Chuck Close likes to say that art saved his life, twice. This is a curiously passive way of putting it. He could have gone under after his father died when he was boy, or when he lost the use of his arms and legs in middle age. What kept him afloat was his determination, his optimistic nature and his undying faith in the artistic process.
He grew up in a small town called Everett, where paper mills fouled the air and neither doctors nor teachers had heard of dyslexia – in the 1940s very few people had. At school, he was always in the slowest stream and could only pass tests by revising all night in the bath with a spotlight trained on the book, reading passages out loud.
“Every report card said essentially the same thing: ‘Charles is absent-mindedly looking out of the window the whole time,’” he recalls. “What I was doing was cutting out the visual stimulation so I could listen better to what the teacher was saying.
“Today it’s the same. I don’t have any short term memory at all. I don’t recognise faces. I don’t know anyone’s names. It continues to be a problem. But now I don’t care.” In addition to dyslexia, Close suffers from prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness. Critics have often surmised that he paints portraits, from photographs, because it flattens out features and makes them easier to remember. His giant heads, executed in forensic detail, exploring the boundary between figurative and abstract art, have become modern icons.
Although his parents were poor, they bought him a set of oils and sent him to art lessons every Saturday, in a house that may have been a brothel by night. His dad made him toys, magic tricks and puppets, and he became the class entertainer to compensate for his lack of academic and sporting skills.
Charles Close – he became Chuck later – was the sickly child of a sickly father. When he was eleven, he was confined to bed for months with an inflammation of the kidneys, eating horsemeat for the cheap protein. One day he heard a crash, found his dad in a pool of blood, but lacked the strength to lift him up. Leslie Close was taken to hospital and did not return, done in by his weak heart. “I learned very early in life that a tragedy can happen and you will get past it and you will be happy again,” Close says.
At Everett Community College, the University of Washington and Yale, he had a gift for producing what his tutors wanted to see. “I knew what art looked like,” is how he frames it. The first time he saw a Jackson Pollock, he was outraged, but he soon started to dribble paint onto his canvases. When he cut up a United States flag and shaped it into a mushroom cloud, post-Jasper Johns, members of the American Legion tried to break down the gallery door with an axe.
A few years ago, one of his student paintings turned up on the Antiques Roadshow. He had sold it to a teacher for eight dollars, in 1960, to cover his rent. The programme’s expert was impressed. “Close felt that he wasn’t a good enough painter to follow on from the Abstract Expressionists so he changed tack,” he said, but the bold brushstrokes and bright colours showed that the young artist had studied Willem de Kooning, in particular.
Close tells the story with a smile, but at the time he was annoyed. The speculation about his motives was idiotic, and the work was derivative. “If it’s public, you have to defend it for the rest of your life,” he says. In order to establish his artistic identity, he destroyed all his student paintings.
His class at Yale included Richard Serra, Janet Fish, Nancy Graves and Rackstraw Downes. After graduation, they all moved to New York and resolved to produce art that looked like nothing else. “We didn’t want anyone standing in front of our work and thinking of another artist. Now in the age of appropriation, those connections are celebrated,” he says. “Collectors are in undergraduate studios. It stops development and progress of where they would normally have gone and makes them defend student work.”
Close and his wife Leslie rented a loft in a district of half-empty warehouses and factories that is now SoHo. Dish water froze in the sink, but there was always something happening: Trisha Brown performances, Steve Reich recitals. It was the era of Max’s Kansas City, where Andy Warhol held court in the back room with and the gods of Abstract Expressionism duked it out at the bar. When Chuck came home with a Warhol silkscreen print of Marilyn Monroe, Leslie was livid – $350 was more than two months’ rent.
Close found that when he painted from life, his head was “cluttered with other people’s images.” Taking inspiration from Ad Reinhardt’s Twelve Rules for a New Academy – no brushwork, no sketching, no colour, and so on – he discarded the tools that had made him a successful mimic and started to work from photographs.
His breakthrough painting, Big Self-Portrait, is three metres high and almost as wide. Close looks down at the camera, a half-smoked cigarette in his lips. “I think I’d seen too many James Dean movies,” he says. From a distance, it looks like a photo, but as one approaches it, the scale renders it abstract and incredibly detailed craftsmanship becomes apparent. He took three months to paint it, using an airbrush filled with diluted acrylic paint, applied in layers then scratched off with a razor blade and an electric eraser.
When friends wondered who would buy a nine foot picture of someone else’s head, he told them he had no interest in selling to private collectors, because he wanted his work to be seen in museums. He had yet to sell a painting.
Close had hit on a process – his process – and with a series of small, meaningful modifications, he has used it ever since, depicting the same subjects for a lifetime without getting stale. One image of composer Philip Glass has been turned into an oil painting, a sketch, a watercolour, several dot paintings, a paper pulp collage, a silk screen print, a fingerprint painting, a lithograph, a Japanese woodblock print and a tapestry.
At seventy-four years old Close is still mining self-imposed limitations. “Inspiration is for amateurs,” he says. “The rest of us just show up and get to work.” There are portraits in every corner of his studio, hung or propped against the wall, always cropped at the shoulder blades: mosaics, tapestries, photographs and prints of Glass, Kate Moss, Lou Reed, Barack Obama, and most of all, Close himself.
First, he applies a grid to the photograph and to the canvas. This enables him to work methodically, square by square, layer by layer. For his second set of portraits, he applied transparent cyan, magenta and yellow tint in stages, from colour separations of a photo – a process that he says inspired a Japanese visitor to return home and invent the inkjet printer.
One monochrome painting, Robert/104,072 was named for the number of pixels on the grid. Close sprayed each dot ten times to get the shades right: a million discrete, incremental acts that took fourteen months to finish. “I go to a lot of trouble to make them formally interesting,” Close says. “I like to drop crumbs along the trail, Hansel and Gretel style, for people to reconstruct the process.”
Isn’t it elitist, I ask him, to insist that museum visitors consider his artistic intent? “I’m an elitist,” he says, with a unapologetic laugh. “I don’t know anybody who cares about art who isn’t an elitist… I know how every painting got made, the minute I look at it. The reason I never liked the word realist is that I was always as interested in the artificial as I was in the real. So I’m always looking at the surface, and the distribution of the coloured dirt.
“The only painter I can’t figure out is Vermeer. It’s like the pigment blew on to the canvas in a divine breath. Most everything else, you can read the clues. And sometimes those clues are obvious in a reproduction and sometimes they’re not.”
At his apartment, the shelves are crowded with contemporary art, but pride of place in the living room goes to a Tintoretto, a Van Dyck, and a bust of Emperor Hadrian. “The most undervalued paintings are old masters,” he says. “And the most overvalued are contemporary art, which works out pretty good for me.” When he bought the flat, the building’s hallway was decorated with lurid wallpaper, festooned with jellyfish. The board agreed to replace it, on condition that Close loaned his work. There are now three different portraits of Philip Glass between the front door and the lift.
On December 7, 1988, Close’s spinal artery ruptured, leaving him paralysed from the neck down. Although he was used to creative restrictions, this was an unimaginably severe handicap. He told friends “I’ll spit paint on the canvas if I have to” but after a gruelling recovery process, in an art therapy room decorated with unfinished baskets woven by terminal cancer patients, he regained enough strength and coordination in his upper arms to paint, from a wheelchair, with a brace.
Of all the misunderstandings about him – that he is a realist, a pointillist, that painting from photographs is somehow less valid – the one that irks Close the most is when people say that his disability altered the trajectory of his art. He still uses the grid, but the squares have become larger and looser, each one a miniature abstract of swirls, loops and spots. “I think the work became more celebratory and brighter,” he says, but that’s all.
He directs an assistant to pull down a copy of his catalogue and turn to a painting of Cindy Sherman, completed in the autumn of 1988. “This is the last painting I did before I went in the hospital, and I defy anybody to find a looser, more open painting of mine than that.”
The show that opens at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art this month is a survey of his prints. Close has tried every technique going, the more obscure the better. He has explored scribble etching, linoleum reductions, silk screen, woodcuts and spitbite etching (not to mention holograms, large format Polaroids and daguerrotypes, as a photographer).
His first professional print was a mezzotint, a format that was popular in the early 19th Century but had fallen into disuse. Picking a forgotten process ensured that the print-maker, Kathan Brown, was as far out of her comfort zone as he was. “I don’t want to know nothing and have them know everything,” Close says. Brown was a health food fanatic and vehemently anti-smoking. “So the first thing I did was smoke a cigarette, throw it on the floor and stamp it out. She was appalled. I said ‘it’s no longer your studio: it’s my studio.’ I was like a dog pissing on something.”
Close never takes commissions for paintings, but recently shot the Vanity Fair Hollywood Portfolio, a job that involved telling Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and Julia Roberts that they could do their own hair and choose their own clothes for once. He has an apartment in Miami, for the winter, and a house in Jones Beach. His second “very young” wife, artist Sienna Shields, has just finished building a studio for him in Alaska. Leslie got the West Village flat, the studio upstate and Warhol’s Marilyn in the divorce, among other things.
His latest enthusiasm is for Woodburytypes, a photomechanical process pioneered in Victorian England that only one living print-maker knows how to do. “If you’re stuck, my answer has always been ‘alter a variable, or alter a bunch of variables’ and then you can’t be stuck,” he says, as six different versions of himself look down from the walls, in silent agreement.