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Chuck Close: Reinterpreting the portrait for the 21st century

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Chuck Close

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Ever since its inception, photography has been a tool of the artist. Painters of the 19th century soon saw the benefit of posing a model, taking various shots for reference, and then working alone – thus avoiding paying modeling fees for days on end – an economy particularly popular with Degas. Indeed, some of the earliest ‘girlie’ publications masqueraded as ‘poses for artists’ to avoid prosecution. The fashion for epic paintings and ‘tableaux’ was helped considerably by the use of photography, whereupon elaborate costumes need only be hired for the day, photographed in the correct pose, and returned to the theatre they had been sourced from. Various elements of a painting could then be patched together to make a composite. The age old artist’s technique of viewing through a mesh of wires and translating onto a canvas, squared up with an identical pattern of criss-cross lines, worked particularly well when using a photograph – one two dimensional surface to another. It is this traditional technique that the celebrated American painter, Chuck Close, has brought decidedly into the 21st century.

Close is one of the most interesting artists occupying the upper echelons of the New York art world. A dyslexic child (like his contemporaries Warhol and Rauschenberg) he translated the world into purely visual references. Perhaps this, combined with his rare disorder – prosopagnosia (the inability to recognise faces) – informs and directs the essential concerns of his art. Throughout his whole career, Close has chosen his own image as the prime subject of his portraits. What is certain however, is that Close was a celebrated talent and accomplished artist prior to 1988, when a collapsed spinal artery caused extensive paralysis and confined him to a wheelchair. The fact he has maintained his creative output and developed a unique, personal language says much about this engaging and highly intelligent personality.

Born in Washington in 1940, Charles Thomas Close was a natural extrovert as a child but, for health reasons, his activities were necessarily more creative than sporting. His exceptional drive, popularity and knack for attention had enabled him to get on the Yale MFA course despite his disabilities; here he encountered the likes of Brice Marden, Richard Serra and Robert Mangold – and teaching staff that included Al Held and Frank Stella. Although Close had come into an American art world dominated by the Abstract Expressionist legacy, Pop Art – and its use of the commercial print process – was evolving. Lichtenstein and Rosenquist were both experimenting with the optical possibilities of colour separation as found in photo-lithography, the latter using his experiences as a billboard painter working with large scale images. 

When Close began his own large scale, realist pictures with Big Nude (1964) and Big Self Portrait (1968) his source material was a squared up monochrome photograph. These pictures could be viewed coherently from a few feet away and a whole series of giant portraits followed. Close’s move into colour, in the early 1970s, could also be examined near-to and still be ‘read’ literally. Labour intensive, layer upon layer, imitating the CYMK process, these precise, continuous tone canvases only occasionally revealed the method of manufacture.

By the mid 1970s, Close’s career was well established. Affiliated to the Pace Gallery, his work was evolving – airbrushed tones were becoming spots made with the artist’s fingertip – and viewed close-up the image disintegrated into a medley of abstract marks. The paintings continued to average about 8 x 6 feet in scale. In 1977, Close worked at the Polaroid Corporation research centre using a 20” x 24” special Polaroid camera. This later became available to him at MIT. Close liked the instant result and the intense, hyper-real colour values the Land film produced. This in turn enabled his access to Polaroid’s unique 80” x 40” camera located in the basement of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. This was essentially a room sized box, divided into two chambers and Close would actually be inside the apparatus during an exposure as would the subject being photographed. One of Close’s first works with this leviathan was a giant self portrait made from six panels with an overall size of nearly 15 x 11 feet. 

In 1988, Chuck Close’s glittering career was derailed by a near fatal collapse of an artery in his spinal cord. The immediate effect of this attack was paralysis from the neck down. It was only after a prolonged period of physiotherapy that Close was able to use his limited articulation to hold a brush and make marks. His first post trauma painting was made in 1989, albeit on a much smaller scale than usual (Alex II). Ironically, Close’s well established methodology, whereby a picture was constructed slowly, by precisionist marks on small areas of the canvas at a time, perfectly matched his severely limited capabilities.  

In a recent monograph on the artist, Christopher Finch created an outstanding tribute to the Close and his work, supported magnificently by publisher, Prestel, who produced a large format, exceptionally high quality, colour publication. As an intimate friend of Close and his family over many years, Finch brought to the text an inside knowledge and understanding of Chuck Close’s philosophy and integrity as an artist, his working methods and procedures. Every aspect of Close’s methodology is examined in depth, from his explorations with Polaroid to the Daguerreotype images he began in 1999, all comprehensively explained.

Today, Close continues to work with the photographic image as a source for painting and, in this, he exemplifies the fusion of painting and photography that currently represents the latest direction in contemporary art. And although making thoroughly modern works of art, Chuck Close is still pursuing – intellectually – the concerns with colour vision and optical illusion that have occupied painters since the Renaissance.

Further Reading:
Christopher Finch 
PRESTEL 336pp Hb.  
ISBN: 978-3-7913-3676-3

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