January 3, 2013

Chuck Close: Facing Reality

Self Portrait

Looking directly into the face of a painted portrait can be an uncanny experience; we relate to the humanness of it, yet it is only paint. It is understandable that Chuck Close has made the portrait the focus of his life's work; no matter what technique he uses to fashion the image, we search for its resolution into a face.

Close's recent exhibition at Pace Gallery included several oil paintings, including two suites of self portraits, new watercolor prints, and tapestries; the paintings above are about 36 inches high.

Stepping up to the painting, I could see that the image was made up of a diagonal grid (all his work is based on photographs), filled with wacky little shapes and colors.

On its most basic level, this painting insists on its abstraction; it dramatically illustrates the transformation from shape, color, mark, into a illusionistic whole. I've always admired Close's experimentations with mark making, with how we compose an image in our mind. He has used fingerprints, airbrush, and bits of handmade paper instead of paint to build an image, always using a grid, always based on a photograph. There is a sense of play along with a serious questioning of perception and representation.

Phil, 1969; synthetic polymer on canvas, 108 x 84 in. (from the Whitney museum website)

But...this show at Pace reminded me, because of the tapestry works below, how powerful Close's early works were: those unadorned, gigantic heads, confronting us with their overwhelming presence. In 1998, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective and it was then that I realized how strong and how important those older paintings were. From the use of something as dispassionate and rational as a grid comes a head both monumental and ordinary; its realism takes it beyond "art" into something more fundamental, almost magical. For all its sophistication of technique, there's a quality of an innocent eye, since the technique does not call attention to itself as in the self portraits above. 

Lucas, 2011; jacquard tapestry, 87 x 74 in.; ed 6 

I was very excited by my first viewing of Chuck Close's tapestry works, because they go back to his idea of a resolved, realistic image. They too are based on a grid. As Close explains in this interview, tapestry technique prefigured the computer, using a hole or no hole for threads up and down, like the 0 and 1 of computer code. The tapestries, made in Belgium, are based on daguerrotypes, another old technique, and use an electronic jacquard loom. You can read more here about the process from Magnolia editions, who published these works.

Lucas, detail

Click on the image to enlarge it so you can see more of the detail of the weaving. Although the image looks monochromatic, many colors were used to achieve its rich detail.

Lou, 2012, jacquard tapestry, 94 x 76 in. ed 6

I admire Close's constant stretching, endless experimentation. And I'm happy that this tapestry technique has brought him back to the unflinching representation of his earlier years. 

Lou, detail

installation shot, from Pace Gallery website


  1. These are amazing. The first one looks as though the person is looking through a stained glass window. Wow.

  2. I found the recent show of Chuck Close at Pace to be a virtuosic display of his craft with mark-making. What he accomplishes with all his various ways of building up the images is remarkable. However, with the exception of the jacquard tapestries (which I kept returning to) I found that the portraits didn't engage me emotionally. So although I was impressed with his technical mastery, I left the gallery with a vague sense of disappointment.

    1. I've always felt that, Tamar, but never stated it so well!
      "...vague sense of disappointment."
      Kim Do

    2. Tamar, thanks for using the word emotional. I only danced around the fact that the realistic works are more in the long tradition of portrait painting and give a sense of the subject, so we can emotionally relate to them.

  3. Here's an interesting NYTimes article about Close, and why he uses the grid...because of his childhood learning disabilities and "prosopagnosia, a condition that prevents him from recognizing faces...the only way he can remember a face is by breaking it down into small “bite-sized” pieces, like the tiny squares or circles of color that make up his paintings and prints".

    1. Cecilia, a lot of people have commented to me (in emails, on facebook) about this. The interesting thing is that I knew Chuck in NYC both before and after his illness and he always recognized me, even when we bumped into each other on the street.

  4. Altoon,
    This is intriguing. What do you mean by "before and after his illness"? Had he created a portrait of you? Do you know if he was able to recognize anyone else by sight?

    1. I meant after his seizure. I simply did not know that he had this problem.