Painting is a magical medium. It is a window onto a world created out of colored dirt. An artist can manipulate the image and create another world in front of our eyes. This is how the painter Chuck Close sees it anyway. He has been painting huge, beautiful, and awe-inspiring portraits (or what he calls ‘heads’) since the 1960’s. These incredibly real and inventive paintings are only part of the story, however. The other part is how he has managed to become this famous, important, and extremely successful artist and how he continues his work in the face of tremendous personal hardship. Close had learning disabilities as a kid, had to deal with the death of his father early in life, has a history of a condition known as face blindness, and since 1988 has been confined to a wheel chair with only limited use of his arms and hands. Nonetheless, recognizing that painting is what he does and all he thinks he can really do, Close has set up a situation to allow him to do his work and to do it very successfully. His disability has actually allowed him to move into a new and revolutionary phase of his work.
Close is known for his huge and awe-inspiring portraits of friends, relatives, and notably of himself. Early on his work was notable for its extreme realism and its similar appearance (to point often of confusion by viewers) to photographs. He achieved this by taking huge Polaroids of the subject and choosing the one he felt worked best to use as the basis for the final painting. He is not a commissioned portraitist and thus does not care if the sitters like how they are depicted. His early learning disabilities had taught him that if he wanted to complete a task he needed to break it up into manageable pieces and so he uses a grid to create his works. In this early phase of his work he laid this grid over the photograph and then built up the finished image by transferring each grid exactly as it appeared in the photograph onto a corresponding grid on the painting. After he completed transferring the image over to the canvas he removed the grid and thus created an image akin to the photograph in its incredible realism and detail, but in paint. His work was thrown in with other artists working with hyper-real imagery derived from photographs as ‘Photorealism.’ Nonetheless he never liked this term. He thought that his work was always dealing as much with illusion and artificiality as it was with realism.
Close came out of a circle of artists in the 1960’s-1970’s who had all gone to Yale together and crucially were all interested in process. Richard Serra, one of his fellow Yale students and an important modern sculptor, had told him that it was essential that he separated his work from that of other artists. He also told him to always take the harder path, to always do the thing that involved more work because then he would come out with something unique, something that could be defined as a personal style. Process, that is working through a creative problem and reaching an end result, would inevitably lead to something unique to the artist himself. Close followed this advice and jumped straight into working in a medium and style that was seen as totally dead in the 1960’s: figurative portrait painting. He asserts that he was extremely lucky. He came around at exactly the right time to completely shake up the art world with his work. Nonetheless he has never allowed himself to become complacent. He is constantly keeping himself off balance, creating challenges to move his work in radical new directions.
The incident that led to his current physical disability happened when he was 48, the same age as his father was when he died. He had incredible pain. It turned out an artery in his spine had collapsed. Lying in the hospital, paralyzed from the neck down, he worried about one thing more than any other: how was he going to get back to work? He decided that he did not have the luxury of pitying himself too much. He, his wife, and his children depended on his painting for their livelihood. Close had decided long ago that painting was really the only thing he could do and had put all his eggs in that basket. He thought maybe he could make conceptual art and that he could pay people to manufacture his work for him. He finally decided that this was not a good idea. The whole reason he made art was just that. He was a maker before anything else. The physicality of painting was what drove him.
So when he began to paint again, in the limited way he could, he worried that nobody would like his new work. He reckoned that no one in the tough as nails art world would buy a painting just to take pity on him. It still had to be good. He was greatly relieved when the Museum of Modern Art bought the first painting he produced. It showed him that he still had what it took to be the kind of artist he wanted to be without sacrificing quality in his work.
Close has not let all his various perceived shortcomings keep him back in anyway. In fact, he uses them as benefits. This is not by accident. He believes in incredible hard work. As he has put it so succinctly, “inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Because of his unshakable tenacity, he states that he never has artist’s block. Work will always lead you where you want to go, or even better, to somewhere unexpected.
Close had begun working in a new style before he began to cope with his disability and afterwards began taking it on with new energy and focus, continuing to advance it forward. It was still built up in a similar fashion, out of using gridded photographs for the basis of a composition but since he had much less control over his hands, and more importantly, his arms than he used to could do do the kind of detailed painting that he could do before he became paralyzed. Abstraction became a larger part of the composition itself. The grids are now a part of the image and he now creates a realistic portrait out of abstract shapes of color. Since he is confined to a wheel chair, he now moves the canvas instead of himself using a hole in the floor of his studio and lifts that move the painting up and down or rotate it in whatever direction he needs to get the right angle for working.
The key, he says, is to allow the process to be as fluid as it was before his mobility was hampered. He does not back up to see how a painting is going before it is completed. Since he has been working in this way for so long he knows what kinds of small details will give him the overall desired effect. He works like a golfer, moving from general to specific, getting the overall scope of line and color and then slowly moving it towards his desired specific result. A series of paintings may take him as long as a decade to complete. He wants the process to be as slow as possible. The monumentality and incredible intricacy of the paintings demand that kind of meticulousness.
Close has often been asked why he always works in portraiture only. He has stated that he doesn’t quite know, but that it has sustained his work throughout his long and successful career. One possibility he offers is that people are what he cares most about. The choice of making portraits also has a lot to do with another of his disabilities. Close is face blind, meaning that he has a hard time recognizing people by their physical appearence. It has caused him a lot of difficulty and embarrassment throughout his life. But when he sees faces in two-dimensions, for some reason he has less difficulty remembering them. This is part of the reason he paints portraits, because it allows him to have a kind of monumental record of people important to him.
Close sees a face as a road map of a person’s life. It shows if they’ve laughed, if they’ve been unhappy, and to what extent. The sitters will not always (Close has stated never) like what they look like in the final work. This is because the painting magnifies facial characteristics and imperfections due to its sheer size and level of detail. Sitters have actually changed their physical appearances after seeing themselves depicted in a Close painting. Size is important because he wants the works to be taken in slowly in parts, not all at once as a total whole. Despite this fact they are also snapshots in a way, “snapshots that mark time” as Close’s wife Leslie has put it, allowing you to see various recurring sitters over and over in different images or in different iterations of the same image. They hit you all at once but then allow you to go back and investigate them in greater detail.
Close has also begun exhibiting photographs. He always used them as part of his process but now has begun working in both historical and advanced photographic processes as different and varied as daguerreotypes and holograms. He has also begun working with industrial printing on tapestries.
Close is a case in point of a certain kind of hard work philosophy about art and life. He has had incredible difficulties in his life that most people would see as obstacles that couldn’t be overcome. Yet he has overcome them, and has achieved so much in the process. As he himself put it, “never let anyone tell you what you are capable of using parameters that don’t apply to you.” He learned that terrible things can happen to you in life but that you can move on and still lead a fulfilled and rewarding existence. Beyond his extreme talent and good luck, there is a belief in process and in putting in the hours at the thing you choose to do that has made him the supremely accomplished and important painter he has been over the last half a century.