There are many reasons to love Chuck Close. There's the way he gave the art world "grid paintings," where hundreds of tiny quadrants compose a single, large canvas. There's the way he used his own face — distinctive but unhandsome — for scores of self-portraits that have become prized by collectors and museums. And there's the way he persevered through a medical calamity that — in 1988, when he was 48 — left him severely paralyzed. Here's another reason to love Close: His candidness about his own failings and the failings he sees in others. People who've misjudged Chuck Close occupy a special place in his cerebral cortex.
"I was spat on and I had beer cans thrown at me," Close says, remembering the early years of his career, when his paintings of his own photographs were ridiculed by what he calls "eyeball Realists who think that if you're drawing from life that you're closer to God. They hated me. And the critics hated me."
Especially New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, who in 1971 — at Close's first exhibition — savaged him in the pages of the country's most influential arts section. "I still remember the review," Close says. "He said, 'And then there is the inevitable lunatic.' He said, 'Close's work is evidence of the kind of work that's washed ashore when the tide of pop art went out.' I wear that as a badge of honor. If Hilton Cramer liked what I did, I would have killed myself."
A new retrospective of Close's work, "Chuck Close: Important Works on Paper from the Past Forty Years," at John Berggruen Gallery, is both a celebration of Close's enduring career and a behind-the-scenes examination of the peculiarities that make Close's work so unique. The gridded photographs, or maquettes, that he uses for the basis of his behemoth paintings are displayed at the gallery. And so are works filled with scores of colorful quadrants — quadrants of circles, triangles, teardrops, boomerangs, and other assorted shapes that, viewed up close, are a cosmos of head-spinning hieroglyphs. Viewed from a distance, the portraits emerge clearly — like jigsaw puzzles that come to life only when the final pieces have been fitfully placed in.
Similar to celebrated author Raymond Carver, who embraced the short-story format because he had little time to write novels, Close embraced the grid format for a functional reason: It makes painting large canvases a lot easier, reducing a task that might seem insurmountable (or even Sisyphean) to a series of smaller steps that someone with a short attention span can handle. Close says he was a poor-performing student in high school who may never have graduated — and never gotten into Yale's MFA program, and never become a celebrated artist — without the lure of art classes. "If I hadn't had art," he says in a phone interview from his New York home, "I would have dropped out of school."
The almost-dropout now commands prices of $2 million and more for his large-scale pieces, which can take months of painstaking work to complete. (Though confined to a wheelchair, Close can move his shoulders and hands, and employs an adhesive contraption to stabilize his painting hand as he uses a brush — or his fingers to smear paint directly onto the canvas.) Because of his celebrity, Close photographs and paints people who other artists might never meet. Brad Pitt, for example, is a friend who has posed for Close, and the John Berggruen Gallery exhibit features a tapestry of Pitt, who recently admitted to Close — before it emerged publicly — that he shared Close's face-blindness disorder. Those with prosopagnosia, as it's called medically, have trouble remembering people's faces. One reason that Close specializes in painting faces is his need to create two-dimensional likenesses, which help him actually remember profiles. Earlier this year, Pitt took Close's advice and publicly acknowledged his own prosopagnosia.
"I was photographing Brad Pitt," Close says, "and he said, 'You know — I have the same problem you have.' I said, 'Really?' He said, 'Yeah. I've had it my whole life. They think I'm rude, that I don't remember anybody, that I'm stuck up.' And I said, 'You have to come out of the closet. Right now. Because if you admit you have a problem, people will cut you slack.'"
Close's works of composer Philip Glass, another friend, are among his best-known images. Close is so synonymous with pixelated art that software companies (and, way back in the early 1970s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have named pixelating programs after him.
"I was way ahead of my time," Close says. "In 1973, I was on my way to a gallery, and I saw Scientific American at a newsstand, and it had a computer-generated cover, and I thought, 'Oh, shit.' I behaved like a computer, about which I knew nothing. What I did was in a way what a computer did."
And now Close, who's 73, uses computers to flesh out his own artistic vision. Self Portrait (Yellow Raincoat) is a watercolor print from this year that Close printed with a program that incorporates more than 10,000 of his own unique watercolor marks.
"I recognize reality," Close says of using technology, then bellows — when asked what more he can do artistically — "I'm not done yet. I'm very excited about what I'm doing now."