The birth of Close's process is the stuff of myth: In 1967, he photographed himself shirtless (it was a hot day), atypically beardless (his wife dared him to shave), with a cigarette jutting rakishly from his mouth. He laid a grid over the photo and painstakingly transferred the data in each square to a 9-foot-tall canvas, using an airbrush filled with a 40-cent tube of acrylic paint. It was, to say the least, an unusual method for a New York artist; most were emptying cans in a fever of abstract expressionism or trying to outthink the latest pop piece. Close's painting appeared suspiciously revisionist, a descriptive portrait rendered with photographic precision (though containing telling quirks, such as an off-kilter nose and slightly blurred hair). But it was undeniably and aggressively cool. The untamed artist stared the viewer down, emitting attitude like smoke from his cigarette. Martin Friedman, director of the Walker Art Center, stopped by the studio and inquired about the price. Close quoted $1,300, ridiculously, and Friedman jumped. Big Self-Portrait was Close's first sale.
Since then he's stuck adamantly to his technique, but along the way the grid itself started showing up, scoring the portraits with crosshatched lines, and Close began filling the squares with shapes, dots, and other designs. In 1988, he experienced chest pain while attending an arts ceremony at Gracie Mansion; by the end of the night he was nearly paralyzed. In rehabilitation, he strapped a brush to his wrist, trained his arm to do the work of his hand, and never looked back.