PRINT October 1993


AFTER YEARS OF IRONIC DENIAL that his work is part of the tradition of portraiture, Chuck Close has embraced the genre. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art invited Close to organize an exhibition, some two and a half years ago, he chose to select portraits from their collection. Now, in a project for Artforum, he has once again curated a gallery of portraits, this time culled from the collection of another New York institution—the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the following pages Close has arranged a selection of 48 images, by artists ranging from Bronzino to Warhol, in full-page grids, suggesting a salon-style constellation of faces. As with the MoMA show, the effect recalls Charles Willson Peale’s monumental self-portrait of 1822, The Artist in His Museum, which depicts his vision of a grand museum of portraiture peopled with his own collection of the likenesses of military and political notables. Portraiture was an obsession for Peale; throughout his career he wrestled with the concepts of representation and realism, less interested, it seems, in “art” than in “truth.” Indeed his museum, which also included taxidermic specimens, fossils, and minerals, was as much a compendium of various processes of finding “truth”—from science to the “science” of depiction—as it was an archive of social history.

Like Peale’s, Close’s career can be seen as an extended meditation on the nature of the genre; but, as a portraitist in the late-Modern era, he has had to negotiate a very different terrain from that of his predecessor. Indeed, a good deal of cunning was required to survive as a portrait painter in the late ’60s and early ’70s, during the reign of the Color Field painters and Minimalists. Close responded to the challenge with a series of monumental portrait heads that, in keeping with the temper of the moment, seemed to have less to do with individual subjects than with perceptual systems— less with personality than presence. Instead of painting from life, he worked from photographs of artists’ faces, stark, black and white close-ups, which he carefully gridded, transposing them unit by unit with an airbrush onto canvases of Herculean scale. Through his bold enlargement of the image and sly pretense to literalness, Close squared off with a generation of Minimalists.

In Close’s images, any pretense to civic virtue and dynastic legitimacy—important qualities of 19th-century American portraiture—has been drained away. They are essentially mug shots of people “like us” and decidedly not to the manor born. It is this blunt presentation that helps to explain his special fondness for the unadorned style of the self-taught limners of the last century, which he admires for its “flat-footed directness.” The unexpected compliment suggests that Close recognizes a characteristic he shares with these American folk artists: their portraits show believable people painted without frills, who look back at us with refreshing if awkward honesty. In Close’s most effective pictures, he too closes the gap between depicted subject and viewer by establishing an eye-to-eye tension. But, while that kind of tension is the stock-in-trade of the successful portrait, Close renders it particularly intense and unsettling. Peter Schjeldahl has described the experience of encountering one of these heads: “I felt less that I was looking than that I was being benignly but very aggressively looked at.”

Yet part of the irony of Close’s project is that he is interested both in closing this gap between subject and viewer and, at the same time, in emphasizing the distancing and distorting effects inherent in photography. In fact the perversity of those effects is central to his work. Though he may be a court painter to our post-Modern age, what he captures in his paintings is not the nobility but the artificiality of the photographed subject. Perhaps for that reason, Close has never accepted a commission—not, he says, because “I’m too pure to take the money,” but because the relationship between a portrait painter and a subject is a “touchy” one.

“Touchy,” of course, is something of an understatement in Close’s case. For while he is a good friend of many of his subjects, he is also a perceptive surgeon, who unemotionally cuts through (or at times exaggerates) the psychology they project. By heightening the camera distortions, he mercilessly crowds us with the subject’s face, violating our private space and, ironically, using photographic “distancing” as a way of producing a kind of hyperintimacy. Standing in front of the camera, faces pushed up to the lens, his subjects are left no room for vanity. These are not honorific images, like Peale’s, but pore-by-pore dissections, in which Close is thoroughly complicit. Not content with the camera’s distorting work, the artist further distances the subject by inventing a variety of abstract marks to represent the varying textures of skin and hair.

Close has always taken careful account of the relationship among the artist, his subject, and the viewer who watches them watch each other. In recent years, however, it has been the interaction with his subjects in the studio that has provided his focus. In the process, it has become increasingly apparent that while Close willfully distorts his subjects’ image, they in turn use the painting space he allots them to create a picture in their own self-image. According to Close, Richard Serra was one of the first to lobby for dressing up his image—or, in Serra’s case, for dressing it down—by appearing at the photo session looking as gritty and hard as one of his sculptures. Nor has Close himself entirely resisted the temptation to perform: he admits that in his early Self-Portrait, he portrayed himself, half-seriously and half-mockingly, as James Dean. The artist’s most recent portrait of the painter Janet Fish takes this idea of costumed role-playing to new heights. Decked out in huge, plastic dinosaur earrings and cheap-looking ’50s glasses, Fish demonstrates the truth of Harold Rosenberg’s dictum, “An artist is a person who has invented an artist.”

Yet it is in Close’s portraits of artists who specialize in self-portraiture that his investigation reaches the most intense pitch. Focusing on an elite group of chameleons—including Lucas Samaras, Francesco Clemente, and Cindy Sherman—who both investigate and exploit the mystique of personality, wresting control of their images from the camera by revealing to it only what they choose, Close tries to regain the upper hand by examining their identities from without.

In his early works, Close underplayed the painterly aspect of his art. Choosing an airbrush to apply the paint allowed the individual peculiarities of faces and the ways in which the camera both revealed and distorted them to do the bulk of the expressive labor. Eventually, however, he became disenchanted with the airbrush, finding that in using it, “Painting doesn’t seem like a physical activity. It’s more like waving a magic wand over the surface of the canvas.” Reacting to this perception, he became more involved with the physicality of the painting process. Rather than returning to the brush, he painted directly with his hands, dipping his fingers in paint and generating the marks with his fingertips. “At first,” he says, “it was just about getting rid of the tools. Then, I realized how sensuous and direct the process was, and got hooked for a while. It was the ultimate physical experience of painting. You could feel how much paint you were picking up on your skin and exactly how much pressure you were applying to the surface.”

This fingerprint technique seems to have been the catalyst for a fresh phase in Close’s portrait painting, one in which he invents marks with a new freedom, while still maintaining an objective distance from the subject. Although he has his doubts about calling something “realist” that is twice removed from its subject, first by photographic distortion and then by exaggerated facture (or even about calling these works portraits in the traditional sense), Close’s work depends on this kind of ambiguity; one senses that he embraced portraiture precisely because it is so fraught with paradox. If anything, the recent changes in his procedure have allowed him to intensify this structure of paradox, yielding some of the most challenging paintings of his career. (And under unusually restrictive circumstances: in 1989, Close suffered a collapsed artery in his spine that left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. He now paints with a brush strapped to his wrist.)

But Close’s will to paint remains fueled as much by intellectual inquisitiveness and an appreciation of irony as it is by a need to make marks. Although he is acutely aware that it is his system of grid painting that has allowed him to continue to create remarkably powerful portraits, at precisely the moment it would appear that he needs his system most, he is undermining it with new urgency. The grid is still present, but the painterly energy that fills each unit has become more animated, resulting in an opera of molecular gestures each of which demands attention. These marks emanate now as much from the imagination as from the photograph, and this, perhaps, is why he is attracted more to Giuseppe Arcimboldo than to more conventional trompe-l’oeil painters: “I like the idea that he is not making what he is making. He immerses himself in these incremental and sublime painterly events and ends up with something uniquely grotesque.” Asked recently if he thought of his own portraits as grotesque, he remarked with more than a little irony, “All the time, particularly when I’m painting them.” For him, then, the grotesqueness is yet another way of expressing the paradoxes latent in the genre itself.

Recasting the role of touch in his work, Close has managed to integrate himself into the long tradition of portrait painting, without, however, losing his identity as a contemporary practitioner. In ransacking the Modern and the Met to bring together a global and transhistorical field of alter egos, he has not only seemed to make peace with the genre that made him famous, he has found a new way to make himself, as well as us, rethink the meaning of his project.

Michael Auping has just been appointed chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas.

— A project for Artforum by Chuck Close, with a text by Michael Auping