“To observe Close at work on one of the grid portraits is like watching a man who is patiently working his way through the world’s largest crossword puzzle. As the painting approaches completion, it’s as if the crossword has been miraculously transformed into biography, the components finding syntax that gives them cumulative meaning.”
(1940 – 2021)
A legendary portrait painter and master of photorealism, Chuck Close is one of the most influential artists of his generation, renowned for his meticulous detail and innovative technique, which deeply impacted both American culture and the international art community.
An artist from an era of technological breakthroughs, Close controversially blurred the line between fine art and photography. Rather than relying on an expressive impulse or an academic tradition, he built his art upon his own rules and rituals. As an artist with a deep academic foundation, he pushed the concept of photographic realism in painting to the foreground and further popularized the use of art as a reflection of the power of individuality.
In an artistic journey that lasted more than 50 years, Close revolutionized the art scene, transforming the canons of academic portrait and experimenting in different forms—from Polaroid photography to oil painting, mosaic-tilework, and tapestry. He created portraits from tonal grids of fingerprints, pointillist dots, brushstrokes, paper pulp, and countless other media.
One of the first artists to use the camera in the late 1970s to make photographs as both the basis for painted portraits and as works themselves, Close created his own iconic tool by putting a grid on the photograph and then transferring a proportional grid to the large-scale canvases.
Close’s signature method can be considered as follows: a subject is photographed; the photographic image is transferred onto a large oil painting on canvas via a systematic, grid-based rubric. As the painting progresses, a series of colors are concentrically inserted into the cell, creating combinations that alter the way we perceive the overall color. “Optical blending” is the phenomenon by which the human eye merges neighboring colors into a single hue. A viewer’s encounter with any work by Close hinges on this process, for the eye works first on a micro level to combine the colors in each cell into a single bit of color information, and then on a macro level, to add up the mosaic of individual bits, as the abstraction of the grid coalesces into an image of a human face.
The rigor and mathematical precision of the grid has prompted numerous critics to label Close’s process as “scientific.” The flip side of this is the unexpected musicality afforded by the grid. Its repetitions create a precise and regular rhythm, while the variations in color represent a series of literally chromatic modulations. “I’m working with the color equivalent of a musical chord, a kind of color chord,” said Close of his compositions.
In the age of the selfie, the art of portraiture, at first glance, seems to play the role of filtering the photographic reality. But for Close, the story goes much deeper: Art became a way to communicate his pain—both physical and emotional—as well as a tool to celebrate his victory against the circumstances that tried to stop him from living his dream. In addition to the partial paralysis that made him use a wheelchair since 1988, the artist had prosopagnosia (face blindness), which drove him to portraits in the first place. He wanted to commit images of friends and family to memory, immortalizing the people and faces that mattered most. With his photographic memory for two-dimensional objects, he changed the faces to two-dimensional portraits. In fact, he had flourished as an artist not in spite of his neurological conditions, but because of them.
“A face is a road map of someone’s life. Without any need to amplify that or draw attention to it, there’s a great deal that’s communicated about who this person is and what their life experiences have been.” —Chuck Close
In his Downtown Manhattan studio, there are portraits everywhere: Kate Moss, Brad Pitt, Lou Reed, Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and Close himself—the movie stars, musicians, politicians, and artists all found their place in front of his camera. Each of them noted the duality of working with Close. On the one hand, it felt like a conversation with a close friend; on the other, it remained a formalized and rigorous process of creating a professional photograph. “The immediacy of making the picture, changes the relationship between the subject and the artist, who together witness the image come into being after the photograph is pulled from the camera and the chemicals perform their function. You both work together to get something that you want out of it. Your subject knows what you’re trying to do.” – said Close.
The value and weight of the individual are portrayed in the artist’s works through hyperrealistic stylization. Creating a photo portrait could take Close several months—from developing the concept to approval of the final print—when one painting would take about 12 to 14 months. The result is the opposite of what most modern portraits do: There is no intent to flatter or embellish the person in the frame; any imperfection becomes part of the biography, revealing a person’s truth.
Chuck Close received a National Medal of Arts and was appointed by President Obama to serve on his President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and served on the boards of the most prestigious arts organizations. His artwork has been featured in hundreds of exhibitions as well as private and permanent museum collections around the world: Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Britain, London; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; National Portrait Gallery, London; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima; Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen, Germany; and many others.
For the first time in Moscow, the artist’s solo show at Gary Tatintsian Gallery features the photorealistic oil paintings, mosaics, and tapestries—the works that focus on Chuck Close’s exploration of various media and stretch the boundaries of photographic means, methods, and approaches.
In cooperation with Pace Gallery
© Courtesy of the Artist, Pace Gallery and Gary Tatintsian Gallery.