Close, Charles T. "Chuck" (b. 1940)

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 7/10/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11084

Artist Charles Thomas "Chuck" Close, who grew up in Everett and Tacoma and studied art at the University of Washington, redefined the portrait in the contemporary art world beginning in 1967 with his first larger-than-life portrait paintings based on photographs. Close came to use a grid system to break down photographs of himself and others and reproduce them in paint on a much-enlarged scale, a technique that combined both realistic presentation and abstract detail to create the portraits. In addition to painting, his achievements in the realm of portraiture encompass a diverse variety of media, such as printmaking, collage, photography, and tapestries. Close continues to explore the human face as a central theme of his artwork in its many forms.

Roots in Washington

Close was born in Monroe, Snohomish County, on July 5, 1940. He spent his early life as an only child living first in Everett, and then Tacoma beginning in 1945. As a young boy he practiced drawing in his spare time to offset difficulties encountered in school as the result of learning disabilities. He later recalled this time as a formative one: "It was the first thing that I was good at, the first thing that made me feel special ... art saved my life" (Greenberg, 6). Close's mother, a piano instructor, and father, a plumber and part-time inventor, provided encouragement and support. When he was 5 they bought him his first set of oil paints from Sears Roebuck; at age 8, they enrolled him in private art lessons given by a local woman, which included figure studies of nude female models.

As an adult, Close placed a high value on his early education in the arts, which he saw as having a wider benefit for others as well: "Some people say we need art in school because playing violin is good for your math skills ... but I believe it solves an even bigger problem than test scores, and that's the dropout rate. When I was in school, as learning disabled as I was, we had art and music several times a week. Had I not had that, I would have dropped out of school" (Viveros-Faune).

His studies of art continued through high school, and more formal instruction in a variety of media followed at Everett Junior College (later Everett Community College) from fall 1958 to spring 1960. Close was influenced early on by the paintings of artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and Alden Mason (1919-2013), all considered to be working in the Abstract Expressionist vein of modern art. Mason in particular formed a bond with the young painter as one of Close's painting instructors at the University of Washington. Through Mason, Close found a way to emulate and learn from the "New York School" painters of his day (something he otherwise found lacking in the UW arts program and its then-focus on a different group of painters, the "Northwest Mystics").

With his eye toward the East Coast, Close won a scholarship to attend the Yale Summer School of Music and Art in 1961, before receiving his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Washington in 1962. His paintings of this time period -- such as The Ballerina (1962) and Seated Woman (1964) -- are colorful, abstract compositions that speak to the artist's ability to bring an expressive quality to basic figurative works in fine detail.

By 1964 Close had completed studies for both bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees at Yale University. He studied abroad shortly afterward at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna on a Fulbright grant. For a brief time after his return from Europe, the artist taught at the University of Massachusetts.

Breakthrough in Approach to Figure Painting

In 1967 Close relocated to New York City, where he established a studio in the SoHo district. Accompanying him was sculptor Leslie Rose (b. 1948), and the two were married shortly thereafter; they would have two daughters -- Georgia and Maggie. His transition also marked a departure from Abstract Expressionist influences on his work. He began using a camera to take photos of his subjects, after which he painted enormous enlargements of the photographed figures on canvas. His first effort was a female nude, showing the full body in a reclining pose. The next painting was a close-up view of the artist's own face, shown smoking a cigarette. For this first self-portrait, Close combined this new approach to the figure with a variety of non-traditional-artist tools, among them an overlaid-grid technique, similar to that employed by commercial billboard painters, to enlarge the image.

The effort was a success. It resulted in his painting Big Self-Portrait (1967-1968), which was soon sold to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, his first sale to an arts institution. In a 2003 interview with one of the Walker's curators, Close described the process for this prototype artwork in detail:

"The day that I photographed myself I was actually photographing the nude, which I had just completed; I had film left over and I shot myself. There wasn't anyone to look through the viewfinder, so I focused on the wall and got the distance from the lens to the wall that was in focus. I cut a little cardboard strip, and then I moved the camera back out into the middle of the room and I would put the strip of card­board between the lens and me so I knew that I would be in focus. I didn't realize I was tilting so much in all these photographs. And I didn't realize that I was going to get so much out of focus. Then I realized the minute I started to make the painting that it was far more inter­esting because there was a range of focus. The tip of the nose blurred and the ears and everything else went out of focus, so I began to engineer that. . . . I also didn't realize, until I made the painting, how crucial it was to shoot from below so that the painting looms over you" (Engberg, 161). 

Success and recognition soon followed the Walker Art Center's acquisition, as Close's portfolio of monumental portrait paintings grew. In 1969, he exhibited his paintings both in the Whitney Biennial and at the Bykert Gallery in New York, with his first solo exhibition held at the latter in 1970. Close's portraits were recognized as part of a growing new movement in painting known as Photorealism.

One of the first art critics to write about Close also helped to define him by the name "Chuck." Cindy Nemser's interview for Artforum published in January 1970 was submitted to the magazine editor in an envelope labeled "For the Interview with Chuck Close" -- and the piece ran in print with the same name in the article's title (Friedman, 46). The artist used "Chuck Close" professionally from then on.

Media and Models, Then and Now

As he continued to create portraits, Close would often revisit the same portrait subject more than once, using both different media and pattern details to render the figure in a still-recognizable fashion, yet new with each interpretation. One year he might paint a portrait based on a black-and-white photograph, only to recreate the same figure's face several years later using fingerprint stamps (Close himself is one such example of multiple versions of the same face over time). One count gives an estimate of 143 paintings alone (Catalogue Raisonné). Since 1972, another mainstay medium for Close -- printmaking -- has resulted in portraits done in mezzotint, woodblock, and even watercolor (using a new technique that Close developed with Donald Farnsworth [b. 1952]). These prints have yielded some of the artist's "most important collaborations" ("Chuck Close & Terrie Sultan"), including work with Farnsworth and with Joe Wilfer (1943-1995). With Wilfer's assistance, Close created a number of portraits using pulp paper, a material he had never tried before.

In addition to the self-portraits, Close's subjects have included artists, friends, and family. The artist rejected the idea of selecting "anonymous" people as models, instead using criteria that encompassed both subjective and personal values: they needed to "matter," "project compelling images," and could not be "truly unknown to me" (Friedman, 52-53). Time and again, Close used this approach. For a 2008 exhibition in his former hometown of Tacoma, Close worked in collaboration with photographer Jerry Spagnoli (b. 1956) over a two-year period to produce a series of portraits done as daguerreotypes, prints, even tapestries. Each of these artworks paired the subject with a poem by Bob Holman (b. 1948) who was also one of the portrait figures and -- no surprise -- is counted among Close's circle of friends.

About his finished portraits and how his models relate to them, Close said: "Almost everyone has some trouble dealing with these nine-foot-high images of themselves. It's difficult for people to accept how they look" (Greenberg, 23).

In a July 6, 2010, interview for the PBS Newshour, Close explained that his preference for creating portraits was linked to a lifelong condition known as prosopagnosia, or "face blindness," and that by painting portraits he might better remember people's faces.

Life and Art, "Post-Event"

Shortly after a ceremony in New York to present an art award on December 7, 1988, Close suffered a seizure and became paralyzed from the neck down. After months of rehabilitation he regained partial use of his arms and legs, but with only limited mobility.

Close continued to paint, with the aid of a paintbrush affixed to his wrist. His first "post-event" portrait -- Alex II -- was completed in the summer of 1989 while at the Rusk Institute art therapy room, and shows his friend and fellow artist Alex Katz (b. 1927).

Despite the physical setbacks, Close continued to focus on portraiture to fulfil his identity as an artist, while continuing to utilize both a grid approach and photographs as the basis for his artwork. "I'm always referring back to the photograph. It's like looking at a map so you don't get lost" (Greenberg, 35). Retained as well was the large scale of the portraits. The artist would have the works, undiminished in size, periodically rotated by his studio assistants, in order to focus on painting minute details in different areas of the canvas.

Over the years Close accumulated many honors in recognition for his life's work, including an Honorary Doctorate of the Arts from the University of Massachusetts (1995), a National Medal of Arts (2000), and appointment to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities (2010). As of 2015, Close continued to be represented by the Pace Gallery in New York City, to which he was first introduced by fellow artist Lucas Samaras (b. 1936) in the late 1970s, and lived in Bridgehampton, New York, with his second wife, artist Sienna Shields (b. 1976).

Sources: Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, Chuck Close up Close (New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 1998), 6; Martin Friedman, Close Reading -- Chuck Close and the Art of the Self-Portrait (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005); Christian Viveros-Faune, "A Visit with Art-World Hero Chuck Close," The Village Voice, July 18, 2012 (http://www.villagevoice.com/2012-07-18/art/a-visit-with-art-world-hero-chuck-close/); "Chuck Close," Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum website accessed May 31, 2015 (http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artists/bios/687); Siri Engberg, "Chuck Close," in Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections ed. by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2005); "Chuck Close Catalogue Raisonné," Artifex Press website accessed June 7, 2015 (https://artifexpress.com/catalogues/chuck-close); "Chuck Close & Terrie Sultan," Strand Bookstore video posted May 1, 2014, YouTube website accessed June 14, 2015 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tedC8_s90rE); "For Chuck Close, an Evolving Journey Through the Faces of Others," July 6, 2010, PBS website accessed May 31, 2015 (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec10-close_07-06/); "Chuck Close: Watercolor Prints," Magnolia Editions website accessed July 10, 2015 (http://www.magnoliaeditions.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Magnolia-PR-Close-watercolor-prints.pdf).

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