Beyond the Portrait: The Many Categories of Chuck Close

The Art Genome Project
Sep 16, 2013 7:46PM

If it is true that any good new idea must first be mocked before it can be understood, Chuck Close’s early reception would prove propitious. Art critic Hilton Kramer once called the sui generis photorealist painter a lunatic, deriding his work as “trash washed ashore after the tide of pop art went out.” Today, Close is perhaps best known for his close-up portraits, in which blobs of deeply saturated, often contrasting colors arranged in a grid magically cohere into a vivid likeness. But the artist has never been easy to fit into a box; though his subjects were sourced from the popular medium of photography, he was no latter-day pop artist, as accused; neither orthodox conceptual artist nor standard American photorealist, Close’s unique sensibility and contradictory impulses have served him well over his nearly fifty-year career. Here, we explore some of the categories–or, as The Art Genome Project calls them, genes–that describe aspects of Close’s work.

Philip Glass, State II, 2006
Pace Gallery

The portrait is the beating force of Close’s work, and many of his works have become the iconic image of the artists he portrayed. Alex Katz once said to Chuck Close, “Gee, I guess I'm getting more famous as a model than as a painter…Your portrait of me has made me famous.”

The artist generally begins with a photograph of his sitter and then plots it onto a large canvas using gridded lines. So enlarged, his sitters seem to spill out from the canvas; the flickering quality of pointillist patches of color lend a twinkle to their eye, while exposing their artificiality as images. In a painstaking, repetitive process of translating photographs of his sitters to a painted (or printed) surface, Close brings life to their faces that the camera tends to forget.

The artist’s impaired ability to recognize faces – a condition called prosopagnosia – is often cited as a reason for his obsessive rendering of faces. Close himself acknowledges his artistic debt to his unusual way of taking in the world. On this affliction, Close has said:

I could spend an evening having dinner with someone, stare at their face, be incredibly interested in everything they say, and the next day, be able to remember all kinds of things they had told me. But, if I were to see that person on the street I'd have no idea that I'd ever seen them before in my life. But I can remember things that are flat, which is why I use photography as the source for the paintings. With photography, I can memorize a face. Painting is the perfect medium and photography is the perfect source, because they have already translated three dimensions into something flat. I can just affect the translation.

Chuck Close’s breakthrough works were a series of photorealistic painted portraits of fellow artists, friends, and the motley crew that hung around Soho and Max’ Kansas City in the late 1960s. Close had studied at Yale in the same cohort as Richard Serra and Nancy Graves who, along with Philip Glass, Alex Katz and Joe Zucker, to name a few, would become some of the artist’s earliest sitters. Back in 1968, they were virtually unknown and scraping by – Philip Glass was driving a cab; he and Close laid the piping in what would later become White Columns (112 Green), and they both lived in the no-man’s land that was downtown Manhattan. There is great dramatic irony in Close’s intention, declared at the time: “I'm interested in portraits of people who are in the arts but not famous.”

Since then, Close has portrayed everyone from the gallerist Arne Glimcher to artists Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, John Chamberlain and Roy Lichtenstein. As part of a two-year project he later interviewed twenty-seven of them and published the highly personal conversations in a book titled The portraits speak: Chuck Close in conversation with 27 of his subjects. Rife with personal stories, juicy tête-à-têtes about art, and a sprinkling of gossip, the many interviews penetrate the veneer of artworld portraiture, slowly revealing Close’s complex and intimate interactions with his sitters.


Close has never shied away from his sitters’ flaws. Instead, his signature portraits, cropped close to a sitter’s face, squeeze out all background and render every pore and wrinkle monumental. As he said, “If you had a zit, it was going to be a six-inch-wide zit.” It is easy to forget that many of Close’s paintings are not merely drawn from close-up shots, they enlarge the image to a larger-than-life scale of nine feet. The effect of standing before one of them can be uncomfortably intimate – an invasion of personal space. “The details in my paintings are what you can see when you are too close to someone.”

Although Close had long been using a grid as a guide to transfer his photographic images to crisp-focus paintings, it was during his first experiment with the mezzotint printing technique (see below), in which he plotted a portrait onto the printing plate using a grid, that he first exposed the guide used in creating the image. The printing process resulted in a patchy quality, which Close liked, so that from then on out the gridded guide he had used would remain a prominent structural element in the work. 

The grid has a long history in Modern art – think Piet Mondrian or Ad Reinhardt. One of Reinhardt’s “25 Theses on Art,” whom Close cites as changing his thinking about art, reads “Painting as Central, Frontal, Regular, Repetitive … The strictest formula for the freest artistic freedom.”

Indeed the artist was coming of age in a time that many were eschewing the intuitive, emotional gesture of Abstract Expressionism, favoring structuring elements, like the grid, that imbued their work with a rational system. Sol LeWitt even went so far as to outsource all gesture and execution to others, each artwork being essentially a system of rules devised by the artist, a principle called “Generative art.” Close’s work relates to such conceptual strategies, but he uses these anonymous, repetitive practices to create works that are, in fact, quite personal. Curator and art historian Robert Storr explains why the grid is compelling under Close’s watch: “Each picture is a kind of isolation chamber in which a contest has been staged between structure . . .  and the organic contours, masses, textures, and tints that compose a person's singular presence.”

Over the years, Close’s grid got looser, the squares larger and filled with more intuitive shapes. Close has compared them to Byzantine mosaics, “where an image is built out of discrete incremental marks - chunks of stone or glass - that fit together. I want people to see what made the image. I like dropping crumbs along the trail like Hansel and Gretel.”

Self-Portrait II, 2010
The Merchant House

Beginning in the early 1980s Close began to move away from the photorealism that had defined his earlier portraits, attempting to deconstruct the image and reveal its anatomy, working in increments that together cohered to a whole. To call these works pixelated is both true and not true. In some of his earliest experiments, such as Georgia, 1982, a portrait of the artist’s daughter, Close squirted paper pulp through grills or cake decorators, creating an accumulation of molecular blob-like forms. In Lucas II, 1987, the discrete units of color, where clashing and complementary color fight it out to create a flickering effect, recall the brash, late 19th-century tonality of Van Gogh more than cyber-age pixels. In a portrait of Cindy Sherman, the increments are like a dot matrix print-out, recalling the Ben-Day dots used in newspaper prints, brought to the canvas most famously by Roy Lichtenstein.

Close’s frequent use of red, yellow and blue – the standard colors used in offset printing – further underscores his interest in analogue printing, not digital processes, as a counterpoint to the hand-craft of painting. On this topic, Close has said:

Some people wonder whether what I do is inspired by a computer and whether or not that kind of imaging is part of what makes this work contemporary. I absolutely hate technology, and I’m computer illiterate, and I never use any labor-saving devices although I’m not convinced that a computer is a labor-saving device. I’m very much about slowing things down and making every decision myself. But, there’s no question that life in the twentieth century is about imaging. It is about photography. It is about film. And it is about new digitalized things. There are layers of similarity, I suppose, that have to do with the way computer-generated imagery is made from scanning. I scan the photograph as well, and I break it down into incremental bits, and they can break it down into incremental bits.

Clothing Store, 1976
Louis K. Meisel Gallery
Jasper, 2012
The Merchant House

Close rose to prominence with his photo-sourced realist works at a time that the American Photorealists were becoming canonized as a movement – “Realism Now” was a seminal exhibition curated by Linda Nochlin in 1968, the Sidney Janis Gallery rebranded this trend as “Sharp-Focus Realism” in 1972, and the American painters Richard EstesRalph GoingsMalcolm Morley and Close himself burst on the international scene at documenta 5 in Germany that same year.

“I chafe under the term realist; the work is, I suppose, about reality, but it's also highly artificial. It’s the artificiality which really interests me, the fact that it's this distribution of colored dirt on a flat surface.” Close’s uneasy relationship to realism made for an odd comparison to artists like Estes and Goings, who more and more were seen as exemplars of “Photorealism” in the U.S. Their crystalline images of Americana and the preponderance of sleek surfaces – from cars to office buildings and shop windows – set their concerns far apart from Close’s interest in the photograph’s ability to flatten out the reality it captured onto a colored surface. So Close: “The camera is not aware of what it is looking at. It just gets it all down.”

Alex, 1993
Louis K. Meisel Gallery

The New York Times called Close “the great postmodern pointillist printmaker.” When the artist made his first print in 1972, he knew the challenge he was getting into, having worked as print-maker Gabor Peterdi’s assistant while at Yale. His first essay into creating his own prints, Keith/Mezzotint, 1972, Mezzotint, was created in collaboration with master printer Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press in California. It has been called a “milestone of modern printmaking.” Mezzotint is not an obvious choice: it is a laborious technique and had been eclipsed by the more popular silkscreen and lithography printing processes favored by pop artists and poster makers alike. Further balking convention, Close elected to make the work on an unusually large scale, and the challenge to the printer meant that this was an "on-the-job training for everyone."

Close went on to work in woodcuts, creating what may be the largest Japanese style woodblock ever made, Emma/Woodcut (2002).  His 1988 Self-Portrait (pictured here) uses spit-bite aquatint. This technique, as the name entails, requires actual saliva as an ingredient. Instead of using his own, Close opted for the spit of the French master printer Aldo Crommelynck, who collaborated on the print with him. Why? Because the special look of this work could only be achieved with the Frenchman’s "very French, very Gauloise-tempered spit."

Print-making is, at heart, a collaborative process where an artist’s prerogative rubs up against a printer’s expertise. Everything from paper to the idiosyncrasies of materials like copper and linoleum or wax and acid must be considered. For Close, who always loved setting artificial limitations on his process, printmaking offered a natural challenge. The technique of reduction linoleum printing – which Close used to make Alex/Reduction – is a challenge indeed; the linoleum block is cut away; imprints are made – generally around seven – at each step of the process. This allows for extreme detail, but zero room for error, since the linoleum block can only be cut further away. For this work in particular, Close employed six assistants for the cutting process. He noticed that some carved more loosely and some more finely than others, creating a non-uniform look, so he devised a system whereby the assistants rotated the block every ten minutes to even out their unique imprints. “I always have a print project going, like soup on the back of the stove.”

The Art Genome Project