He’s still Close to perfect

Published: May 15, 2004
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For years Chuck Close has reduced faces into paintings and prints of shorthand data: Noses become dots and dashes, eyes dissolve into a mosaic of circles and squares. Disabled by a spinal blood clot that left him wheelchair-bound 15 years ago, he is quick to dismiss those frequent comparisons of his art to digital shorthand and eye-popping pixels.

This self-described computer illiterate does not use software to make his images but instead makes art in what he describes as ”the old-fashioned way” — one hand-made mark at a time. He lines up thousands of little spots and flashes of color in a painstaking approach he has been refining since the early 1970s.

But it’s not quite so old-fashioned. In 1973, the blurry gray mug of George Washington, rendered in one of technology’s first computer-generated images, popped up on the cover of Scientific American. When Close saw it on a newsstand, he was an up-and-coming artist on the way to the opening of one of his first gallery shows in Manhattan.

It made him groan — here was a magazine cover looking a lot like one of his own towering, astonishingly realistic portraits. They were painted from photographs he’d taken of his friends, capturing their likenesses with air-brushed dots embedded in a minute grid.

Two years earlier, his art had been panned as ”gruesome” by notoriously crotchety critic Hilton Kramer (who would later recant). Though Kramer was way too old-school to bother a 6-foot tall young Turk and Yale grad like Close, the cover got under his skin.

‘I thought, `Oh God, no one will believe that I did this without the aid of some computer device,’ ” he recalled in an interview this week at the Miami Art Museum, where Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration opened Saturday. “In fact, I was just doing in my head a lot of the things they were asking computers to do, in terms of averaging information. But I can be capricious and arbitrary. And so far a machine can’t. A machine doesn’t get tired of doing it only one way.”

HANDS-ON APPROACH

Close’s accumulation of briefly made marks are much more hands-on, less high-tech. Think of the telegraphic terseness of Morse code, the swift flash of color and light in a semaphore signal.

In a recent silkscreen now on view at MAM, he shows his own nose vanishing into tiny round targets of orange and pink, each packaged neatly into yellow boxes that are 1 ½ inches square.

And in the virtuoso watercolor he painted in 1984, his wife Leslie’s eyebrows arch into a wobbly string of three or four muddy, coffee-colored squares, tilted diagonally on their side like Lilliputian baseball diamonds.

Her eyebrows are buoyant grace notes for a complexion splashed lightly with patches of violet, pink and a slightly sickly yellow-gray-green. It’s a foundation of unblended skin tones that would have raised the late Estee Lauder’s eyebrows for sure.

It’s also the kind of foundation that has raised Close’s own status in American art to legendary prominence, thanks in great part to that thrilling moment of magic when these dots, dashes and circles of color collide in a flash of meaning. Consider it a grandly artful version of the moment when Morse or semaphore are decoded.

But no manual is needed to decode his hard-to-miss portraits, immensely popular with critics and the public alike. And many prints and paintings have been rendered in huge, envelope-pushing scale.

At MAM is Close’s approximately 6.5-by-9-foot silkscreen of the painter Alex Katz in 1993, his long slim face a weathered totem of sensitive perseverance. An unusual feature of this exhibit is that it traces the evolution of the printed image over a series of prints needed to make the final portrait.

The making of Alex is ”mind-boggling,” says MAM curator Peter Boswell, who’s overseeing the museum’s presentation of this show, which was organized by The Blaffer Gallery of The Art Museum of The University of Houston.

”It goes from something very flat to something quite sculptural,” he says. “It’s huge, it gazes down at you, and you get up close and see all the little details.

”To me there’s an element of magic in what he does,” says Boswell. “When he’s painting, he’s doing it from two feet away. He can make the marks, and he knows how it will look from a distance — he doesn’t have to pull back to see it.”

In 1969, Close painted a 9-by-7-foot portrait of one of his artist buddies, a young Minimalist sculptor named Richard Serra, after a black-and-white photograph. He comes across with the tough-guy look of a Robert De Niro character, a harbinger of the aggressive stance Serra took to defend his doomed Tilted Arc public artwork.

”I think a person’s face is a sort of road map of their lives,” says Close. “If someone has frowned their whole lives, they have furrows in their brow. Or if you’ve laughed your whole life, you see laugh lines. All of that’s embedded in the face.”

With his neatly groomed gray beard, owlish eyeglasses framing wide blue eyes and shaven head, Close in person and in his recent self-portraits doesn’t look anything like that messy, swaggering guy with the stringy hair and cigarette dangling from his mouth in his famous Big Self-Portrait of 1968. That early work is now an icon in any 20th Century art history book looking at the legacy of photography, Pop Art and the iconoclastic paring-away spirit of Minimalism. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Punk is how one curator described it.

”I don’t think I was all that angry when I did the first one, but I guess probably too many James Dean movies made me think that would be the way to present myself. I guess I’ve mellowed and softened some,” Close says. He’s known for such self-deprecating wit and wry one-liners, as well as his steadfast advocacy for causes supporting artists and the disabled.

He joked once about having to compete with Christopher Reeve for a handicapped parking space at an art auction sponsored by Sotheby’s and Bergdorf Goodman. He also donated work that fetched $115,000 at the auction, which raised $547,710 for Reeve’s Paralysis Foundation and research on spinal cord injury at Rutgers University.

DISASTER STRIKES

Physical Disability came to him in the prime of his career, on a December day already gloomy with disaster. He suffered severe chest pains and a violent seizure in 1988, on the 47th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, as he later pointed out to his friend, playwright John Guare. The injury to his spinal cord was irreversible and left him quadriplegic, with limited movements in his hands and arms.

After months of painful therapy and treatment, he learned to paint with brushes attached with Velcro to his hands, and in the early 1990s embarked on a series of abundantly colorful, generously imagined and gestural portraits that stunned even his most ardent admirers.

If anyone could have been prepared for dealing with this catastrophe, Close was. Once a clumsy kid who couldn’t do algebra of any kind, Close knew what it meant to struggle out of step. The ordeal was harder, he said, for his wife Leslie and their two daughters.

”I think if I hadn’t been learning-disabled and dealt with that, I wouldn’t have been able to cope with being physically disabled nearly as well,” he says. “I always knew that I could find my own solution.”

Over the course of his career he had already devised ways to cope that help him now: Break big things down into small steps, and then even smaller ones. ”It’s like knitting or crocheting,” he says, remembering watching his grandmother knit sweaters and crochet tablecloths in the early 1950s in Everett, Wash. “You don’t know how the hell you are going to make a sweater, but if you knit one and purl two long enough, you’ll get there.”

He also learned that if you’re chronically indecisive, impatient and leave old sandwiches around the studio, neatness counts. A meticulous way of working from grids has kept him grounded and left his imagination free to move forward.

”I developed my own systems, which are often now the same sort of things they teach disabled people,” he says. “But in the 1940s and 1950s nobody knew from learning disabilities or dyslexia. You were just dumb. Slow.

“I would never have gotten into college if I had had to take an SAT. I am the product of open enrollment.”

ART AS SAVIOR

Before graduating with his master of fine arts from Yale with highest honors in 1963, he took courses at a junior college, paving the way for his bachelor’s degree in art with highest honors from the University of Washington.

”Art has always saved my life,” he says, starting from grade school. “That’s how I demonstrated to the teachers that I cared about the material. I wasn’t going to be able to remember the names and dates. So by doing an extra credit 20-foot-long mural of the Lewis and Clark trail I would prove to the teacher that I did care, that I was working hard, but I just couldn’t remember the details.

“I don’t think there’s any question that my learning disabilities have driven almost every aspect of my work over the years.”

Wheeling about the galleries of MAM, sipping a Coke because he’s feeling dehydrated, asking a staff member for a screwdriver to adjust his foot rest, Close seems quietly but decisively in charge.

”I sit in a wheelchair and I look at a world that’s unchanged,” he says. “Other people look at me and see someone in a wheelchair. I’ve just adapted. I have to paint with brushes strapped to my hands. I’d rather not, but at least I can still do it.”

Still, a new series of drawings back in New York is not going well, and lately he’s been thinking a lot about his grandmother. She was a woman of busy hands, creating big things out of many little ones. And she wasn’t afraid of failure, of starting over, no matter how much time she had spent.

Time spent is not enough, she taught him. There still has to be a magic to what you make. ”If it’s not what you want, you can’t afford to keep doing it,” he says. “I’d rather have a 60-second line drawing by Matisse than some Hudson River potboiler.”

BY ELISA TURNER