In your face: how Chuck Close built images and tore them apart

Hugely enlarged, Chuck Close stares back at you from behind his glasses, a cigarette lodged in the corner of his mouth. It is a face with a what-you-looking-at stare, and you look back, dwarfed by his image, thinking get-out-of-my-face in return.

Taking us from the top of his head to his sprouting chest hair, via every pore and bristle, the artist’s unkempt anti-grooming and non-coiffure, the trickle of smoke exhaled from his nostril, Close’s 1967-8 Big Self-Portrait charts every centimetre of his black and white photograph, which was gridded, enlarged and copied on to the canvas, then painted using a spray gun. All the aberrations of the original photograph, with its blank background and out-of-focus ear, are retained in the painting. The tip of the smouldering cigarette looms out at you. It makes you want to duck. Painted when Close was in his late 20s, the self-portrait was Close’s big move, both calling card and confrontation.

Close, who has died at 81, devoted all his subsequent energies to portraiture. Photographing and then painting his contemporaries and friends – sculptor Richard Serra and composer Philip Glass among them – Close went on to portray painter Alex Katz, Cindy Sherman (another artist much concerned with the self image), Kiki Smith, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, actor Willem Dafoe, musician Lou Reed, and the great and the good, including presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In some ways, one might compare his portraiture to Warhol’s, except that Close was as much concerned with the grid, in transposition and manners of description, as he was with personality or status. As it was, he would have had problems recognising any of these luminaries if he had met them on the street.

Among other difficulties Close had lifelong prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which rendered him largely incapable of recognising people, even those whom he knew well, or even had relationships with. As with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who had face blindness to the extent of not entirely recognising his own face in a mirror, Close negotiated faces, and developed ways of recognising them, by way of some characteristic detail – a big nose or a mole, leading him to scan for details in the mystery of recognition. One can identify this process in the part-to-part buildup of Close’s paintings. Writing about Close, Sacks quotes the artist: “I don’t know who anyone is and essentially have no memory at all for people in real space, but when I flatten them out in a photograph I can commit that image to memory.”

The image Close returned to most often was his own, and his art had a profound relationship to personal, physiological, neurological, physical and psychological difficulties. Dyslexic, and suffering from muscle weakness, he also spent a year in bed with a kidney complaint as a child. In 1988, Close had a spinal stroke, leaving him in a wheelchair and eating with a fork tied to his hand. He learned to paint with a brush strapped to his wrist. A motorised easel enabled him to negotiate large canvases. Often he would return to the same photographs, and repaint the same images in different ways. Always using the grid, he would pixelate the photograph using fingerprints, little uneven smudges, squinky abstract shapes, lozenges, fried-eggs and almost post-impressionist blobs that wanted to break away from their function as notations of light and shade and contour. As much as he was building images he was tearing them apart, continually dismantling and reconstituting the face as he went. In some way his reduced physical capacities meant that his focus became even tighter, making the painted events in each small cell of the pixelated grid an even more dramatic singularity.

Eight years ago Close was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, and in 2017 several women accused the artist of sexual harassment, taking place when they visited his studio between 2005 and 2013. Several planned exhibitions, including one at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, were indefinitely postponed. The degree to which the artist’s behaviour might have been attributable to his particular form of dementia are moot but not, apparently, uncommon. In any case, it was a dismal end.

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