A Visit With Art-World Hero Chuck Close
"Lou Reed's got wrinkles in his wrinkles."
Artist Chuck Close and I are in his ground-floor studio on Bond Street. He's describing a giant tapestry of Reed's face that he's hoping to have ready by mid October. The studio is jammed with assistants color-correcting dyes, poring over photographic images, and managing office business. It's an especially busy time for Team Close—the 72-year-old painter is preparing for his long-awaited fall show at Chelsea's Pace Gallery. Arrayed around the walls are some of his closest friends—Roy, Paul, Philip, Laurie, Cindy. In his relaxed company, it's practically immaterial that they're all celebrities. "I always wanted to make paintings of ordinary, undistinguished people," Close says as if reading my thoughts. "It's not my fault they became famous."
There's a certain kind of virtuosity that amplifies its achievements by a million trillion. Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony while deaf. James Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake with a magnifying glass. Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States while black.
For people who love art, young or old, with-it or fusty, Republican or Democrat, the painter Chuck Close has long formed part of this virtuosic pantheon. An artist celebrated like few people in or out of the art world, Close commands not just attention, but also bona fide affection. To see him at huge museum affairs, art-fair openings, or charitable events is to see Moses part waters thick with social climbing, calculation, and envy. His presence—like that of a civil rights leader or sports hero—is mollifying. As he once put it to me, "For the last 14 years, I've not gone a day where I go outside and don't have someone tell me how much they like what I do. I'm really very, very lucky." Never mind that Chuck Close is a partial quadriplegic and largely confined to a wheelchair.
To say that Chuck Close is handicapped is to miss an important part of his gift, if not to significantly misstate facts. A white tornado of activity that pulls together art, politics, education, and just plain socializing, Close has long had what Robert Hughes in 1998 called "a reputation as a stick-to-it, intensely focused, all-around good guy of the American art world." This reputation has gone mainstream in the past few years, as Close's constant civic-mindedness has resulted in his appointment to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, as well as his recruitment to mentor struggling schools for Turnaround Arts—a recent administration-led arts-education initiative that closely echoes the artist's own oft-quoted precepts.
I meet Close for pasta e vino at his favorite neighborhood restaurant, Il Buco, before our killer studio visit. It's a spot Close likes so much he treats it as both caviarteria and canteen. I want him to talk about his art, his life, his devotion to arts education, but also what compels him to be a "good art-world citizen." That phrase, which is his, speaks volumes about him. Not for the last time, though, he turns the subject back to children's learning.
"Some people say we need art in school because playing violin is good for your math skills," the National Medal of Arts winner tells me after the first glass of wine is poured. "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."
Arts education is a subject extremely dear to Chuck Close's heart. As an official portraitist, he recently got to bend Obama's ear on the subject as the president sat down for his Polaroid picture. "I photographed him last week for an hour and a half," Close relays, "and boy, did I take the opportunity to lobby him."
The memory of that conversation shifts quickly to a less friendly encounter with Mayor Bloomberg and former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein. At a small dinner party—"10 or 12 people, no more"—Close shared his thinking about why the two powerful city politicians remained flummoxed by New York's high dropout rates.
"It's because you have such a narrow definition of what success is," he told them. "If you're not good at math and science, you're not a successful person." Close proceeded to illustrate his case with his own biography and to chastise the two for shifting funds from the arts to remedial education. Bloomberg's response was casually condescending: "Oh, Chuck, you would have been all right because you're a genius." Angered, Close shot back, "I suppose I should be flattered, but how would I know that I had any abilities if I'd had next to no exposure to art and music." (According to Close, the scrappy colloquy's final chapter came days later, when Klein rang to tell him that the city had restored "a couple of million dollars" to school arts funding.)
Charles Thomas Close was born severely dyslexic. "I still can't add or subtract in my head," he says, "and never learned my multiplication tables, which meant no algebra, geometry, physics, or chemistry." He knew nothing about the disorder until he attended a lecture on the subject with his eight-year-old daughter in the 1970s. Close also suffered from neuromuscular problems as a child. This meant, despite his height and build (he's six feet three inches), that he "couldn't run, couldn't throw a ball, and couldn't keep up with the other kids physically." Art gave Close a competitive edge—it offered him pure learning beyond the understanding of most adults. Close still grimaces when recalling the advice he got from educators: "My high school counselor told me that I would never get into college, but that I should consider body and fender school."
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."
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.
Chock-full of work made for the long-awaited October 19 exhibition (his last New York solo show of paintings was in 2009), the space holds the results of the past few years of intense, methodical effort. "I make about three pieces a year," the artist says. Leaning against the walls are a number of "heads" Close has mostly painted for decades. There are likenesses of the artists Laurie Anderson and Kara Walker, the art collector Aggie Gund, the singer Paul Simon, and the composer Philip Glass; an unfinished painting of Cindy Sherman sits on Close's motorized easel. While pointing to prints and other works bound for the exhibition, Close genially explains his working method with a sports analogy. "What I do is like golf—I move from general to specific in an ideal number of correcting moves," he says as we scan the different-colored, mosaic-like squares making up Glass's head. "At the start, you can't even see the green, but you get to the ninth hole eventually."
Much later, after I've left the studio and am kicking my familiar Brooklyn sidewalks, it occurs to me that Chuck Close had just revealed to me how he taught himself to paint again. "Every stroke," he'd said, summing up his life and generous career, "is a leap of faith."
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