it.” In the third grade, he was struck with paralysis on one side of his face; it never lifted. “No one knows why. No cause, no cure. Anyway, my face is not symmetrical. I never thought of myself as attractive or good-looking, because I thought of myself as being disfigured.” But Keith “reads” nothing like a portrait of disfigurement. It’s simply an amplified record of a unique human face. Confronted with his nine-foot self, Hollingworth initially felt queasy—until he realized that all Close sitters feel that way. “You walk in the room and you’re just like, Whoa!”
Close settled in the empty, rat-infested SoHo of 1967 and still lives there today. His early subjects were mostly starving artist friends from the neighborhood, such as Hollingworth, Richard Serra and Nancy Graves. Then-unknown composer Philip Glass, who plumbed Chuck and his wife's Greene Street loft (“the plumbing always leaked”), posed for Close’s camera in 1968, and a huge portrait emerged the following year, featuring the composer’s wild Medusa hair, stoner eyes and sensuous lips. Close “recycles” images he likes again and again; he used the Glass image more than a hundred times over the next forty years. “I am to Chuck Close what haystacks were to Monet,” Glass has said. In the Bruce exhibit, entitled Closer: The Graphic Art of Chuck Close, there are four images of Phil and two of Keith, not to mention ten portraits Close made of himself. One might deem monotonous an artist who creates only headshots of a limited circle, but from this narrow framework Close has wrought incredible variety. Consider the diversity of mediums he uses: ink and pencil, watercolor, pastel, stamp-pad ink, pulp-paper collage, Japanese woodcut, silkscreen, aquatint, soft-ground etching, fingerprint, linocut, lithograph, mezzotint, daguerreotype, and Jacquard tapestry. “Well, I’ve never done a tintype,” Close adds, “because tintypes [a form of photography made on a sheet of iron]are so ubiquitous, so easy to make. I don’t find them engaging in the way that something in which there’s still some struggle engages me.”
The idea of struggle is key to Close’s art; he thrives on the problematical. To make Keith/Mezzotint (1972)—owned by the Museum of Modern Art but on loan to the Bruce—Close resurrected a print form essentially dead for a hundred years, and then partially reinvented it. (Close’s struggle to keep the fragile copper plate from wearing down shows in the lighter tones around the nose and mouth. His “grid” shows through as well, which Close not only liked, but considered a breakthrough: Today the exposed grid is his artistic signature.) Other highlights of the Bruce show include Alex/Reduction Print (1993); a black-and-white linocut of the dyspeptic-looking painter Alex Katz; John (1998), a silkscreen of the sculptor John Chamberlain that required a separate screen for each of the 126 colors; and Self-Portrait (2006), an enormous tapestry woven at a small, ancient mill in Belgium.
The tapestry image of Close comes from another old form that he favors—daguerreotypy, an early photography process. Though daguerreotypes had gone nearly extinct by 1880, Close believes photography never improved on their luminous, sharply etched images. “I like going back and trying to breathe new life into what’s considered a moribund or used-up medium,” he says. “And then nobody’s around who knows how to do it, so I have to figure it out on my own, or maybe with the help of some artist. But they don’t know how to do it, either.”
Problem creation, Close believes, is a sure road to invention. “It’s always better to be in trouble than not. Ease is the enemy of the artist. If it’s too easy, you have to be very suspicious.”
FORTUNE IN ART
Charles Thomas Close’s life has not lacked for trouble. He was born on July 5, 1940, in a small frame house in Monroe, Washington. As the only child of Mildred and Leslie Close, a sheet-metal worker and inventor, he did not lack for love and attention. But Chuck spent much of 1951 in bed with nephritis, and just as he was recovering, Leslie died of a massive stroke. Otherwise, Chuck suffered from dyslexia, poor eyesight and bad coordination, owing to a neuromuscular condition. Most curiously, given his future vocation as a portrait artist, he suffered also from prosopagnosia, or face blindness—the inability to remember people’s faces from day to day. All of this created a general impression of slowness. Close’s guidance counselor said he ought to think carefully about a career in “body and fender work.”
Art saved him. In the fifties public schools held art classes daily, and only by excelling in them did Close gain any sense of self-worth. The diminution of art and music classes today draws his ire like little else. “I had this argument with Mayor Bloomberg!” he says, and zestily proceeds to state his case. It is basically that the emphasis on driving up test scores, inevitably at the expense of art and music, has the corollary effect of raising dropout rates. “If I hadn’t had art and music as a guaranteed right, I would have dropped out of school, too. I’ve always said, ‘If I hadn’t gone to Yale, I could have gone to jail.’ And it’s absolutely true. And Bloomberg said, ‘Oh, Chuck, you’d have been all right, you’re a genius.’ And I said, ‘Of all the things you’ve said, that may be the dumbest. How would I know I had any facility had I not had the exposure?’”
As a child, Close would study the covers of Look, Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post with a magnifying glass, trying to decipher how the great illustrators of the day, Norman Rockwell among them, achieved their magic. But it was Jackson Pollock who first jolted Close’s sensibility. One day Mildred took him to the Seattle Museum of Art, and there the eleven-year-old saw a small Pollock drip painting, made with tar and gravel and aluminum paint. “It outraged me,” he says. “It challenged what I thought art was.” Within days he was dripping paint on his own work. “The thing I like,” Close says, “is when something doesn’t look familiar. “And then I think, ‘Wow, this is really great. I like how it doesn’t look like art.’”
In the mid-1980s, Close’s painting style underwent a change. He gridded his canvases tightly, as usual, but now, instead of transferring the photographic image faithfully to canvas, he filled his little squares with dots of color. His photorealism had dissolved into pointillism. This work too met with approval: “Close’s painting attempts to close the gap between figuration and abstraction in twentieth-century art,” the Times’s Andy Grundberg wrote in 1988. By then Close was a well-established art star, sought after by collectors and museums and interviewers; he’d had sixty solo shows and two major retrospectives, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis. The only question was this: Where would Close, still in his prime, take his art from here?
On the evening of December 7, 1988, during an arts ceremony at Gracie Mansion, Close began to feel desperately ill. After hurriedly presenting an award, he staggered outside and crossed the street to Doctors Hospital. He complained of nausea and chest pain—classic heart attack symptoms. But that wasn’t it. Soon after his wife arrived at his bedside, Close experienced a violent seizure during which an artery in his spine collapsed. When the convulsions abated, he could not move; he was paralyzed from the neck down, a quadriplegic for life. The rumor went out that Close’s career had abruptly ended, that possibly death was imminent. (It’s true he would have suffocated in lung fluid had he not been in the hospital.) Close had been an imposing, broad-shouldered man of six-foot-three; now he was helpless. With rigorous physical therapy, however, he regained limited use of his upper arms and legs. His fingers remained very nearly immobile.
The prospect of never painting again summoned his deepest reserves. In the basement of the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, with a brush strapped to a wrist harness, Close managed to produce a fine, impressionistically loose painting of Alex Katz. “When Chuck was ill and then he completed that first painting, the one of Alex, we were all convinced he would survive,” says Carol LeWitt. “Because if he couldn’t paint, he wouldn’t have wanted to live."
Close talks about “the Event,” as he calls it, with strange equanimity, as if it were a mere intermission. “Really, not much changed at all,” he says. “That’s one of the interesting things about it. One would think it would have changed my work and life, and in fact they changed very little. People got very interested in seeing a change that I don’t think was there. The only thing I detected, a little later on, is I thought the paintings got a little more colorful and a little bit more celebratory. Celebrating the fact that I was able to get back to work.”
Today Close paints from a high-tech wheelchair, reaching the high spots by levering his huge canvases through a slit in the floor. He paints two-handed, the harnessed right hand assisted by the naked left. Square by square, “with all the afflatus of a silkworm eating its phlegmatic way across a mulberry leaf,” as Robert Hughes put it, his paintings emerge. The wonder of Close’s post-Event work is that it evolved into the most vibrant phase of his career. The dots became tiles, and within each tile lay a tiny abstract painting that resembled food or drink: here a glazed doughnut, there a rib-eye steak, there a slice of melon, down here a bottle of wine. Then you step back, and all the little tiles snap into hard focus—a mosaic portrait that shimmers as if seen through lightly rippling water. It does not seem possible. “A ravaged artist had become, in a miracle, one of the great colorists and brush wielders of his time,” wrote The New Yorker’s Roger Angell. (Several works in the Bruce show nicely represent this later phase, including the silkscreen Lyle and Self-Portrait/Woodcut.)
Close has also become, at seventy-three, an elder statesman of the art world. In 1998 the Museum of Modern Art gave him a retrospective, a rare honor for a living artist. In 2005 a color portrait of the artist John Roy (John, from 1972) sold at auction for nearly $5 million; the following year a paper pulp Phil sold for $3.3 million. A youthful Close “de Kooning” turned up on Antiques Roadshow, estimated to be worth as much as $150,000. (“They’re totally wrong,” Close says, laughing.) The Dalai Lama and Presidents Clinton and Obama sat for his Polaroid camera.
Last year the art historian Calvin Tomkins declared Close “the most celebrated portrait artist of our era,” though this is obvious enough by now. What is less obvious is where his reputation will settle, given the fickleness of art posterity. Such questions don’t really occupy Close; but he is asked, and so he answers. “I have a friend who taught with me in Massachusetts. He said, ‘Chuck, you’re gonna be OK, because even if your work falls out of favor, it won’t be thrown away. It’ll go into a basement, because it has built-in antique value.’” By this he means painterly craft—a quality fallen weirdly out of favor since the eighties, when what Close calls “slacker” artists shot to stardom—as well as historically relevant subject matter. “And if it has antique value,” he goes on, “it’ll hang around, and a future generation of critics or artists or curators will bump into the thing in the basement and say, ‘Hey, this looks pretty good!’ And they’ll drag it back upstairs.”