A Visit With Art-World Hero Chuck Close

Getting some face time, as he gears up for his new fall show

Driven to excel at a visual language at which he'd proven himself crackerjack, Close ignored their lousy counsel. "Art saved my life in two ways," the artist says today with undiminished enthusiasm. "It made me feel special, because I could do things my friends couldn't, but it also gave me a way to demonstrate to my teachers that, despite the fact that I couldn't write a paper or do math, I was paying attention."

What Close didn't know then, but would learn much later, was that his own precocious ability to draw and paint was linked to a condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. It's an ailment he shares with his friend, the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks—"the worst face blindness I've ever seen." Close has long connected his hunger to understand the mechanics of pictures with his own inability to process written symbols and recognize faces. (He once accidentally blanked an ex-lover on the subway, despite having lived with her for years.) The artist's famously large-scale gridded portraits of faces turn out to be one important way Close makes recognizable (and nearly mathematically abstract) the obstacles he has stubbornly overcome.

"Virtually everything I've done is influenced by my learning disabilities," Close told the anchors of CBS This Morning back in April. "I think I was driven to paint portraits to commit images of friends and family to memory." This might be so, but few artists and critics in the late 1960s were prepared for Close's unexpected meshing of process art, minimal brushwork (there was none, because he used an airbrush), and representational painting. "If you were stupid enough to be a painter," Close remembers, "no one would do figurative art, and of all the moribund ideas out there, the dumbest was to do portraiture."

Like golf: Chuck Close in his studio
Christopher Farber
Like golf: Chuck Close in his studio


But a work like Big Nude (1967–68) wasn't just a painting of a reclining nude. Instead, it was a rigorous painting of a photograph—an inch-by-inch, 10 x 21 foot, methodically layered, handmade reproduction of a ubiquitous mechanical process. Another early black-and-white breakthrough, Close's famous Big Self-Portrait (1967–68), effectively translated minimalism and conceptualism into figurative terms. Put differently, Close could have his cake and eat it, too. "Once a face is flattened out, I can remember it much better," the artist tells me. The flip side of that experience is how the viewer relates to the hairs, blemishes, or colored lozenges populating Close's oversized faces—folks are forced to concentrate on details as opposed to the whole of what are essentially warts-and-all, Brobdingnagian mug-shots-as-landscapes.

Close has often spoken publicly of the value of putting up obstacles for himself—of "repeatedly putting rocks in my shoes"—to satisfy what he calls his need to "escape from virtuosity." But nothing—not even the death of his father at age 11—could have prepared the artist for the terrible crisis he suffered in late 1988. A watershed (and potential Waterloo) the artist respectfully refers to as "The Event," Close's nearly career-ending catastrophe took place after an awards ceremony at Gracie Mansion. According to Christopher Finch's excellent 2010 biography, Chuck Close: Life, Close had spent the day racked by chest pains, yet dutifully showed up to present a prize. After official chitchat, introductions, and a Borscht Belt ramble from Ed Koch, Close delivered his citation—"for Louis Spanier, visual arts coordinator, Community School District 32"—then walked across the street to Doctor's Hospital and went into 20 minutes of uninterrupted convulsions. When these were over—and before doctors acknowledged the extent of his massive spinal cord injuries—a fully conscious Close knew he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

From the day he began his amazing embrace of his new life until today, Chuck Close has grown beyond what he once was (a famous artist) and what some would have him become (a poster boy for quadriplegia) into an American master every bit as fundamental as Edward Hopper, Woody Guthrie, or Mark Twain. A painter whose life, work, and popularity are perfectly consonant, Close has achieved something that eludes all other modern American artists alive (and most dead ones): the sort of crossover appeal that makes art matter, often urgently, to folks beyond the professional fishbowl of art and culture.

Close's message has remained amazingly positive and instructive throughout his trials—just ask the children he mentors at Roosevelt Elementary, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. "We're encouraging kids in a failing school," he says, "to find another way to be successful and to feel good—everyone deserves to feel good about themselves." He is, after all, a self-described "glass-three-quarters-full man." "When I was six feet three inches, no one came up to me," he tells me as we're finishing our three-coffee lunch. "Being in a wheelchair cut me down to size, so now people do that all the time. The truth about me is that I would never make art without an audience—ultimately, all I ever wanted to do was to make stuff that made a difference to other people."

"In an art world that has a shelf life of about a year and a half, there's a whole generation of people who've never heard of me," Close had said modestly as we entered his crowded studio.

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