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Chuck Close - Portrait of the Artist


When Chuck Close began his career, few artists were doing portraiture, but over the past four decades, he has never wavered from his chosen subject, taking portraiture into the modern era. And when he became paralyzed at the peak of his career, Close soon got back to his studio to pick up where he left off.

Chuck Close revolutionized modern portraiture in the late 1960s when he began painting over-sized, closely-cropped portraits. Although his images have changed dramatically over the course of his career, his subject has always remained the same.

"I think I was driven to make portraits in the first place because of a kind of learning disability that I have had my whole life," Close says, explaining he has difficulty recognizing faces. "I think I can remember things if they are two-dimensional, if they are flat, better than I can in real life, because in real life they move and it is hard to commit them to memory."

He chooses to paint only those people who are close to him -- friends and family members - "in order to scrutinize and commit to memory those images of people that really matter to me."

His first subject was a self-portrait painted by airbrush in 1968. The black and white image is far from flattering. Close stares out from the portrait through dark-framed glasses, a disheveled young man with a scraggly moustache, stubble on his chin, and a cigarette hanging from his lip. Every hair, every pore on his face is magnified many times larger than life.

And he paints his friends and family in the same ruthless manner. "A lot of people don't care to be painted by me; that is their right," Close says. "Most people have some difficulty with how they look when it is three meters high. If your nose is bent one half centimeter in real life, it will be bent 15 centimeters in a three-meter high painting, and it is very hard to ignore."

Close has never tired of creating monumental images of the human face, because he is always experimenting with how to translate that image: in black-and-white or color, painting with acrylics, oils or watercolors, drawing with pencil or ink, creating collages with paper pulp, even using his own inked fingertips to leave fingerprints instead of brushstrokes on the canvas.

But no matter which medium he uses for the final image, he always begins a portrait with a photograph, which he takes himself. He then translates the image to the canvas with a grid system that he says prevents him from being overwhelmed by the monumental task of filling a two-meter square blank surface.

"Breaking it down into lots of little bite-size decisions and then slowly working, adding incrementally every day, eventually I will make this thing that I want to make," Close says. "This process has liberated me to function far more intuitively and without a lot of preconception as to what the thing should look like."

In December 1988, Chuck Close was 49 years old and at the peak of his career, when a spinal artery collapsed, leaving him unable to walk or control his hands, but with limited use of his arms.

"I couldn't wallow in self pity, I had a family, children, and I needed to get back to work," Close says matter-of-factly. "But also the most important thing was I had something to do that mattered desperately to me, that I got a tremendous amount of pleasure from. The interesting thing is that once you know how to make art, it's not that hard to get back to it. You just have to equip yourself with what you need to do it."

And that is exactly what Close did -- adapted his studio so he could paint from an electric wheel chair, with brushes strapped to his arms. Something he says he probably would not have been able to do if he had not already established himself as an artist.

"I already was somebody, and I already had a major career, and I had a museum retrospective and I had shown all over the world, and I was successful and financially well rewarded, all of which allowed me to get back to work," Close says. "I could afford to hire the help I needed and outfit a studio and make it wheelchair accessible and get electric easels that allow me to work on a large piece, move them up and down through a slot in the floor."

When he returned to painting, Close's portraits took on a wilder look, full of riotous color. These works were hailed by critics, not because they had been painted by a man who had overcome adversity, but because, as one New York writer put it, Chuck Close had become "one of the great colorists and brush wielders of his time."

A retrospective of Chuck Close's self-portraits has been touring the United States and is on exhibit in Buffalo, New York, at the Alright-Knox Art Gallery through October 22.

For earlier profiles in VOA's
American Profiles series click here