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Chuck Close (1940-2021)

Chuck Close

Close began with the photograph as a point of departure. He then chose, as he often remarked, to consistently “alter the variables” in the way he transposed his photographic sources, in the process creating a remarkable pictorial language that continued to become richer and to expand through the decades.

By 1967 Close had completed graduate work at Yale University, moved to New York City, and abandoned the abstract work of his school years to begin painting from photographs. “I decided to just use whatever happened in the photograph,” he remarked in a 2003 interview. “By limiting myself to black paint on white canvas, I would have to make decisions early and live with them.” At the same time, he sought to eliminate any brushes or tools with which he was comfortable working: “I was constructing a series of self-imposed limitations that would guarantee that I could no longer make what I had been making and push me somewhere else.”

Setting these parameters led Close to paint his first self-portrait in 1967; Big Self-Portrait (1967–1968) (seen at the top of this post) was acquired by the Walker Art Center by then-director Martin Friedman directly from Close’s studio. It would be the artist’s first sale to a museum, and inaugurated a decades-long relationship between Close and the Walker that included many more acquisitions as well as two comprehensive solo exhibitions. “The day that I photographed myself … there wasn’t anyone to look through the viewfinder, so I focused on the wall. … I didn’t realize that I was going to get so much out of focus. Then I realized the minute I started to make the painting that it was far more interesting because there was a range of focus. The tip of the nose blurred and the ears and everything else went out of focus, so I began to engineer that.”

Big Self-Portrait was a watershed image for Close. It defined his basic working method, which he continued to use in various permutations throughout his career. Using a technique employed by both Renaissance painters and 20th-century billboard artists, he overlaid a grid on his source photograph and, over the course of four months, transposed his subject square by square to the new 9-by-7-foot canvas. The artist’s rumpled, mug-shotlike visage looms from the canvas, cigarette dangling from his lips. The finished painting is as iconic as it is arresting.

He went on to paint a related group of eight black-and-white “heads,” as he referred to them, which included portraits of fellow artists Nancy Graves, Richard Serra, and Frank Stella as well as composer Philip Glass. In the years that followed, Close reintroduced color into his work and began to fully explore his formula in unique works on paper and prints. He also embraced Polaroid photography as another means of building an image. has some nice Chuck Close publications available.

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