New York

Chuck Close

Whitney Museum of American Art

Although Chuck Close must be more intimately acquainted with the construction of the human face than any other artist of his generation, he is a portraitist decidedly uninterested in human character. His early gigantic, scrupulously modeled heads make Andy Warhol’s portraits look almost analytical, so deliberately stylized and objectified are they. As Martin Friedman, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, tactfully says in one of the show’s catalogue essays, the most direct cause for this superficiality is that Close works not from life, but from uninteresting, bland photographs of his subjects. The photos themselves (though probably not the people) would bore us; but the facial imperfections in those photos, which are so manifest owing to the imposing size at which we see them, fascinate us, as the Brobdingnagians’ nostrils and facial hairs fascinated Gulliver.

As the work in this traveling retrospective of Close portraits dating from 1968 to the present shows, however, fetishizing the potentially abstract nature of human physiognomy through the use of photography does not necessarily lead an artist relentlessly through the spectrum of the surreal and the ugly. By the early ’70s, Close had moved into color, and hence into less photographic, less startling portraits, and was concurrently experimenting with drawings and paintings that exposed and used the technical basis of his portraiture, the grid.

Close is a highly skilled technician, interested chiefly in describing intricate, three-dimensional surfaces in two-dimensional terms. In his grid ink and graphite drawings and in the recent pointillist oil paintings, such as Stanley, 1980–81, Close the esthete clearly wins out over Close the awestruck technician, though his dot method is still technical. The late ’70s fingerprint images of Philip Glass (in which Close works from the same image that he used for the more realist Phil, 1969) transform unflattering photographic verisimilitude into vaguely “poetic” suggestion. Even the late ’70s grid self-portraits are downright pretty.

Close’s early black-and-white faces have a strange hyperbolic aggression that is conspicuously absent not only from his most formal, abstract work, but also from his latest realist portraits. In the 108-by-84-inch Mark, 1978–79, Close reaches new heights of vapidity. Not only is Mark the enlarged image of the omnipresent empty, expressionless face in the crowd; his round brown eyes stare out at the camera from behind his shiny glass lenses as if it’s the most remarkable thing he has ever seen.

Joan Casademont