For the best part of 30 years, Chuck Close has been taking snapshots of his friends, family, and self, superimposing a rectilinear grid, then hand-painting


Pixel Dust: The Magic of Chuck Close

For the best part of 30 years, Chuck Close has been taking snapshots of his friends, family, and self, superimposing a rectilinear grid, then hand-painting a gigantic enlargement of the original image on canvas, frame by tiny frame. Far from earning Close the reputation among sophisticated art consumers of a glorified practitioner of paint-by-numbers, this practice has earned him great fame, some fortune, and the highest honor a living artist can dream of: a career retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

A lot of artists have achieved notoriety (and sales) by hammering away at one striking, easily grasped, easily reproduced idea. They are not, generally, among the most admired by connoisseurs. The past 20th-century master of this game was Andy Warhol, but even his stock has sagged in recent years. And who today thinks much about once-praised flashes in the pan like Peter Maxx and Keith Haring? The most remarkable thing about Chuck Close's Johnny-One-Note approach to making art is that his critical reputation continues to grow along with his popularity.

A visit to the downtown Seattle Art Museum, where the same show that played MoMA opens this week, will explain why. Northwest-bred Close gives both parties what they ask for. To the broad public he provides images they can understand and appreciate, human portraits full of energy and insight. To the cognoscenti he offers rich explorations of the epistemology of image-making, an implicit critique of the possibility of "meaning" in art, and a stroke-by-stroke postgraduate course in the 2,500-year history of the manifold ways pigment can be laid upon a surface.

Despite wide critical agreement about Close's importance as an artist, though, there's still something defensive about the way he's presented in the show's catalog. Curator/essayist Robert Storr's introduction to the work goes in for a lot of heavy name dropping, not just of eminent artists past and present, but such philosophers as Roland Barthes and Ludwig Wittgenstein—a telltale sign of insecurity in the critic.

I suspect the discomfort Storr feels in praising Close and his work arises not from fear of attack from fellow professionals but from his own critical conscience. For an expert, the real trouble with Chuck Close's work is that people like it: ordinary people, people off the street who don't know from Academy and care even less. For critics of cutting-edge art, visual art in particular, popularity is always suspect, and for good reason: If the public starts liking artists without being told to, what's the point of hiring critics in the first place?

The problem is particularly acute with Chuck Close, because the way he works with pigment and canvas could have been expressly designed to put them out of work. His paintings cut out the middleman by giving him nothing to talk about, explain, or interpret—no claim, in fact, on the public's attention. Instead of pumping up the creative mystique, Close's work and words (and over the last 30 years, Close has done a lot of talking) seem aimed at demystifying the very act of painting. It's all just dabs of color on cloth, see? All based on a Polaroid broken down into a grid: Come on up close and I'll show you . . . closer . . .

Sure enough: Move within a few feet of them and Close's immense portraits dissolve into a dither of anonymous dots and daubs. Given the inherent limitation of portraiture as a genre, painters and critics have always paid a lot of attention to the how and where of technique; how a wash of transparent green here gives the impression of a hollow depth beneath an eye, how a bare wisp of pure white on the bridge of a nose tricks the observer's eye into "knowing" the direction the painting's light is coming from. Since Close's paintings are just so damn big, you can hardly avoid getting close enough to see the painted detail. Brushwork, texture, shifts of saturation to produce sculptural effects, all the arcana of the studio and storeroom can't help becoming part of your experience. You are forced to look at paint the way a painter does.

If that were all Close does, he would probably today be a respected commercial-art teacher at Everett Community College, where he set out to learn that trade himself in 1958. But he has something much more interesting up his sleeve: something that makes him, among all the innumerable artists who have moonlighted as theorists in the course of our theory-congested century, virtually unique. Merely turn your nose from the Close you've got your nose against and another, 20 feet off on a different wall, 80-odd square feet of energy and presence, takes instantaneous possession of your senses and your soul. Close is the Penn & Teller of painting: He goes to great pains to show how the trick is done and still makes you fall for it every time.

SOME ARTISTS ARE recluses, some gregarians; but most artists of both descriptions tend to leave the shaping of a public image to others. Not Close. In the hundreds of thousands of words written about him and his work since the run-up to the MoMA show opening in 1998, there is an almost eerie consistency of tone and approach. It is as if every writer was working from the same one-page career synopsis, with every biographical fact, like every dab of paint in a Close portrait, contributing its essential mite to the ultimate meaning of the whole.

Born: July 5, 1940 into a lower-middle/working-class family (father a plumber, sheet-metal worker, amateur inventor; mother a pianist—always described as "classically trained"—who sometimes teaches at home). Struggles throughout childhood with severe "learning disabilities" and lack of coordination, making school and peer relations difficult, but fights back courageously.

When he's 5, his father, who often makes toys for the boy, builds him an artist's easel; odd, since according to the official biography he's 6 before his parents order him a paint box from the Sears Roebuck catalog. At 6, too, he performs a magic act for neighbors (what happened to the clumsiness?); by 8, he is taking private art lessons from a pro, studying anatomy and drawing from live models—some accounts specify nude models—all, apparently, in his teacher's apartment.

1952: A bad year. Laid up in bed sev-eral months with kidney disease. Father's death. Mother goes to work at JCPenney. But in '53, things take a turn for the better: sees his first "modern" painting at Seattle Art Museum, a dribble canvas by Jackson Pollock ("I remember feeling outraged, but later—probably even later the same day—I was dribbling paint all over my canvases").

1956 to 1958: Illustrates yearbooks and school magazines; designs, builds, and paints sets for student productions at Everett High. Enters Everett Junior College in 1958, his imputed unpopularity apparently overcome, and his learning disabilities as well—at least where art was concerned: His old prof Russell Day recalls him as a chatter- box, "very energetic, a show-off," a first-rate student but nothing out of the ordinary in the creative way.

Everett's art program was new and energetic; just right for encouraging an ambitious youngster to pursue an art career. At the University of Washington School of Art (1960-62), Close encountered similar encouragement. Alden Mason, already one of the Northwest's most admired painters when he taught there, recalls those years as "good times.We had money; in the advanced painting program we could afford two models, a dog, furniture . . . it was great."

When it came to finding a personal approach to painting, though, success eluded Close. "Action painting—the supposedly thoughtless, subconsciously driven application of paint to canvas popularized by Pollock—was "in," and Close went through cheap pigment by the gallon, "just reaching into the bucket and slopping it on," recalls Mason. He also had a whack at heavy irony in the manner of a very different painter, Jasper Johns. Close bought a mistreated American flag at a thrift shop and further mistreated it with painted graffiti and a mushroom cloud. (The piece drew no comment in shows at the UW and SAM, but finally got the desired attention when shown at the Puyallup Fair—where, legend has it, the American Legion broke down a door to get at it.)

Close's difficulty in finding his way—at the U and later at Yale (1962-64)—lay in the fact that nothing was difficult. Clumsy in childhood or not, by this time he could do anything anybody ever had done with paint; once dyslexic or not, he could talk a blue streak about what he did as well; and, thanks to the arrival of color slides, he knew what anybody anywhere ever had done with paint. The entire corpus of Western art was accessible in the little metal drawers of the art library. For an artist, knowing too much is more dangerous than knowing too little. How can you do your own thing if everything has already been done—and better? And in the American art world of the 1960s, if you didn't have an "own thing" of your own, how were you ever going to get noticed?

Granting that real challenge, and granting the compulsory nods in his official biography toward overcoming the handicaps of a tough childhood, the really striking thing about Close's career is how purposefully it unfolds from the time he arrives at Yale, through his scholarship year studying in Europe, his two years teaching at the University of Massachusetts, his cautious yet deliberate testing of the New York waters before moving there at last (and permanently) in the fall of 1967. In hindsight, it seems inevitable that Close would make his mark in art. He was too gifted, and just too damn smart and observant, not to.

STORR'S CATALOG ESSAY on Close cites several artists who influenced him on his path toward self-discovery. Most of them are household words to serious art mavens, but mere names to the man in the street: Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, Ad Reinhardt. Significantly, it isn't these artists' work that Storr cites as significant but rather their ideas about art. The thing that sets Close apart from them is that over the years between his graduation (with highest honors) from Yale in 1963 and his move to New York in late 1967, he found a way to clothe their ideas with flesh.

He was alone neither in his search nor his ultimate success. During the same innominate era, between the birth of the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement, would-be artists in all genres were trying to find a way out of the excessive sophistication with which they'd been cursed by their education. And the solutions they found were remarkably alike.

The first problem was how to rid themselves of the excessive emotionalism, the hypersubjectivity, of the generation immediately before—without collapsing into the creative black hole of irony. The solution lay in returning to an emphasis on form—indeed, not just an emphasis but an obsessive preoccupation with it. In music, you can hear it in the early works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich (both active in New York during Close's early years there): a music of patterns, usually preordained by formulas, a music built up from the tiniest components of pitch and rhythm and deliberately precluding any "expressive" options to the performers.

You can see the same impulse to get rid of feeling (read "falsity") in the repetitive evolutions of dances by choreographers like Laura Dean, Lucinda Childs, and Deborah Hay (for whom a walk around the room was expressively equivalent to a sequence of unsupported arabesques pench饳). In theater, Robert Wilson was beginning to experiment with a drama of pure pictures; in poetry John Ashbery was writing lyrics resolutely devoid of "content" to explore the power of pure grammar and syntax. (Significantly, most of these artists ended up collaborating with one another—and, in Glass' case, "posing" for Close.)

In 1967, Close found his path at last, by eliminating from his art every possible avenue through which "significance" could seep. Instead of models, he chose to work from photographs (it's hard today to recall how heretical and "anti-creative" this practice once was considered). Instead of re-creating the images with a free hand, he confined his brush to conveying, patch by inexpressive patch, the content of the photographic grid as exactly as possible in each tiny rectangle of blank canvas. For years, he excluded color from his palette. At first, he even excluded the brush (too prone, even unconsciously, to be "expressive") in favor of the impersonal pffft of an airbrush.

And almost immediately, the discipline paid off—aesthetically and financially. While Philip Glass was still driving a cab to finance his composing habit, Close was showing to attentive acclaim. In 1969, the Walker Art Center bought his 1967 Big Self-portrait (the image on the cover of SAM's catalog) for $1,300: not a bad price for an emerging artist 30 years ago, and only the first of a steady stream of museum purchases. (Even then, only wealthy private patrons could afford a Close; for that matter, only the wealthy can afford a home big enough to display one.)

There is something so personable, so intimate in Close's huge works that it's easy to overlook the incredible discipline required to execute them. Only a visionary would have embarked on Robert/104,072 (the number refers to the number of spray-gun poofs required to paint it) in the first place; only a compulsive—and a compulsive of no mean order—would have finished it according to the original plan. Despite his use of various forms of mechanical assistance to prepare them, Close's paintings are incredibly time-consuming to execute, and despite occasional experiments with other means of picture-making, he has always returned to the method he began with: building up an image one "pixel" at a time.

IN DECEMBER 1988, Close underwent a physical incident so catastrophic that it would have ended the career of most artists. An aneurysm in the upper spinal column left him paralyzed from the neck down, though he has since regained some mobility in his arms and legs. For Close, that was enough. By late 1989, he had developed an adaptation of his trademark technique that not only allowed him to continue to paint but constantly to break new ground. Before his hospitalization, he had already begun to vary his full-frontal, frame-filling approach to faces, experimenting with profiles and the use of color.

The works created in the years since what the artist calls "the event" drag the dialogue between image and technique right out into the foreground, where we can't avoid dealing with it. Even at a distance, most of the new works don't coalesce into an apparently realistic portrait: They hover on the borderline between portrait and abstraction, teasing the brain's sophisticated face-identifying circuitry to the edge of breakdown. But we're compensated for the extra demands put on us by use of color so sumptuous, so impossibly lavish and diverse and playful, that it vibrates in our perceptive apparatus hours after we leave the exhibition.

In these latest works, Close the control freak, the jealous keeper of his own biographic flame, the compulsive reductionist of the human countenance, a man so driven that a broken body barely slowed him down, has found a way to freedom, to eliciting from the application of the relentless rules of his art an atmosphere of celebration, even joy.

In his most recent interviews, Close doesn't encourage questions about the technique that assembles little whorls and sausages and targets of pure pigment into elements that in time coalesce into a human face. For the first time, he seems disinclined to expound on technique, or to encourage his questioners to pluck out the heart of his mystery.

And a mystery there most emphatically is. "I've watched him work," says Alden Mason, still a family friend after nearly 40 years. "He looks at the photo he's working from, he looks at the canvas, he lays down some paint. He does the same thing over and over with different colors every time. He doesn't back up to see how it looks. He just seems to know how it will look. He's like a shaman. And no matter how long I watch, I still have no idea how he does it."

In celebration of the opening of SAM's retrospective, a one-hour 1998 documentary on Close and his work will be rebroadcast twice this week by KCTS 9. Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress will show Saturday, February 20 at 1:30pm, and Tuesday, February 23 at 2am.

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