Keith / Mezzotint: The Work That Changed Close's Career

Contessa Gallery
Jun 5, 2017 9:31PM

Contessa Gallery's Chuck Close Keith / Mezzotint is on loan to the University of Michigan Museum of Art Victors for Art Exhibition

Chuck Close (B. 1940 - ), Keith / Mezzotint, 1972 Mezzotint, 51 x 41 7/8 inches | Contessa Gallery | Steve Hartman

Commemorating the University of Michigan’s 2017 Bicentennial, Victors for Art: Michigan’s Alumni Collectors celebrates the deep impact of Michigan alumni on the global art world. This exhibition features works collected by a diverse group of alumni and the artworks themselves span 3,500 years of art making­, from ancient sculptures to multimedia works by emerging artists. Victors for Art offers visitors an unprecedented opportunity to view art that may have never been publicly displayed otherwise—and most certainly, not together.

Contessa Gallery owner and University of Michigan alumni, Steve Hartman, who loaned Keith / Mezzotint, one of Chuck Close’s most pivotal works, is awed and humbled by the response of the exhibition. “This print is one of the most important prints of the twentieth century,” says Hartman, “Signifying a milestone in the history of printmaking and a pinnacle in Chuck Close's career." Hartman continues, “There are only 14 in the world, and only 8 in museums.”

Keith / Mezzotint, Close’s first print after graduating from Yale, heralded the larger-than-life ambitions of a young artist. It was with this print that Close decided that he preferred to leave his grid guide visible in his works. When approached in 1972 to work on the project, master printer Kathan Brown expressed skepticism: “The largest print we had done up to then was 22 x 30 inches... so of course I said it was impossible. Besides, who ever heard of an etching three by four feet!” While lithographs and screenprints had expanded in size in the late sixties, intaglio printmaking (engraving, drypoint, etching, aquatint, and mezzotint) retained its “intimate” appeal.

A mezzotint is made by scoring a copper plate with countless, minuscule pits, which, when inked, print as a uniform dark ground. The artist works from dark to light, burnishing and polishing the ground so that a lighter image emerges from the dark.

The fact that Close, a novice, could master this exacting technique on first try is astonishing yet does not account for the work’s status. To adopt an outmoded technique—one fashionable in the mid-eighteenth to mid- nineteenth century—seemed perversely radical in 1972. To upend the historical tradition by making the image larger-than-life remains powerfully compelling to the present.

In a recent interview, Chuck Close spoke about Keith as a pivotal work, noting its visible grid: “The individual grid units stayed as discrete areas ... After finishing Keith, I started doing dot drawings and other pieces in which the incremental unit was visible and ultimately celebrated in a million different ways. That all came from making this print.”

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