You would be mistaken to call Chuck Close a photorealist. Although his extremely large canvases are based on large format, the signature look and feel of this veteran portraitist's instantly recognizable works are deeply entrenched in the materials, processes of painting. In fact, square for square of each of his complex, grid-based images, Closes craft is very distinguishable of its subject matter than it is merely an attempt to depict it with mechanical accuracy. Close is well-known as an print-making artist as well.
Born in 1940, Close was an only child who grew up in Washington state in a working class town described by what he recalls as "lowered expectations." However, his mother was a trained pianist; his father, had his hand in all trades and was an inventor, creating Chuck's toys himself. Sustained by this creative home environment, Close, who showed an interest early on for art, was encouraged to follow his dreams. Art became his ticket out of a small-town existence, eventually taking him to Yale's M.F.A. program.1 Close was an American artist considered to be a Superrealist who was known for his massive portraits.
Close would take photos and then blow them up into a painting. He intentionally strayed from creative compositions and showing facial expressions of people because he did not want to show information about the subject but rather make the viewer focus on the “formal aspects of his works.” In and interview with Close, art critic Cindy Nemser asked about the size of his paintings and the relationship to the photographs.
Close said the large scale allows him to work with the media that is ignored in an eight-by-ten inch picture. The large scale forces the viewer to look at one area at a time, and since he or she is so close the peripherals become blurred which most people don’t take into account. As the viewer turns then these blurred areas become sharp but the newly blurred areas are too big to ignore. Also, Close said he uses very exact tools such as razor blades, airbrushes, and electric drills. Along with these tools he does not use white paint because he says it builds up and will become “chalky and opaque.”2
One such painting that uses this technique is Close’s Big Self-Portrait done is 1967-1968. It was done with Acrylic on canvas, devouring 8’11’ by 6’11” of the wall done in black and white. He claims that he only used a couple tablespoons of black paint to cover the entire canvas.2 This self portrait
looks like a mug shot or a license photo where Close represents something like a hippie with some wild and stringy hair, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, masked with a confrontational expression epitomizing the radical spirit of 1968, Close achieves this astonishing realistic look by using a grid system. He described how using a photograph helped his process.
A photograph is something you can always go back to and check to make sure that you saw what you thought you saw… When I’ve changed working methodology or process, or material or approach, I is sort of interesting to see what happens pumping that image through another approach…In having something stay constant, you get to see how important the other changes are.3
This painting doesn’t necessarily improve us spiritually or morally, but when you know the history of Chuck Close and the accident he went through, his paintings become very inspirational and even more impressive. In December 1988, a blood vessel in his spine buckled and left him paralyzed. After a year of physical therapy, he regained a minimal amount of movement in his arms and returned to painting, strapping the brush to a wristband.
Also, Close suffered from a disease that made it difficult for him to recognize faces, this is why he painted them, he claimed, because it helped him learn or distinguish features of people better.4 These unique characteristics of Close are what make his style. He doesn’t show faces with emotion because he wants you to pay attention to the process. Likewise, his paintings are gigantic faces because he realized that the first thing you look at his a persons face, so why not make a giant head.
Close has been innovative with technique, media, and composition after he was introduced to the large-format Polaroid camera. He used the grid based theory and the incremental units would be nine of the 24-by-20-inch Polaroid sheets, each an extreme close-up of part of the artists face. Each square was separate and distinct but marginally overlapping its neighbors when mounted on the wall in the form of a tick-tack-toe grid, making for a cumulative image with overall dimensions of 83 by 69 inches. Seen today, the piece remains extremely powerful. In 1979 it was unheard of or astounding. The nine-piece portrait was meant to be seen close up, and the shock value
of the scale, combined with the fragmentation of the image and the unforgiving detail provided by the Polaroid system, was significant. Fragmentation is particularly shocking when used on the human face, especially when the edges of some sheets actually slice through the eyes. Although his eyes are actually closed in the photo, they metaphorically represent the very notion of vision that he struggles with. Again being innovative with media, Close would take the same photograph but use different media to draw it: watercolors, etchings, drawings, pastels.3
Fundamentally, Chuck Close continues to do what he has been doing for more than forty years, subjecting the human face to examination in a systematic way that is almost scientific, using the mechanical intervention of the camera as a constant as he invents new ways of seeing. The means available to him have been transformed, and like all great artists he has the ability to reinvent himself, yet at core his vision remains constant and his dedication to that vision stays firm.
Bibliography Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner's Art Through The Ages (Boston, MA: Clark Baxter, 2011).
Claire Jones, "Academia," Acedemia.edu, December 10, 2010, www.academia.edu/1443981/Chuck_Close_Creating_Identity_through_Experimentation (accessed December 3, 2012).
Kehoe, John. 1998. "Biography reviews: Destinations." Biography 2, no. 6: 115. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed December 4, 2012).
Gomez, Edward M. 2005. "Painting Up Close." Art & Antiques 28, no. 3: 86-90. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed December 4, 2012).