Why Chuck Close’s paintings should have another look
Chuck Close’s life as an artist has been divided into three distinct phases – two successful, one unsuccessful. From 1967 to late 1988 he was a celebrated painter, a singular genre of photorealist known for huge grisaille portraits of close friends and family (and himself, perhaps his favorite subject) rendered on a pencil grid with diluted paint and an airbrush. His work was immanently desirable. Museums and private collectors began squabbling even before he had his first solo exhibition in New York in 1970. He got the instant pop art pow – indeed, the artist had declared his desire to knock people down. But it also had the haughtier, more conceptual imprimatur of post-minimalism, arguably the last avant-garde artistic movement of classical modernism. He was also admired by connoisseurs and the public.
The artist himself projected an impressive authorial personality. At 6’3″ with a deep voice, quick wit, and kind of a goofy face, he was so widely liked and ubiquitous that he was once called the “Mayor of SoHo.” At times, he looked like the world’s leading representative of downtown art, attending dinners and performances, and serving on the boards of museums (including the Whitney Museum of American Art) and foundations.
It was while performing civic duty at the Gracie Mansion on the night of December 7, 1988 – presenting an award – that Close felt so ill that he walked to nearby Doctors Hospital. In the morning, he was paralyzed from the neck down, having suffered the collapse of a spinal artery. He eventually regained the use of his arms and was able to paint with a brush strapped to his hand and forearm.
This was the start of the second phase of Close’s career, as an even more successful painter. His condition forced him to devise a new way of working that truly rejuvenated and improved his art. I remember the thrill of his 1991 runway, when he unveiled his last big heads, as always based on photographs he had taken – Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl, Lucas Samaras and Roy Lichtenstein, one of the few Close profile pictures. Not only was he painting again, but these were also his best efforts since his black-and-white portraits of the late 60s. Accurate rendering was now beyond his skill: grids had been enlarged and filled with luscious strokes of bright color . Up close, they read like tiny abstract paintings. From afar, they had a pixelated, hallucinatory buzz that nevertheless also revealed their photographic roots.
Already widely loved and respected, Close seemed for a time to become even more beloved, heroic. He often appeared at gallery openings – particularly at Pace, which had represented him since 1977 – surrounded by well-wishers, as he strolled around in his state-of-the-art wheelchair. It was hard not to be impressed by the strength of will that allowed him to pursue his life as an artist. Fortunately, Close – enriched by his work – was able to succeed in style.
And then, in late 2017, Close suddenly became persona non grata in many parts of the art world after several young women accused him of sexual harassment. Two museums have canceled exhibitions of his work and others have removed him from display. While the work of artists often disappears from view for some time after their death, Close survived the greater visibility of his art.
It was a sad end brought about by the artist himself, to what seems more and more a strange career, plagued almost from the beginning by the repetitiveness of his work. By the time the charges surfaced, Close had already taken time away from the art world, abandoning his home and studio in East Hampton for new mid-island neighborhoods in Long Beach and establishing a second home base. operations in Florida.
His New York Times obituary revealed that in 2013, Close was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, adjusted in 2015 to “frontotemporal dementia”. He quoted his neurologist as saying the disease could have contributed to his inappropriate behavior. I suspect that’s true, though it seems likely that Close’s fame fueled a sense of entitlement, which isn’t unheard of.
I actually think Close was a particularly great one-hit wonder, twice. His idea of the head rendered colossal and detailed enough to knock off anyone’s socks propelled the portrait into the 21st century and supported some kind of sideways expansion – a franchise, if you will. It translated well into different mediums – prints, drawings, Polaroids, pulp collages, ink stamped fingerprints, daguerreotypes and even tapestries. Each time the medium changed, the work changed physically, but that was not enough.
This lateral growth provided only the appearance of development, but in reality there was very little of it in Close’s work. Only his paralysis had forced his idea of scale and process into new territory – perhaps beyond his wildest imagination – bringing about a change he had been coyly flirting with for nearly a decade: brighter colors , more freely applied, which distorted the image and spoiled the visual perception in new ways. Part of the problem may also have been the popularity of his art: through its ubiquity and uniformity, it became something of a corporate brand that represented contemporary art from museums and also the Pace Gallery. It was different from other artists, like Josef Albers or Mark Rothko, for example, who progressed to motifs that only seemed immutable after decades of exploration.
Now, it will be interesting to see when and how Close’s career will be rehabilitated and if she will get an “asterisk”, a label warning viewers of the less savory aspects of her life. Because rehabilitation seems inevitable. Even when the scandal was at its height, museum directors defended his work – pointing the finger at other artists guilty of offensive behavior over the centuries but who made art worthy – or at least worthy of a Museum.
And Close’s work can be found in countless museums – a staple of any self-respecting public collection. His big faces continue to surprise and even thrill without offending. They are extremely accessible and mildly sensational at a time when museums are careful to downplay their elitism and push public awareness. I suspect his paintings won’t stay out of sight for long. And who knows, maybe the asterisks aren’t so bad. There are dozens of male artists who qualify, possibly some female ones as well. It’s healthier to see them – and their work – without the rose-tinted glasses.