New York

Chuck Close

The Pace Gallery | 508 W 25th Street

Chuck Close continues to develop techniques for transforming photographic images into paintings, exploiting highly sophisticated formal strategies to create works of considerable visual and emotional intensity. In less skilled hands, his methods could result in tedium, in works of analytic detachment. But Close seems to use these rigorous ordering systems to control a violent energy that nonetheless seethes from his works.

The enormous portraits at Pace Gallery were created by the mapping of photographic images onto canvas by means of grids that were then filled in with layers of color. Up close, one sees thousands of daubs of multihued paint; at a distance, the colors fuse to form human faces. (This series includes self-portraits and portraits of several contemporary artists.) Close has explored the interplay between purely formal, mechanically generated surfaces and representation since the early ’70s, when he first produced drawings based on a visible dot module. In recent works the module is more complex, and color is used expressionistically, put down intuitively and in jarring combinations that nonetheless cohere into successful renderings of individual subjects. The technique is closer to Van Gogh’s vivid, hasty diagonal strokes (Close’s portrait of Francesco Clemente even resembles a Van Gogh self-portrait) than to Seurat’s fastidious, scientific pointillism.

There is also considerable range in the treatment of individual works: Close varies the size of both canvases and dot modules. While most of the grids are rectilinear, a small portrait of Lucas Samaras is based on a circular target pattern generated from a point between the subject’s eyes. Samaras’ face seems about to explode under the pressure of these radiating circles. Several of the artists portrayed here share common concerns with Close: Samaras uses Polaroid images; Alex Katz was a mentor of the artist; Cindy Sherman identifies Close as a major influence on her work. To this mix of subjects Close has added a conceptual twist: most are themselves known for their self-portraits. The group comprises a kind of artistic self-portrait of Close, as much a reflection of his own preoccupations as an homage to his subjects.

The walls of Pace Prints were covered with several of Close’s huge photographs of flowers, which were shot with an 80-by-40-inch camera set into a wall at the Polaroid headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The photographs reveal similarities to the paintings: inflated scale, frontality, shallow depth of field, and saturated color. Both were done in the studio, their subjects positioned against the artificial, illuminated flatness of solid-color backgrounds. Some of the photographs are made into diptychs and triptychs, recalling the fracturing and dividing impulse behind Close’s gridded paintings. The floral photographs share the emotional impact of the portraits. The undulating fuscia ribbons of Celosia, 1987, seem menacing; Anthurium, 1987, lunges forward like a dripping tongue; the frail, frilly, pale pink petals of Gladiolus, 1987, are tender and suggestively romantic. While Close’s paintings represent a tour de force of mechanical and artistic transformation, these unadulterated Polaroids, unframed and simply fastened to the walls, reveal the power of the eye that sees, of the vision that guides the painter’s hand.

Lois Nesbitt