A composer going into a room to compose a musical piece from years of experience knows what the cord will sound like. I am making a musical cord only with paint.
Chuck Close was born on July 5, 1940, in Monroe, Washington. Suffering from severe dyslexia, Close did poorly in school but found solace in making art. After earning his MFA from Yale in 1964, Close took his place atop the American art world by creating large-scale, photo-realist portraits that have creatively blurred the distinction between photography and painting
Charles Thomas Close was born July 5, 1940, in Monroe, Washington. The son of artistic parents who showed great support of their boy's early creative interests, Close, who suffers from severe dyslexia, struggled in almost all phases of schoolwork except art. He was not terribly popular in school, and his problems were furthered by a neuromuscular condition that prevented him from playing sports. For the first decade of his life, Close's childhood was more or less stable. But when he was 11, tragedy struck, when his father died and his mother fell ill with breast cancer. Close's own health took a terrible turn around this time as well, when a kidney infection landed him in bed for almost a year. Through all of this, however, Close deepened his love for painting and art in general. At the age of 14, he saw an exhibition of Jackson Pollack paintings. Pollack's style and flair had a great impact on Close, and, as he later recounted, it made him determined to become an artist. Close eventually enrolled at the University of Washington, graduating in 1962 and immediately heading east to Yale to study for a Master of Fine Arts from the university's Art and Architecture School. Steeped heavy in the abstract world, Close radically changed his focus at Yale, opting for what would become his signature style: photo-realism. Using a process he came to describe as "knitting," Close created large-format Polaroids of models that he then recreated on large canvases. This early work was bold, intimate and up-front, replicating the particular details of his selected faces. In addition, his pieces blurred the distinction between painting and photography in a way that had never been done before. His techniques too were noteworthy, in particular his application of color, which helped pave the way for the development of the inkjet printer. By the late 1960s, Close and his photo-realist pieces were entrenched in the New York City art scene. One of his best-known subjects from that period was of another young artistic talent, composer Philip Glass, whose portrait Close painted and showed in 1969. It has since gone on to become one of his most recognized pieces. He later painted choreographer Merce Cunningham and former President Bill Clinton, among others. By the 1970s, Close's work was shown in the world's finest galleries, and he was widely considered one of America's best contemporary artists.
In 1988, Close again experienced the trauma of a severe health issue when he suffered the sudden rupture of a spinal artery.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Close was left almost entirely paralyzed. Eventually, after rounds of physical therapy, Close, who became permanently confined to a wheelchair, regained the partial use of his limbs. Despite the physical limitations, Close pressed forward with his work. With a brush taped to his wrist, Close continued to paint, but in a style that was more abstract and less precise. His reputation and standing have not suffered in the least. In the years since, Close's position atop the American art world hasn't changed. His work has been met with rave reviews and expensive commissions. In 2000 President Clinton named Close a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. In 2007 his life became the subject of a full-length documentary, Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress, by director Marion Cajori. Close and his wife, Leslie, live in New York City and Long Island, New York.
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born 1940, Monroe, WA
1958-62 University of Washington, Seattle BA
1964 Yale University, New Haven, CT, MFA
most major museums including
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, CA
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Australian National Gallery, Canberra
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Museum of American Art, Washington DC
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC
Seattle Museum of Art, WA
Staatliche Museum, Berlin, Germany
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
The many faces of Chuck Close, now exhibiting at SFMOMA, show an artist who's interested in visual, not internal, expression
Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic
San Francisco, CA
I suspect that many visitors feel some frustration at learning so little about the artist himself from the work on view in "Chuck Close: Self-Portraits, 1967-2005" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After all, the idea still persists, well beyond its time, that a good portrait unmasks the sitter.
Nearly 40 years ago, when I first saw black-and-white paintings like the self-portrait that opens the Close exhibition, I wondered whether a painter could still mean a portrait as anything but a conceptual gambit.
"I wasn't sure I meant them as portraits either," Close told me while in San Francisco for the opening of his show. "I called them 'heads'; I didn't use the word 'portrait.' They were supposed to be every man, every woman, going against the notion of Warhol's 'superstars' and Marilyn Monroe and that sort of thing. I just tried to paint totally anonymous people and it turned out that the people I painted were Nancy Graves, Richard Serra and Philip Glass," all of whom soon emerged as celebrities in the art world.
Close, 65, a native of Washington state, arrived in New York with a master of fine arts degree from Yale in the mid-'60s, a moment of cultural ferment unlike any before it or since.
Pop art and minimalism had begun to eclipse the "action painting" of the so-called New York School, but several of its great figures -- Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Philip Guston (1913-1980) -- continued to produce.
Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) wielded an influence then that no American art critic has since rivaled, though his star dimmed as ever fewer artists appeared to hew to his formalist prescriptions.
In every interview, including his conversation with me, Close has recalled how, early on, he took a contrarian cue from Greenberg. When he read somewhere that Greenberg had said the one thing a painter could no longer do was make a portrait, Close saw an uncrowded path open before him.
Though he speaks lightly of it now, Close remembers how necessary it seemed to have a tight rationale for one's work in the embattled New York art world of the late '60s.
"I thought that what made postwar painting different from British or European painting," Close said, "was this commitment to the entire rectangle and a sense of all-over-ness, whether it was Pollock's skein-like ribbons of color ... or Stella's black stripes or de Kooning's 'Excavation' or Sol LeWitt's things. And I wanted to do away with the typical hierarchy of a portrait that says features -- eyes, nose and mouth -- are what's important and the rest doesn't matter."
In the minimalist spirit of the day, "I literally wanted to make every square inch the same," Close recalled. So he resorted to an evenly ruled grid, a procedure he still uses, to transfer visual information from a photograph to canvas.
In early black-and-white pictures, such as the 1967 self-portrait at the entry to the SFMOMA show, he airbrushed away the grid as he worked. But he soon decided to let the grid show and once he did, its way of parceling out visual information and creating constructive opportunities quickly became an overt focus of his art.
The work in the exhibition traces the variations he has played on the scale and orientation of the grid and on the accretion of little cells and their varied contents into some sort of likeness.
Close takes more than portrait photographs -- he also shoots nudes and flowers -- "but I don't make paintings from them," he said. "Of all the variables I could alter, the one that seemed least interesting to alter was subject matter. There are other variables you can alter that change what you do in the studio, that keep it fresh and keep it from feeling like you're plowing the same ground."
The current show restricts subject matter even further to images of the artist himself. Still "they're just clusters of these marks that stack up to build a situation that reads like something," Close said of his paintings. "The pictorial syntax and vocabulary of [the early pictures] is really dumb. There can't be a dumber art mark than this," a deliberate renunciation of the drama of New York School painting. "I wanted the stupidest, dumbest, most inarticulate art mark you could have. Just a dot -- spray it on."
That anti-expressionist spirit pervaded the work of many younger artists in late '60s New York. "We were all figuring out ways to build an image rather than paint it," Close said of himself and painter friends such as Jennifer Bartlett and Joe Zucker. "Sculptors didn't want to work in bronze or marble or wax. They wanted to find a material that didn't have any art use. We were similarly trying to find ways of working that were not about paint-it-in, paint-it-out, scrape-it-off -- some way of working all over at once."
Some critics at the time dubbed Close a photo-realist because he based his paintings on photographs. But he began by regarding the photograph more as a convenience than as a subject. "I didn't want a model in the room for three or four months," Close said. "It would drive me crazy, drive them crazy. But also, they gain weight, they lose weight, their hair gets long, they cut it short, they're awake, they're asleep. And a painting becomes the mean average of all those conditions. I simply looked at photography as a way to jot down the information."
Eventually he had to acknowledge his own camera works as something more than studio devices. A range of them appears at SFMOMA. "When I started working with Polaroid in the mid-'70s was the first time I took photographs that were not going to be used as maquettes for painting," Close recalled. "And I said 'Oh my God, if I'm making photographs that are going to stay photographs, that must mean I'm a photographer.' That really came as a shock .... But then I thought, 'well, I've always been interested in photography' and in fact it's really the only thing I collect, and I don't collect much. And photography or even the daguerreotypes" -- several appear in the exhibition -- "are a way to work quickly, because a painting takes at least a month. I can move quickly through the large Polaroids and it's just nice to use your head in a different way."
From the beginning, Close has chosen to work from the most neutral head shots he can get, of himself and others. "I don't have people laughing or crying," he said, "but if you've laughed all your life, you'll have laugh lines, if you've frowned all your life, you'll have crow's feet on your brow. There's all kinds of information in a face even if you just present it neutrally."
Despite many years of experience taking photographs, Close still cannot foresee which pictures will form the basis of paintings. "I shoot about 10 people for every person I paint," he said, "which is a problem because most people feel that if I've shot them, it's a contract. But I'm plagued with indecision ... yet something always floats to the surface and demands to be painted. Sometimes it's a picture of somebody I wasn't particularly interested in painting and other times I'm really dying to paint somebody and I never get an image that I want to work from. Basically, it's my friends and family or other artists I have a significant relationship to through their art ... I don't do commissioned portraits and I don't paint college presidents or CEOs."
The photograph continues to serve Close as a mediator between the immediacy of observation and the long march of a painting's construction. "It has this ability to make poem-like cross-section of time," he said of the photograph, "a frozen moment that then can be dealt with over months, as many as 12 or 14 months sometimes, in a more novelistic time frame. But even though it's done over that long period, hopefully [a painting] will have some of the freshness of that instantaneous moment."
Close enjoyed notable critical and commercial success from quite early in his career, but it nearly ended in 1988 when a spinal artery blood clot felled him, initially leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
After eight months in the hospital physical Close noted that his work had begun to loosen up, with more brushwork and color filling each unit of the grid, before his near-fatal health crisis. "The only real change is the increased celebratory nature of the work post-hospitalization," he said, "because I was just so happy to be able to get back to work. "
Scrutinize the big 1997 "Self-Portrait" and it appears almost to break down into little abstract paintings. Correspondence between local colors and the portrait likeness has become less and less straightforward as Close's work has matured.
"I try to build something out of the least likely color you could possibly use," Close said when I pointed this out. "Because I'm going to do something and then put five or six correcting colors on top of it, I'll have a blue underneath than orange and green. The correcting colors on top take a different route each time. And I find it all in context. All the decisions are made in the rectangle, instead of on the palette ... in context, adjacent to finished areas and in anticipation of what I want to do next." Each painting is "a record of decisions and personal problem-solving, the kind of problem-solving where you ask yourself questions where no one else's answers will fit."
Without rolling back to check all the time, how does he not lose the coherence of the image?
"The analogy I use," Close said, "is that of a composer who can go into a room and write one note for a bassoon, another for the French horn, and he knows from experience what the resultant combination of those notes played together will sound like. In a very similar way, I know what those four or five or six colors will read like from a distance. I also put English on the strokes. So they swell or shrink or they connect, or they might have a dark center or a light center or they might be ovals or oblongs or teardrops or whatever. ... I'm very seldom surprised when I roll back that it doesn't read like I thought it would."
I wondered whether he noticed as he works the comic quality brush marks sometimes assume. "Oh, I crack myself up making these marks," he admitted. "I never was a big fan of biomorphic painting, yet I find myself using all these biomorphic forms, you know, building something out of x' and o's and sock shapes and beer bottle shapes."
True to the impression they make, introspection figures little in Close's self-portraits.
"I haven't learned a thing about myself in all these years," he said with a laugh, "except that it's a record of my losing my hair and of changing taste in eyewear. I really do the self-portraits at least partially so I can be as tough on myself as I am on other people. I try not to flatter myself any more than I flatter anyone else. And so I celebrate my wrinkles and ... everything that people are upset about when I paint them."
Chuck Close: Self Portraits 1967-2005. Through Feb. 28 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. Tickets: $7-$12.50. Free on the first Tuesday of each month. Closed Wednesdays. 415-357-4000, www.sfmoma.org.