Chuck Close

In Artist Profile 29, Trevor Weekes wrote of the indelible mark that Chuck Close had made on his practices of making and of looking: 'Chuck Close is one of the major artists of the 20th Century and has successfully transitioned into the 21st Century. His standing and longevity in the art world comes from his artistic devotion to his craft and an unwillingness to compromise. His mission should he accept it, was to devote his life to exploring and discovering just what it was that fascinated him about portraying the human image.' Vale Chuck Close, 1940-2021, truly great.

Close is a central artist to any telling of art made in the last 50 years. Although singular and dedicated for the most part to depicting faces, his works embody a rigorous conceptual drive that has had a pervasive influence on the act of painting and image making more broadly.

As a person Close has surmounted numerous obstacles, from dyslexia to prosopagnosia (face blindness) to overcoming a major spinal artery collapse in 1988, but none of these challenges has stopped him from pursuing the act of working and creating paintings, prints and photographs with the same determination as when he began in the 1960s.

Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration, organised by Terrie Sultan, Director of the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, is the first major exhibition of Close’s work in Australia. Working in close collaboration with the artist, in this exhibition Sultan has provided audiences with the unique experience of tracking Close’s long history in printmaking, demonstrating the many ways in which he has expanded printmaking’s potential. 

Close has worked with many master printers and print studios over the last 40 years, incessantly searching and innovating. This intimate and creative process pushes both the printer and the artist to experiment and take chances; his exacting art-making principles result in technical and formal invention that feeds directly into Close’s work (and vice versa).  

Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration will give viewers in Australia the chance to see the sheer skill and intellectual drive of the artist, and will reveal how printmaking in the hands of this endlessly searching artist becomes the most flexible and impressive of mediums.

The exhibition will take place from 20 November 2014 to 15 March 2015 and includes prints ranging in date from 1972 right up to 2014, featuring works finished just in time for the exhibition. In a coup for the MCA, the National Gallery of Australia has generously loaned one of the cornerstone pieces of its American collection, Bob’ (1970). ‘Bob’ is part of a suite of eight black and white portraits that Chuck painted between 1967 and 1970, a series that began with a self-portrait and finished with the painting, ‘Keith’ (1970), and this is considered to be the artist’s breakthrough into what has become his signature style. Bob is Close’s friend Robert Israel, a New York based designer. 

The NGA also owns a complete set of the working proofs for the original etching plate for Close’s very first etching, ‘Keith/Mezzotint’ a mezzotint of startling scale and complexity. ‘Keith/Mezzotint’ is a touchstone in Close’s career and the inclusion of these rare and unique elements of the creative process provides an important context within which subsequent works can be viewed.

Can you tell me about the show Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration – how did it come about?

Terrie Sultan had begun visiting me in the studio periodically starting in about 1997. On one visit, the ‘Alex’ reduction linoleum cut state and progressive proofs were up on the wall. She asked me to explain how the print was made. It was at that point we realised that an exhibition clearly showing the printmaking process through all the materials I’ve kept over the years could be interesting and revealing.

When did you make your first print?

I had studied and created a number of prints while in college and graduate school. I made ‘Keith’, my first print as a professional artist, in 1972, with Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press in California.

This will be the first time that the full set of proofs and plates for ‘Keith’ will be shown since their initial exhibition at MOMA in 1973. Not long after being exhibited it was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia. Can you tell me about the making of that work and when it was first exhibited? 

The publisher Robert Feldman of Parasol Prints introduced me to Kathan Brown and Crown Point Press. He had worked with Kathan for projects with Wayne Thiebaud and Sol Lewitt. At the time, Kathan was one of the few master printers working in intaglio; others were focusing on silk screen and lithography. Crown Point Press was basically a basement operation at the time. After Sol Lewitt, Bob started referring other artists to Kathan, and she had to move out of the basement into a bigger studio. 

I knew that Kathan was skilled in etching, and because I like challenges, and because I didn’t want to work with a printer who knew more than I did, I said I wanted to do the biggest mezzotint possible. She told me her maximum size was 22 x 30 inches, and I told her “that wouldn’t cut it!”. She had to buy a bigger press for us to use. And she had to be creative in finding material for a large plate. I stayed out in Oakland for three months; usually artists working with Crown Point stayed a couple of weeks. It was a voyage for discovery for all of us and in the end we had many proofs because we had to test our process, but only could make an edition of 10 before the plate degraded. The print and all 19 progressive proofs were first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1973. It’s great that in Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art we can bring them all together again. 

What role does printmaking play in your work more broadly? You are known as a painter, but printmaking is by no means an adjunct activity, is it?

Printmaking is very key to my creative process, not an adjunct activity. In fact, all the innovations I have integrated into my painting have come about as a direct result of something I discovered while making a print. For example, while making ‘Keith’, as the plate wore down from so many proofs, the grid used as an underpinning began to show. Previously I used a grid in my paintings as a foundation, but not as a visible part of the composition. After seeing the grid emerge in ‘Keith’, I made a conscious decision to reveal it in the paintings going forward. 

After The Event of 1988, did the collaborative nature of printmaking appeal to you as a way to continue to make artwork? Did printmaking become a larger part of your overall practice?

I have always liked the collaborative nature of printmaking. Working with master printers has been very productive for me for a long time. Becoming a quadriplegic didn’t enhance or detract from this. Printers like my friend and colleague Joe Wilfer challenged me in ways very different from how I challenge myself in the paintings. Joe in particular got me to work in mediums that I would have never imagined, such as pulp paper and even silk screen. Donald Farnsworth at Magnolia Editions and David Lasry at Two Palms Press have both given me impetus to try new things. Printing has always been right up there with painting for me, and that has not changed over the years. 

The show includes new works, some completed in the past couple of years. Could you tell us about those? The show has changed somewhat from its first iteration, hasn’t it?

The exhibition opened in 2003 in Houston, Texas and it has now been presented in more than 18 museums throughout the United States and abroad. It’s been 11 years, and I’ve made many, many new prints in the past decade. We added a couple of new ones to the mix in about 2010, but the past couple of years have been a very productive period and it was clear to Terrie and me that it was time to really bring the project up to date, especially because of the new technologies we used for the Jacquard tapestries, the hand-stamped multiples, the watercolour pigment prints, and Woodbury types. 

How do you feel about the emergence of less ‘hands on’ forms of printmaking, such as colour laser printing? You have made some works using the various new print technologies. Is this a different approach to the analogue printmaking forms you have worked with in the past?

These types of prints and multiples – the tapestries and the pigment prints – are still very hands-on for me in terms of my engagement in every aspect of each mark made. While machines and technology may be physically touching the materials, intellectually our engagement – me as the artist and my master printer collaborators – is very direct. 

Can you talk a little bit about the collaborators you have worked with – what role do they play in your creative process?

I have worked with many great, innovative and creative collaborators. Joe Wilfer was the first master printer with whom I developed a very close relationship. He was relentless in nagging me to try things that I had thought would not be of interest, but which ultimately proved to be very fertile territory. Donald Farnsworth of Magnolia Editions has become like Joe – somewhat of a mad scientist who brings dozens of ideas to me. Some of them are crazy and ultimately of no interest, but many others have grabbed my attention and caused me to break through into new areas of exploration. Ditto David Lasry at Two Palms Press, Robert Blanton at Brand X, and Ruth Lingen at Pace Editions, all of whom have provided me with tremendous excitement. 

You have been a central figure in American art for well over 40 years – what changes have you seen in the art world from when you started to now?

So much has changed, but the most challenging is that the art world is so much bigger now. There are many more artists and many more galleries. It used to be possible to get your work out and know that everyone would see it. That is no longer true. People have so many things to see, shows are only up for a month, and a lot gets missed.

I think it is much harder to be an artist now than it used to be. The sacrifices are greater, and supporting oneself as an artist is more difficult. Youthful idealism still works but it’s much more challenging. 

Has the business of art allowed for greater ambition? Do you see the expansion of the art market as a good thing for art in our time?

I don’t think the art market has had a good effect on the art world. When my generation was emerging, we didn’t expect to have sales, so our definition for success was different – that people saw the work, that the response was positive and encouraging. I’m glad I came up when I did. What I find encouraging right now is that artists are putting shows on in pop-up galleries and independent spaces, and managing to attract audiences, writers and critics to pay attention to their work. These projects are well attended and are functioning outside the market. It’s a little like the old Mickey Rooney trope “hey kids let’s put on a show”. I’m optimistic about this generation. 

What do you hope that the audience takes away from the show?

I was a magician as a kid, but I always broke the cardinal rule to never reveal how a trick was done. I feel the same way about this exhibition. I want people to see and experience how these prints are made, and to understand that prints like these are not “reproductions” or “lesser” in intrinsic value than paintings. I firmly believe that knowing how they are made doesn’t take away from the magic of the work of art.

Close Connection

Words by Trevor Weekes

As a first year art student looking for inspiration, Photo-realism was new and captured my interest. Of the artists pursuing that genre of painting, one stood out. His work certainly did look ‘photo-real’ but as I was to discover, there was much more to the work and the artist than simply what the title suggested.  As an impressionable art student I tried to emulate the style on several occasions with a large self-portrait sitting firmly on a grid. The sheer size of the monochromatic portraits planted the seed that ‘big was good’, and as I delved into the way he executed a painting, the more I appreciated what he was doing. 

After some time my direction changed but two things remained – the grid, and Chuck Close. 

My admiration for him as an artist is his undying devotion to the depiction of the human image, more precisely, the human head. The point of departure from his subject matter came when the initial selection and gathering of reference material was complete. The execution of the painting was not about getting to know the subject, rather to detach himself emotionally from the sitter. He too became the subject of his work on many occasions. The question arises as to how an artist could maintain an interest for so long on one subject without losing interest. Few artists have achieved that. His single-mindedness is one of the fascinating aspects about him. Giorgio Morandi comes to mind with his still life paintings of bottles.

Chuck Close is an artist who has experimented with many different mediums and has continued to reinvent himself. If one looks at his career and the works he has produced, to the uninitiated it may seem he has not moved that far. Quite the contrary. His initial works were powerful, perhaps because of their scale, but as he grew as an artist so too did his ability to explore the same image that became about many different things. Size was not his preoccupation. His small gridded works were just as powerful as the large works, capturing the essence of the photo reference, but on closer inspection they were carefully executed tonal airbrushed spots of paint.

Chuck Close is one of the major artists of the 20th Century and has successfully transitioned into the 21st Century. His standing and longevity in the art world comes from his artistic devotion to his craft and an unwillingness to compromise. His mission should he accept it, was to devote his life to exploring and discovering just what it was that fascinated him about portraying the human image. For Close, it is warts and all, where contours become valleys, scars become roads, and wrinkles form a surface map that takes the viewer on a wild ride across the facial landscape.

 The change in the appearance of his work could have been attributed to his disability, but the resulting work sits well in this artist’s journey of discovery, experimentation and courage. The closeness of the early works has not changed. It is the distance the viewer adopts that brings the intention of his seemingly abstract marks into focus.

Young aspiring artists seek inspiration, and when they find it, it forms a lasting impression. There are so many aspects to Chuck Close’s work that I admire. I now have an undying love for grids and the drive to depict a subject in a way that is fresh, inventive and able to project and translate the artist’s vision, giving the outsider some insight into their world.

This story was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 29, 2015.

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