Chuck Close has been making portraits since the 1960’s. Although his principal subject, the human face, has fallen out of fashion, Close, a Seattle native and a Yale graduate, has been a fixture in the New York art world since his first show there in 1968. Most of Close’s works are large. His first sitters, painted from photographs, were family, friends, and himself. Later he painted other artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Alex Katz and Lorna Simpson. Over the decades, while his subject has remained largely the same and his scale has been monumental, Close’s technique has changed from photo-realist air-brushing to collage, dot-painting, and more recently, to thickly painted grids.
In 1988, an injury to a spinal blood vessel nearly paralysed Close completely. Since then, after much physical therapy, he has resumed his active painting career, working with a brush taped to his arm and a mechanical easel.
Originally planned for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Close retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is the most extensively documented show of the painter’s work. The exhibition runs at MoMA until 26 May and then travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (20 June-13 September), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington (15 October–10 January, 1999) and the Seattle Art Museum (February—May 1999). In his studio, the fifty-seven year-old artist spoke to The Art Newspaper about his career.
What are your feelings about having a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art?
It’s always scary the way a retrospective brackets a body of work. I worry about whether or not anybody is going to be interested in what I’m doing now. A lot of it is timing. It could get a big yawn, or people could be interested in painting again.
Do you collect art yourself?
A collection implies some logical effort to amass things. I’m not acquisitive. I think of things as a burden rather than a pleasure. Things have found their way into my home, either by trade or by picking up something here or there. I have mostly photographs. I couldn’t afford to own great paintings or sculpture, and I never wanted to have just a weak example of someone’s work. It might have begun to erode my respect for a person if I had some sort of souvenir. But at one point there was at least the possibility of having decent photographs for not a lot of money.
To what extent have you collaborated with the curating of this exhibition?
I worked with Robert Storr initially. I gave him a list of the pieces that I wanted to have in the exhibition, and he came up with a list of what he wanted. I lobbied for the inclusion of some paintings, but essentially, he’s the curator. I make the paintings and he shows them.
When you see a retrospective of a contemporary of yours, what do you look for?
One hopes that, when people see your work, they’ll take a fresh look at art that they thought they knew; that, somehow, works from different periods will inform each other, and that periods that have been undervalued will somehow be reassessed and found to be more interesting than they were. I hope that it looks like the same guy made everything, yet that at the same time there’s a significant enough range and a lot of intense experiences. That’s how I keep myself going—by changing what I do in the studio, not necessarily by changing the iconography. If I can keep myself engaged, I hope that I can keep the viewer engaged. All along in my career, people have said, “Oh, he’s still painting heads.”
Have you felt pressure to change, after being identified as doing one particular kind of painting?
I’ve done a number of things to isolate myself from the buffeting winds of change in the art world. By having my own odd eccentric path to follow, the cataclysmic sea changes didn’t affect me very much, but I did feel the need to reconnect myself with what I do by trying to re-establish urgency. I always thought that problem-solving was greatly overrated, that the most important thing was problem-creation, how do you put yourself in an interesting position by asking yourself a question that no one else is asking, and because no one else’s solutions are applicable, you’re more likely to arrive at a personal solution. If you accept the problem of the moment, your solution is very likely going to be ordinary. That’s how I got into portraiture in the first place.
How did that happen?
In 1967, painting was dead, yet again. It’s been dead so many times in my career I can’t believe it. But of course I think that the times when painting is dead are absolutely the best times to make paintings.
It’s like the stock market.
That’s right, or as the Japanese say, be poised for the recovery. You don’t want to jump on the bandwagon after everyone else realises that this is the thing to be doing. Figuration was totally out of the question. Sculpture ruled in the late 1960s. And I remember Clement Greenberg said that of all the things that couldn’t be done in art any more, the portrait was at the top of the list. And I guess that’s what got to me; the fact of someone declaring something so bankrupt, so hopelessly lost, so pathetically out of it, that only a fool would attempt to breathe new life into it. That must have appealed to me. I thought that Greenberg was a horrible influence on art, although I remain a dyed-in-the-wool formalist.
So it wasn’t just the rebellion against the imposition of conventional wisdom that got you into portraiture?
My favourite things were minimal painting and sculpture, but I thought those guys were better than I was. I was trained as an Abstract Expressionist and I loved it. I just thought I only made weak versions of their work, so I was looking for a way to push myself out of simply demonstrating that I knew what art looked like.
What sort of reactions did you get?
I think it was at my first show in New York in 1968 at Bykert Gallery, that Hilton Kramer in the Times called me a lunatic, and said my work was trash that was left ashore when the tide of Pop Art went out.
Who was buying your work in those days?
Mostly museums. The Walker in Minneapolis bought my first painting in 1968. The Whitney bought a painting out of my first show, or maybe before. These are not images that are easy to hang around your house, and who wants a nine-foot-high image of someone else? No one was more surprised than I was that we ended up selling any of them.
What makes a successful portrait?
Likeness is sort of an automatic by-product of the way I work. I don’t care all that much about likeness. All my pictures tend to look more like the person I’m painting than the original photograph did. What interests me in all the work is the tension between the artificial and the real.
What interests me is that everyone has an entrance into this kind of work through their everyday experience as well as through their experience of art, so that everybody—no matter how much art-historical baggage is brought along—can look at a portrait. When we stand in front of a portrait, we’re looking the way a lay person does, because we have that shared experience of looking at each other, looking at ourselves in mirrors, looking at images in magazines, newspapers, and the cinema. This is something we all know about.
How has your paralysis affected your work?
People say it’s more expressionistic in paint-handling, or more emotional. I don’t think I’m doing anything that I wouldn’t have done had I not been in the hospital. Nothing really has changed. The work was already moving in that direction, although I do think there is a heightened emotional content in it now.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Changing faces'