Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chuck Close

Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. As I was browsing through the Modern and Contemporary display, a large photograph mounted on the wall across the room caught my eye. It was an enormous black and white portrait of an old woman. At first glance I did not pay it much attention, until I realized it wasn’t actually a photograph—it was a painting. Even more astonishingly, when I approached it at close range and looked at the strokes on the canvas, I saw that the artist had not used a brush to apply the paint, but his fingers—I was looking at a massive finger-painting.

American photographer and painter Chuck Close, born in 1940, is famed in the art realm for his incredibly realistic paintings. This aesthetic is known as hyperrealism or photorealism, and gained notoriety around the 1970-80s. Close focused on fine brushwork and technique in his earlier years, and as an art student at Yale University.

Susan, 1971 (Lyons & Storr 81). This is a classic example of Close’s aesthetic in his earlier works. This portrait is 100 x 90 in. and done in acrylic on canvas.

Close’s work and his story are intimately related and incredibly inspiring. Close suffers from prosopagnosia, a disorder in which the ability to recognize faces is impaired. Because of this, it is especially noteworthy that his work focuses on portraiture. Interestingly, his choice to paint faces was not conscious, and says, “[It] occurred to me twenty years after the fact when I looked at why I was still painting portraits, why that still had urgency for me…it sustained me for so long because I have difficulty in recognizing faces.” By working with portraits, Close finds a way to improve his facial recognition. To achieve such life-like paintings, Close meticulously transfers information from photographs to canvas with gridding techniques. His extraordinary attention to detail can be noted in the following series of study sketches and paintings that culminated in his first self portrait:

Left: Ink and pencil on paper mounted on canvas.
Right: Charcoal on paper. 
Pencil on paper.
Ink and felt-tip pen on collaged photograph with masking tape.
Left: Four gelatin-silver prints scored with ink, masking tape, and airbrush paint mounted on foamcore.
Right: Big Self-Portrait, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 107 x 83".

Close experimented with various mediums over a period of several years before finishing the final “Big Self-Portrait” in 1968. In these sketches Close demonstrates a thorough examination of his subject matter prior to his final, similar to the study drawings we work on in class.

In 1967, Close made a choice that would come to transform his approach and aesthetic. “I threw away my tools,” he said, explaining his decision to abandon the paintbrush. “The choice not to do something is in a funny way more positive than the choice to do something. If you impose a limit to not do something you’ve done before, it will push you to where you’ve never gone before.” This is the event which led him to create the enormous work, “Fanny/Fingerpainting”, which so intrigued me at the National Gallery of Art.  

Fanny/Fingerpainting, 1985. (Lyons & Storr 144-145). For this portrait of his grandmother-in-law, Close worked from a photograph with a grid, and adjusted pigment quantity and fingertip pressure to achieve such expressive tonal effects.

In the late 1980s, Close self-imposed even more limits on his art, stripping down the information in his portraits down to dotted faces. Then followed what he refers to as “The Event”: the stroke he suffered in 1988 which paralyzed him from the neck down. Close demonstrated his remarkable personal strength and perseverance by continuing to paint through his injury after recovering minimal movement in his arms. He would paint first with a brush between his teeth, and later with a brush strapped onto his wrist with tape. After his stroke, Close took an even more exaggerated, limited approach to his work: pixelated portraiture.  

Dotted faces, pre-stroke. (Friedman 124-125)
Close’s post-stroke work shows progress from the pre-stroke dotted faces to a more topographic color map style. (Friedman 132-133) 
Work in progress, 1997.
Color closeup, finished product, 1997. (Friedman 147-148)

Close’s adaptable, risk-taking approach to art is as commendable as it is modern. His ability to work through prosopagnosia as well as paralysis to create such unique, avant-garde works is truly awe-inspiring.


Friedman, Martin. Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005. Print.

Lyons, Lisa and Storr, Robert. Chuck Close. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.: 1987. Print.

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