Important Art by Chuck Close
"Big Nude" is the first painting completed in Close's signature grid process, and both its size and self-conscious title indicate its ambitious nature. Although the transferred image "reads" as a flat transcription of light and dark characteristic of a photograph, the painting's variegated brushstrokes reveal Big Nude to be more of a prototype for future development than a fully resolved picture. Poised precariously between a common studio exercise in figure drawing and a 1960s girlie magazine shoot, "Big Nude" also challenges the future of representational painting at a moment in history when the genre would seem to have long ago exhausted its potential for future development. Only the antiseptic whiteness of the canvas hints at a new approach to the figure that might perfectly marry an instant, unforgiving photographic record of a subject with the artist's reconsideration of its every component over months of studied, methodical transcription.
Acrylic on canvas - Collection Jon and Mary Shirley
The tentative air of experimentation that might be said to characterize Big Nude is nowhere apparent in Big Self-Portrait, a watershed painting that virtually showcases Close's unique method. Abandoning the full-body view, Close turned to one of the oldest traditions anywhere in art history, the self-portrait. Close had partially set out to refute the critic Clement Greenberg's claim that it was impossible for an "advanced" artist to work in portraiture. Closes's untraditional approach involved conceiving of and creating a unique kind of "mug shot," a black-and-white idiom that exacerbated the subject's blemishes and the original photographic distortion caused by the camera. The devotion to the idea of an unsparing, head-on view led him to refuse all commissions, as Close used only his own "mug" and that of close friends for his subjects.
Acrylic on canvas - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
For Kent, Close made use of preparatory drawings for the first time to explore the three-color process, an imitation, or re-employment, of the photographic dye-transfer method. By adopting a mechanical procedure and mimicking it physically, or by hand crafting what is normally carried out by the camera, Close suggests that illusion is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, whose own optical apparatus finally "completes" the picture. Although Close literally painted the same image three times, one atop the other in separate colors, he was surprised when the work ended up taking three times as long to complete. In order to facilitate the process, Close wore cellophane filters over his eyeglasses in order to view marks in one color at a time.
Acrylic on canvas - Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
The large format of Keith, although not nearly as large as Close's earlier portrait paintings, did not translate well to the outdated mezzotint process. Due to its gradual erosion, the plate made only ten good prints, and the surface coloring is noticeably lighter in the middle around the sitter's nose. The mezzotint printmaking process yields a soft, light-infused surface, here seen to best effect in Closes's rendering of the sitter's hair. The random effects typical of printmaking inspired Close to experiment further with various media.
Mezzotint - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Close's enjoyment of the physical interaction between artist and material gave him a particular affinity for working in the fingerprint method. Criticized by some as a kitschy version of an art already informed by Pop, the unsophisticated technique, so reminiscent of child's play, seems doubly appropriate for this informal, yet subtly monumental portrait of the artist's grandmother. The numerous, individual touches of oil pigment gradually creating the appearance of supple flesh lends to the painting a sense of intimacy so appropriate to the underlying relationship between artist and his chosen subject.
Oil-based acrylic on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Chuck Close's work is most often associated in the popular mind with his own likeness. Although it has been chosen by the artist largely for the sake of convenience, Close's self portraits provide an interesting arena for gauging the development of his thought and work over four decades. The insouciant stare of the young man in Big Self-Portrait makes a striking counterpart to the stolid, knowing gaze of the older Close as represented in this self-portrait of 1997. Indeed, the comparison illustrates the evolution from fledgling artist to international icon. Compared to the earlier work, the 1990s Self-Portrait also shows how abstraction has come to play a more prominent role in Closes's portraits. Each of the individual units of the grid is a miniature abstract painting unto itself, comprising a panoply of colors and shapes that seem to have jumped directly to the canvas from the artist's palette.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
In recent years, Close has extended his investigations into various media to the ancient genre of tapestry, the repetitive and episodic weaving process in many ways paralleling his own painstaking juxtaposition of various colors in much of his portraiture. Using computerized photo transfers of glass daguerreotypes (for black-and-white versions) or Polaroid snapshots, the tapestry medium is ideally suited for Close's interest in large-scale work that nonetheless depends on pinpoint-like precision. Here, a portrait of artist-colleague Andres Serrano, notorious for his irreverent Piss Christ (1987) photograph that continues to roil conservative Christians, beams triumphant from the weave, which is deftly composed of numerous threads of various colors intertwining with such precision that the human eye is virtually seduced into believing that this is a real man pressing his face to a window.
Jacquard tapestry - PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York