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PRINT April 1998

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As the 120-odd portraits in Chuck Close’s full-scale retrospective found their places on the walls of New York’s Museum of Modern Art this February, Brooks Adams visited the installation in progress and talked with the artist and the show’s curator Robert Storr about the work, its development, and the issues surrounding its presentation. Photographer Tina Barney shot the proceedings for Artforum. And, in the essay that follows, art historian Richard Shiff provides a critical overview.

BROOKS ADAMS: So we’re opening with the big grisaille portraits from the late ’60s and ’70s, right?

CHUCK CLOSE: Uh-huh. This is the earliest painting, 1967–68—Big Self-Portrait.

BA: Is this where you feel your work begins?

CC: Well, I did a nude just before this which I consider part of my mature work. We thought for a while about putting it in but decided just to stick with heads.

BA: How did you decide against the nude? I mean, it was the most surprising image in the catalogue.

ROBERT STORR: The only place we could have put it is on the balcony overlooking the garden. The interior spaces wouldn’t have permitted it because of the height of the ceiling. I also felt that to start out with a nude would upstage the surprise of coming into this gallery, where you really see him hit it with the heads.

CC: And, actually, nobody has really seen the nude. Well, I did show it in Europe, at a 1994 retrospective. Also, I think it’s coming to the Whitney for a nude show there. But in terms of duplicating the work’s initial impact—these are the first paintings that anybody saw.

BA: This is a very iconic beginning—the Gallery of Worthies.

CC: Phil [Glass] said in an interview—he and Richard [Serra] and a bunch of other people were all photographed on the same day—that anybody who showed up ended up being well-known in their field. He said it was like a magic moment. And I was just trying to paint anonymous people.

BA: Am I right in thinking your ’70s sitters are more anonymous than your ’80s and ’90s sitters?

CC: I just gave up on “anonymous.” A lot of people that I have been friendly with for thirty years are household names.

BA: Which of these heads are least familiar to you at this point?

CC: Well, I haven’t seen Richard or Nancy [Graves] since 1980. Actually, I haven’t seen the self-portrait for a while, either. Phil I see all the time, because it’s at the Whitney. Joe I just saw when Charles Saatchi sold it. I went to Japan and saw it then.

BA: I had no idea this was Joe Zucker. I didn’t recognize him in this outfit.

CC: Well, he was incognito—which was his idea. He said he wanted to look like a Midwestern used-car salesman. He had all this hair—a big curly Harpo Marx fright-wig kinda thing. And he greased it down with Vaseline.

BA: And who is this?

CC: John Roy. [A painter friend who lives in Amherst, Mass.]

BA: Is that a tweed coat he’s wearing?

CC: A knitted sweater. It’s variegated yarn, and it’s out of focus.

BA: It almost looks as if you’re offering a preview of your ’80s work.

CC: Well, this was during the heyday of lyrical abstraction, and I thought I could make lyrical abstractions and it would still represent a sweater.

BA: This whole section reminds me of The Ice Storm—have you seen the movie?

CC: I haven’t seen it.

BA: It’s a big ’70s hair moment. What’s it like to see all this hair these days?

CC: Well . . . it’s not mine, that’s for sure.

BA: It’s amazing the way people looked back then. I mean, these are more real than any photographs.

CC: I was saying to Rob earlier that I don’t think the paintings look thirty years old, but at the same time they really do nail down what people looked like then.

BA: Rob, what’s the particular challenge of hanging a room of big heads?

RS: To make sure that they’re not just a kind of cavalcade. You have to hang it so that people can readily see that each one is truly made differently. There’s an idea people have from looking at reproductions on the page that all the work is basically the same. Also, in most cases, these are paintings you have to see both at a distance and close up—even the small ones.

CC: As I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, paintings got bigger, the marks got bigger, the brushes got bigger, and yet the part-to-whole relationships stayed the same. What I was trying to do with these paintings was to make a big, aggressive, confrontational, knock-your-socks-off image from a distance that was also extremely intimate—that was made with teeny little marks.

RS: There’s a certain coldness in the initial image that changes once you realize the delicacy of the touch that’s involved. I mean, there’s a kind of tenderness in the way they’re painted, even though the eye that’s looking is fairly merciless.

BA: What’s the subject of that doughy painting?

CC: That’s my daughter, Georgia.

RS: And that’s pulp . . .

CC: Yeah, it’s done in wet pulp.

BA: It’s the most amazing process . . . it makes me think again of your old friend Joe Zucker.

CC: Joe was very influential—not only for me, but also for a lot of others—because we were talking a lot about the idea of building a painting, rather than painting it, and, you know, he was building up his surfaces with cotton balls.

BA: How was Georgia put together?

CC: It was done on the floor, and I had scaffolding over it. I would kneel on the scaffolding and call for a particular color of pulp. They’d throw me a handful, and I would put it down—like making the biggest pizza in the world.

BA: What a topping.

CC: This one [Jud, 1982, of the sculptor Jud Nelson] is made from pulp dried into chips, and then glued down, on top of each other. It’s another use of the material.

RS: It’s the Pringles version of the pizza you’re seeing over here.

BA: Your choice of sitters is an interesting mix of known and unknown. Fanny is your mother-in-law?

CC: My grandmother-in-law. My wife’s grandmother—my kids’ great-grandmother.

RS: Here you can see all these edges.

CC: I went back in to clean up some of the whites with an electric eraser and just cleaned off any smudges. I did it in parts of the lips, too.

BA: What’s going on with her throat?

CC: Everyone thought it was a tracheotomy—it’s just lots of old skin hanging.

RS: It’s our future.

BA: Yeah, a vortex. And the image of Richard Serra is all airbrushed, right?

CC: Airbrush with scratches scraped in. See that red scrape in the neck? There are scratches made with razor blades in that section. This part [the chin] was erased. The ear is almost totally gone. There’s as much paint taken off, practically, as put on.

BA: Do you still do a lot of removal, in the more recent paintings?

CC: No. As I went along, the paint handling got more sophisticated, I suppose. In the last painting in the room [Phil], it’s not as easy to see how the paint’s been scraped or eroded.

BA: What was Nancy Graves doing when you took her picture? She looks so crazy.

CC: Part of it was that the lens of the camera was closer to her face than we normally stand, so she appears a bit cross-eyed, perhaps. I also usually shoot the person slightly from below, so that the image really makes sense when it’s looming over you. You want to look up at it—as if it were a big Easter Island head.

BA: Rob, you’re a longtime supporter of Graves’ work, aren’t you?

RS: She was a marvelously eccentric and energetic person, so this energy comes through in the portrait. Nancy was a lot like Chuck—I think it’s partly a product of their Yale background. Her premises were sometimes kind of kooky, and all the better for it, but she was a rationalist in her way. She applied herself with incredible diligence to solving a problem—and that’s what Chuck does.

BA: Do you get a feeling of loss when you look at some of these pictures? About the people who are no longer here?

CC: Well, in this show there are three: Nancy, Roy [Lichtenstein], and Fanny. And, of course, there are many people I wanted to paint who died before I had a chance to do it. I was going to try to paint Andy Warhol. In fact, as soon as he got out of the hospital he was going to paint me and I was going to attempt to paint him.

BA: Had you taken the picture?

CC: No. I had also become quite friendly with Allen Ginsberg, and I really wanted to paint him. I wish that I’d photographed my mother. I was angry with her, and she died before I ever had the chance.

BA: Why did you paint Francesco [Clemente]—are you friends?

CC: No, I’m not terribly close to him. I did a series of paintings of four artists—Francesco, Cindy Sherman, Alex Katz, and Lucas Samaras—because I decided I wanted to make images of people who we know what they look like, or think we do, because they paint or photograph themselves. So I picked four people who present themselves in very different ways. It was an acknowledgment of a dialogue I felt I had with other artists who are making images of themselves. And for that reason, I didn’t feel like they had to be my closest friends in the whole world. Sometimes to make a portrait is a good excuse to get to know somebody. I always thought the reason people have dogs in New York is to be able to meet people.

BA: Deborah Solomon referred to your work in The New York Times Magazine as being “Friendly Art.”

RS: [Laughs] It’s an unfortunate term.

CC: Except that last night I was watching this wonderful documentary on Motown. And all that music is what I painted to. I named my daughter, Georgia, after Ray Charles. Every painting is made with Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, whatever. Someone said in the program that the thing that made the music different was that it was friendlier. And I thought: If I’m friendly, if the work is friendly, in the same way Motown was, I guess I can live with that.

BA: I think it’s wishful thinking, though. Your early work can be quite terrifying.

CC: I’m glad you said that. They pissed a lot of people off. They were aggressive and confrontational. The later paintings have warmer colors, much more visible strokes, and so on, but they’re not necessarily more friendly.

BA: I don’t think so either. I think the two images of Alex [Katz]—the small one from ’89 and a bigger one from ’91—have a really psychologically tortured expression and also form one of the real cruxes of the show. Rob, can you explain what you were trying to do here? This small painting of Alex is the first work made after the “event,” right?

RS: Exactly. This was made in the hospital, as I gather.

BA: Then you have this bigger painting of Alex on the same wall, but in the next room.

RS: What I wanted to do was to have things sort of relax, then get combustible, and then relax again. This represents the bridge between being sick and making this terrific painting—even under the worst possible conditions—and then getting back into full gear. It’s a biographical note that not everybody will get, but I thought it was important to have it there all the same. Plus you’ve got Alex translated in one way, then another.

BA: You might not want to hear this, Chuck, but I’ll never forget seeing one of your Alex pieces in the Jean Clair show at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, “Identity and Alterity,” in a room having to do with the physiognomy of artists and criminals.

CC: [Laughs] Well, a couple of my subjects are near criminals.

BA: Rob, which portrait was the hardest one to hang in the big room of ’90s images?

RS: John [Chamberlain] is certainly very intense. He’s also very dark, like a Georges De La Tour painting with deep baroque color.

CC: Now, that’s a case where he has a kind of crumpled, crushed face—but I had no intention of making it look like one of his sculptures.

RS: John is not an easy guy to know, and that comes through very clearly—he’s watching back as much as being watched. I’ve played poker with him. His level of crime is just shuffling the deck. [Laughter]

BA: Let me just fire some questions at random. Have you ever taken a painting back from an exhibition, museum, or private collection, and gone back into it?

CC: No. If I have it around, I’ll do some fine-tuning. I mean, I could go in there and do first aid on almost every painting in the show. There’s always something in each painting that really drives me crazy. At a certain point, it’s sort of like your children. You do what you can do, and then you push them out into the world and hope that they survive.

BA: What about the connections between the way in which artist-subjects are painted and the work of those subjects—it came up with the Chamberlain portrait.

RS: Well, you can see very clearly in Kiki [Smith] how many different rhythms and patterns are going on at the same time. You get these incredible bursts of activity, where everything is firing off according to one pattern—and then it slips, and you’ve got another pattern coming up against it, like tectonic plates adjusting themselves. It’s incredibly active. If you let your eye wander away from the focus of the face, you find all this abstraction going on.

CC: Kiki is someone that I’ve really gotten to know well. She tries all kinds of things, and they don’t always succeed, but she always looks for something new to do, and a new way to attack a problem.

BA: What about all the weaving metaphors that are applied to your recent work. Is this something that’s just emerged?

CC: No. I always thought that the process was a little bit like what used to be called “women’s work.” Women had to be able to do some knitting, put it down, go feed the baby. Come back, a little more knitting, and then put it down and go start dinner. This really suits me well—the fact that I can start it, stop it, I don’t have to be inspired. There are no good and bad days. You sign on, and if you believe in the system, eventually you get a work. In the same way that you make a sweater: you knit one and purl two long enough and you do it right—eventually you get a sweater.

BA: Why did you seek Paul Cadmus out?

CC: He’s someone I met recently, and he’s just the most fantastic guy. He has a great mind, he’s ninety-three years old, and he’s as sharp as—at eighteen I wasn’t that sharp.

BA: Did you like his work when you were young?

CC: No. When I was in school I was totally involved with abstraction. I didn’t have a lot of figurative heroes. So it’s been fun to take another look at stuff that I chose to ignore the first time through.

BA: Did you have a eureka experience with Cadmus’ work?

CC: The thing I like about them is that they’re so ungiving in terms of the use of the medium; there’s nothing likable, no liquid brushstrokes with lots of juice. Yet they’re full of things that are about another level of pleasure. Here is this hot subject matter, delivered in the coolest, most arm’s-length, amazing way, but dry, arid. I love that kind of dichotomy, between the image made and the stuff that makes it. Which is what I like about Mark Greenwold’s work, too. I mean, here’s domestic violence painted like a Vermeer.

BA: Were you aware of Gerhard Richter’s work in the ’60s and ’70s?

CC: By the end of the ’60s I was. I still hadn’t seen any of it. But I got a very early German catalogue and I was knocked out by it. I’ve been a big fan forever.

BA: Did you go to the 1972 Documenta, which included both you and Richter?

CC: No, I didn’t. I’ve never been to the Documentas I was in. I don’t know why I didn’t go. I stayed home and painted. I thought that was the better thing to do. Now I wish I’d gone.

BA: It seems like this show is an opportunity to put Chuck’s work in a more international context—the big picture of the ’60s and ’70s that we didn’t know about at the time.

RS: I certainly hope so. Because I think Chuck’s work has largely been treated simply on its own and not in terms of other things going on around him. Chuck’s shows were visible, they were reviewed, but there was little theoretical discussion that brought him into the whole postmodern context. And he belongs there.

BA: So were you taken with Chuck’s work early on?

RS: Yeah, and I was puzzled by it, too. A lot of people I’ve written about were those who both demanded attention and also gave me a problem in some way. I wasn’t sure what to do about pictures that were, one, photographically based and, two, apparently dispassionate (I learned that they’re not as dispassionate as they appear).

BA: Chuck, do you have to push yourself to go see new work?

CC: No, God, I love it. I don’t understand why a lot of artists of my generation stopped going to look at art. I want to see everything. I always said I’d rather see crap made now, and try and figure out why it’s being made, than just visit the greatest hits of the past. I’m very interested in a lot of younger artists’ work.

BA: Tom Friedman, for example?

CC: Tom is a guy who’s harnessed this desire to make things. He’s willing to put in the time to do what he needs to do.

BA: You had a show together at the Art Institute of Chicago.

CC: Yes. It was wonderful to be paired with him. And Madeleine Grynsztejn, the curator, had no knowledge of my long-term commitment to Tom’s work. I’ve been interested in it from the first moment I saw it.

BA: Rob, are you concerned about how this show is going to be perceived vis-à-vis realism today? Or is that a dead issue?

RS: It’s not a dead issue, but it’s not a primary issue. What’s your sense of what’s out there? I’m curious how you see the situation.

BA: The people I’m talking to are interested in painting again.

CC: Isn’t that great. Boy, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

BA: Whether it’s John Currin or Laura Owens, I think a lot of people arc just thinking about how you do it flat, and how you make it iconic, and dangerous. Do you know Marcus Harvey’s work? He’s a British follower of Chuck’s.

RS: He’s the one that did the painting of Myra Hindley in the “Sensation” show.

BA: Right. [Hindley is a ’60s child-murderer who remains in prison in Britain. Harvey’s painted image of her caused a furor and was vandalized in London last September, shortly after the exhibition opened at the Royal Academy.]

CC: No, I’ve never met him. But apparently he does other work that comes out of what I do.

BA: He’s doing a big Hitler painting. Is there anything in this show that’s potentially explosive in that way?

RS: I think Chuck’s work is about a subtler level of provocation, a feeling that you’re at one remove from the familiar, and, at the same time, you’re offered degrees of intimacy that you don’t quite know what to do with.

CC: I think people are put off by the intimacy. These things give you more information than you ever wanted.

BA: What, speaking of intimacy, were you looking at in Vienna the year you spent there on a Fulbright in the mid ’60s? And why Vienna?

CC: You mean, why did I say I went? On the Fulbright form, I said I went to study Klimt and Schiele. And I felt obliged to go look at their work, since I used that as an excuse. But one of the funny things now is to look at Klimt’s paintings, with all those incredible patterns—there’s a real connection that I wasn’t aware of until recently.

BA: Did you have a thing for Franz Xavier Messerschmidt?

CC: No, I love Messerschmidt now, but I didn’t know it then.

BA: Do you see any relationship to Monet’s Water Lilies in your recent faces—or “facescapes,” as Rob calls them in his essay?

CC: Sure.

BA: It seems like one of the strongest links to your work in MoMA’s permanent collection.

CC: Well, at my advanced age, I’m looking at anybody who finishes strong. [Laughter]

Brooks Adams is a New York-based writer and critic.