Chuck may claim he works sans-inspiration but there's no doubt he's one inspirational icon himself. As a painter and photographer you'll find him on most short lists of the greatest living artists.
I first saw his classic (pictured above with the cigarette) Big Self Portrait, 1967-68 as an art student in the 70's at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At first glance the towering 9-foot tall painting was shocking — both as a portrait and its scale. And that was from the entrance, a sizeable distance to its resting spot across the cavernous exhibition hall. As I approached it the photographic, hyper-realism quality never dimensioned. It was tack sharp from both a couple hundred feet and ten feet. About the painting Close said “There’s no question, I had some attitude about the way I wanted to be perceived.”
In 1988 Close experienced a horrendous arterial collapse, which left him mostly paralyzed from the neck down. He found a way not only to overcome his paralysis but also expand his painting and photographic vocabulary. Whether it’s painting with a brush in his mouth or strapped to his hands he now works entirely from sight to achieve the intensely animated detail of his early paintings. This entailes sectioning off the reference photographs into grids and transferring them by hand, square by square onto his monumentally sized canvases.
For years Close has painted or photographed portraits of friends — mostly artists across several creative genres. Below is frequent subject, Minimalist Composer Philip Glass.
Viewing the black and white "Phil” from 1969, you’re looking at a 9-foot portrait so hyper-realistic that it actually reads as black and white photography. I've seen large reproductions of the work and it’s difficult to know whether you are seeing a photograph of his painting or a photo on which the painting was based.
If you ever meet Chuck Close he won't recognize you if he sees you again. He also suffers from prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness which he first noticed in childhood. If however, Close takes a photograph of you and transforms it into one of his huge portraits, he may remember your face — at least when he's looking at you straight on. "Once I change the face into a two-dimensional object, I can commit it to memory. I have a photographic memory for things that are two-dimensional."
Ever since that first viewing of Big Self Portrait I've followed Chuck Close (closely). Thanks to the web I've stay somewhat current with his work, his appearances and writings. Of late he freely admits he is deep into his 'late stage'. At 76, not that old by today’s standards but his long-running, debilitating ailments along with the new ones are "speaking to him".
After the hospitalization in 1988 and while laying motionless in a recovery hospital bed he contemplated his future as an artist.
"So pretty soon, I thought, I’m going to get the paint on the canvas if I have to spit the paint on the canvas".
Anytime I think of Chuck Close these days, that particular quote is always in tow. With a legacy that's been set in concrete for decades, at this writing Chuck Close is still working. (Below) Chuck Close watching a self-portrait being installed the day before the opening of his exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York last September.
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all images courtesy of chuckclose.com
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