The photorealist painter on how art collided with his learning disability, his first paintings after paralysis, and why you shouldn’t think he’s an asshole.
Had he stuck with what he was good at, Chuck Close might not have had the career he has. The painter known for photorealism and unusually large portraits started out as what he calls “a junior abstract expressionist,” with a gift, noted by many of his teachers, for the stroke of the brush. When he met his hero Willem de Kooning, he told the veteran, “It’s really nice to meet somebody who’s made a few more de Koonings than I’ve made.” But ultimately he felt his influences were crowding him out of his own studio. So he threw out all his brushes and materials and “decided to work from photographs so that I had something very specific to do with my hand that would be right or wrong. And I wanted to rip it loose from the way we normally see things in a photograph and make it much bigger.”
In the interview that follows, which took place in May before a full house at the Metropolitan Museum, Close tells his biographer Christopher Finch of his days at Yale with some of the legends of the American art world (and how he literally fell, through a skylight, onto the scene); of painting mug shot-like portraits to overcome “face blindness”; of his heartrending determination to paint again after a spinal artery collapse left him severely paralyzed; and, of course, painting President Bill Clinton, whom he told “You’re gonna hang next to Andy Warhol’s ‘Elvis.’”
As the second of Finch’s books on Close (Chuck Close: Life, which follows 2007’s Chuck Close: Work) appears, Close’s monumental career speaks for itself. So well, in fact, that Finch began their May conversation by stating, “There’s no one here to introduce us.”
Christopher Finch: Chuck, you have said that from the age of eight, you knew that you were going to be an artist. Would you agree with that?
Chuck Close: Yeah. In life, most people are really good at a whole lot of things, and struggle for a good chunk of time to figure out which of those things they might want to do. Some people could spend forty or more years trying to figure that out. In my case, I was so learning-disabled and any of you who were alive in the forties and fifties know that there was no such thing as dyslexia in the forties and fifties. You were just dumb and lazy. So I was not academic. I can’t really add and subtract except by using the spots on dominoes—like six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve—that’s how I add. I don’t know the multiplication tables, and I was not athletic. As often goes along with learning disabilities, there’s a lot of clumsiness. I couldn’t throw a ball, couldn’t hit a ball, couldn’t do anything. In fact, most people say, “You’re so focused.” But what I think focused means is: you’re so narrow. There are no tangents to go off on, spinning your wheels in the sand. I was no more gifted or no more talented than any of my classmates, I’m sure.
Christopher Finch: Whoa!
Chuck Close: But, early on, first grade, one of the first things—I did puppet shows, I did magic acts. This is the house I was born in, as a matter of fact. I was actually born at home.
Christopher Finch: That’s Chuck’s mother.
Chuck Close: Yeah, I did puppet shows. My father made the stage, my mother helped me make the puppets. Anything I could do to keep people around me—I wasn’t gonna be able to run after them and keep up, and I wasn’t any good at the things they were good at. So pretty soon I realized that I could draw reasonably well. And so I just started doing that all the time, and then art saved my life because the biggest problem for a learning-disabled kid is convincing your teachers that you really care about the course and care about the material even though you’re not going to be able to spit back the names and dates and whatever. So I would make a twenty-foot-long mural of the Lewis and Clark trail and drag it in to class to convince my history teacher that even though I wasn’t gonna be able to remember all the stuff, I did really care about the material. And if they were human beings and compassionate, they would let that kind of work mitigate for my very poor performance.
Christopher Finch: But you’re saying that you weren’t necessarily any more talented than anybody else. And yet, you’re also talking about second grade or so, where you were assigned an exercise in class where you had to make a drawing of your house, and you already understood simple perspective, drew the house in perspective, and the teacher took one look at it and said, “This is ridiculous. This isn’t what a house looks like. It’s supposed to look like a kid’s drawing of a house, that every other kid had done in the class.”
Chuck Close: Well, she made the kind with a triangular roof in the front and then it ended in a straight line on the back. I mean, I knew…
Christopher Finch: I mean a lot of houses in the Pacific Northwest look like that, but…
Chuck Close: I knew that… It was the first time I realized that I knew something that my teachers didn’t know. And I was outraged that they wouldn’t take my superior knowledge of perspective, and I was forced to do it wrong, and I really chafed against being forced to do it wrong.
I’m pretty sure that the woman I studied with was a hooker. Because there were johns that came to the door all the time and the other women who were modeling for me seemed to have a clientele. But I won’t ask how my father knew about them.
Christopher Finch: Very early on, you did have the opportunity to study art with somebody who would receive training here in New York, actually at—
Chuck Close: I believe she was trained at the Art Students League. I can’t swear for sure, but…
Christopher Finch: This is when you were about eight, initially?
Chuck Close: Yeah, I was living in Tacoma, Washington. My father was working at an Air Force base. And on his way to work, he stopped in a diner, where he had the three eggs, the bacon, the ham, the home fries, that killed him. And on the wall in the diner were oil paintings, and he asked whose they were, and it was the woman who lived across the street. And even though we were very very poor, I was able to have drawing and painting lessons. I did plainer paintings of mountains and still lives—very academic—I drew from nude models at the age of eight, which certainly made me the envy of everyone in the neighborhood.
Christopher Finch: These nude models, as I recall, were drawn from fellow residents—
Chuck Close: Yeah, it cemented my desire to become an artist. I said, “Yeah, who _wouldn’t_ want to become an artist with perks like this?” And all of my friends’ families worked in one of the paper mills or lumber mills, and I thought, “Well, this looks like a much better thing to do with your time.” And actually, I’m pretty sure that the woman I studied with was a hooker. Because there were johns that came to the door all the time and the other women who were modeling for me seemed to have a clientele. But I won’t ask how my father knew about them.
Christopher Finch: But one thing you have also always emphasized that was important about your school years actually, not just your early school years, but all the way through, was the fact that in Washington state in those days, every child was entitled to… was it three… lessons a week?
Chuck Close: I think it was three art classes or three music classes a week. From kindergarten through high school. And I have to say that this was a really poor mill-town, Everett, where I moved after Tacoma. And it was just a guaranteed right and one of the things that I think is outrageous—I do think that one of the worst things that’s happened in America, if I can rant and make a speech, is teaching for testing and making getting the scores up the most important thing that schools can do. It takes creativity out of the hands of teachers. But it also means that schools are going to divert money from the arts and put it into remedial education—the three r’s, because that’s what their job depends on, getting those scores up. And everyone deserves a right to feel special. Everyone deserves a right to find something that they’re good at and for people like me who are learning disabled, if I hadn’t had art and music, I would have dropped out of school. I always said, if I hadn’t gone to Yale, I would have gone to jail. I’m a product of open enrollment. I did not take algebra, geometry, physics, or chemistry. I took bone-head general math and science, with all the kids in the bib overalls who just came off the farm and had never put on shoes before—we were in this room together. But, they had open enrollment in a junior college in my hometown. They took every taxpayer’s son or daughter.
Christopher Finch: Because when you were looking at future careers, they were recommending things, as I recall—you might do well in a body shop.
Chuck Close: Yeah, body and fender school. I was good with my hands.
Christopher Finch: Yeah, and you might just scrape through University of Washington in nursing school.
Chuck Close: Well they gave me—this is before SATs, thank god—the University of Washington had a great predictor test which every kid in high school in the state of Washington took, and it predicted my grades in everything. It predicted an F in art, by the way, and the only thing in which I was predicted to get a D was nursing. And god knows I’ve had enough nursing in my life since then.
But it’s something that I feel very passionate about. The opportunities that I had. Because if you don’t have a chance to find out what your skills are because you’ve never been given an opportunity to take courses, then you don’t get the mentors and you don’t get the teachers who are excited about what you’re doing and pulling for you. You don’t get the scholarships, you don’t get the pats on the head, the things that make you feel worthwhile as a human being and successful as a student.
I always said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Christopher Finch: But you were also getting a lot of encouragement at home. Not just direct encouragement, which you were getting a lot from your mother, and earlier from your father. But you’ve talked about how important it was for you to watch your grandmother.
Chuck Close: My father died when I was eleven. And we moved seventy miles away to Everett to live next door to my grandparents. And my mother went to work outside the home for the first time in her life and I was in the seventh grade. And my grandparents had a TV and we didn’t. (I didn’t have a TV until I was in college and I’ve made up for it ever since.) But I used to watch her. I was a nervous wreck, and a slob, and all sorts of things that don’t predict I would make what I make.
Christopher Finch: She was a very nervous person herself?
Chuck Close: She was unbelievably phobic and couldn’t leave the house, a really high-strung, nervous woman. She had busy hands and she quilted and she crocheted and knitted. And made afghans and stuff like that. I watched how these activities were, for her, like raking gravel at a Zen Buddhist garden. It calmed her, it kept her from being as hysterical as she would otherwise be. I watched her work and, for instance, she would crochet without a pattern. Very creative woman. She would crochet stars, each star different. Make stacks of them on the floor until they were three-feet high and after she had hundreds of them she would crochet those together to make a big backwoods-size tablecloth about the size of “Autumn Rhythm.” I mean really, that kind of size. Which then she took out to the back, and actually… “Autumn Rhythm,” if you think about it, those skein-like things that we thought looked violent when Pollock painted them, look an awful lot like the doilies on the back of my grandmother’s sofa. They’re rhythmic, they’re skein-like ribbons and marks.
Christopher Finch: The word skein is constantly used to describe them.
Chuck Close: That’s right. Then she would crochet these together, starch them, bleach them, take them in the back yard where she’d stretch them on a big wooden stretcher with a lot of pins and then they would dry in the sun and bleach in the sun. So it just occurred to me very recently it’s a kind of breakthrough that, “Oh my god, she was building big complicated things out of incremental units and found a way to make this big complicated thing in a way where she didn’t have to re-invent the wheel every day. Today she’s going to do what she did yesterday. Tomorrow she’s gonna do what she did today.” Which is exactly the way I work myself. And what made her calm keeps me calm too, knowing that I’m going to sign on to a process and for the next several months that’s what I’m going to be doing. And if I just show up… I always said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” And having something to do where you show up everyday besides keeping you off the streets and out of trouble… this belief in the process, that if you just keep doing it, something will happen. And you will end up with something. If you don’t like what that makes, you’ll always alter the variables of the process and try something else.
I said to him, “It’s really nice to meet somebody who’s made a few more de Koonings than I’ve made. And on a good day I could make a pretty good one.”
Christopher Finch: I jump by accident to this image, called “Betsy Ross Revisited,” which was done when you were in college at the University of Washington at Seattle, having gone through a very important phase at a junior college in Everett where you got enormous encouragement. But what we’re looking at here is something that is almost the opposite of that. This is not what you arrived at, this sort of working in incremental terms. Initially, you were looking at abstract expressionism.
Chuck Close: One of the things that people don’t understand, I think there’s a notion out there that generations of artists move forward by reacting against artists that came before them. Like “ugh! That stuff is no good. We’re going to go on. We have something to supplant that as a better road.” In fact, I think, I for instance loved the abstract expressionists. I was a junior abstract expressionist. If they gave merit badges or something, I could have been. But mine was angst-free. I wasn’t pouring my guts out. I didn’t have any guts to pour out yet. The whole idea—I was imitating the surface of abstract expressionism. One of the things that made me a very good student was I learned earlier than some of my colleagues what art looks like. And once you know what art looks like, it’s not too hard to make some of it. But the trouble is, it’s going to look like somebody else’s art or it’s not going to look like art. When I finally met my hero of all heroes, de Kooning, late in his life, and I took a catalog along, and he was looking at my paintings and said, “I can really draw,” and I said, “No kidding.” He said, “No I can REALLY draw,” and he meant in an academic way because he’d been trained in Holland to work that way. But at any rate, I said to him, “It’s really nice to meet somebody who’s made a few more de Koonings than I’ve made.” And on a good day I could make a pretty good one.
Christopher Finch: But how many a day? Because when I talk to people…
Chuck Close: I just had at an Antique Road Show one of my things I made in junior college. They value it—total bullshit. The thing isn’t worth a dollar and a half. Nobody would buy the thing. I actually got eight dollars for it.
Christopher Finch: The nice spokesman on Antique Road Show estimated it between one hundred thousand to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. You should paint some more of those.
Chuck Close: He also talked about _William_ de Kooning so I don’t think he’s the source…
Christopher Finch: The worst thing he said: “I think Mr. Close gave up this kind of painting because he didn’t think he was good enough to do it.”
Chuck Close: Well, in some ways that’s true. I didn’t move on because I hated what they were doing. I moved on because I couldn’t make an authentic abstract expressionist painting.
Christopher Finch: But was that a really hard thing to do really? You did it for a long time.
Chuck Close: Absolutely. I clung to it.
Christopher Finch: Seven or eight years you went on doing these paintings.
Chuck Close: When I was in graduate school—and I was there with an absolutely incredible batch of students; it was Yale in the early sixties—I went to school with Richard Serra and Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, Bob and Sylvia Mangold, Janet Fish, Newton Harrison, Jennifer Bartlett and many, many more. I mean, everybody I know are still making art and are really committed, they might not be as well known as some of those I just mentioned, but at any rate…
Christopher Finch: Even some of those going back to junior college that continue to have careers in the art world.
Chuck Close: Yup, my junior college when I was there was great. University of Washington was great when I was there. Yale was probably the best class they’d ever had, although they had great classes before and after. But you know, you are some place and the most is asked from you not by the faculty, but by other students. And we had unbelievable knock-down, dragged-out fights. And we would attack each others’ gods, and there would be loaded brushes of paint flying through the air, we’d end up smashing chairs and then need to go hide them in the dumpster then steal another chair from Sociology.
When I got out of graduate school, [I] get a studio, and say, “There’s a lot of people in this room with me, but I’m not sure I’m one of them.” You have all your heroes, all your gods, everybody else, and you don’t know where you are.
Christopher Finch: You know, I never quite heard the story straight that Richard Serra tells about how you made your introduction at Yale by falling through a skylight.
Chuck Close: Well, I did. I was trying to see the Fourth of July parade or something, and I fell through a skylight in the middle of a drawing class, right on a drawing table. It was a wonderful time, but we were very conservative as students. Really, really conservative. We were very suspicious of Pop and Minimal. I bought a Roy Lichtenstein from his first show, a poster, signed print. It was ten dollars unsigned, twenty dollars signed. I sprung for the twenty dollars signed. And I brought it back to school, and I was like the anti-Christ for bringing this into the room. Rauschenberg came up and said the place reeks of Matisse. My roommate and I went to the live poultry store and got a live white chicken, like in Rauschenberg’s—what’s the name of that? Somebody tell me—the name of the sculpture that Rauschenberg did? “Odalisk,” correct. So we had him on a sculpture stand, and the chicken was underneath a bag, asleep. And Rauschenberg came around to get the crit, and we pulled the bag off, and everyone laughed, of course. And the chicken gets up, sort of fluffs himself up. Rauschenberg who had a great sense of humor started to give the chicken a crit you know as if it were a real work of art, and just as he started to give it a crit, the chicken took a huge shit, just a huge shit that went across the floor, which, of course, was like a reaction to his crit, like, “What a bunch of shit this is.” When we got out of school, the first thing we had to do is we didn’t want people in front of our work thinking about another artist’s work, as opposed to today’s modus operandi, which is appropriation, in which you freely raid the cultural icebox and quote artists from the past. Our generation was hellbent to purge our work of every association with another artist. So the big problem when I got out of graduate school, what everybody faced, when you move to New York and you get a studio, and you go in there and say, “There’s a lot of people in this room with me, but I’m not sure I’m one of them.” You have all your heroes, all your gods, everybody else, and you don’t know where you are in this world.
Christopher Finch: But you also went through a phase when you went up to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and thought that this was maybe the way to do it, you would be the artist equivalent of a gentleman farmer.
Chuck Close: Well, yeah, you fool yourself sometimes. I was sitting in Europe on a Fulbright, and I didn’t know how far Amherst was from New York. It seemed like a hop, skip, and a jump. And I thought, I can do that, I can have a teaching job, I can make some money, and then I’ll just come to New York every weekend. But it didn’t work out that way. I spent two miserable years there until I had the guts to move to New York. The first thing I did was I wanted to purge my work of everything I had done as a graduate student. I threw away all the materials I had, all the brushes. I was told I had a good sense of color which meant I’d learned that certain color combinations looked more like “art” than other color combinations. I was told I had a good hand which means my hand made “art” shapes. But they were de Kooning shapes, or they were Gorky shapes, or they were something else. So I decided to work from photographs so that I had something very specific to do with my hand that would be right or wrong. And I wanted to rip it loose from the way we normally see things in a photograph and make it much bigger.
Always the best time to paint is when people decide that painting is dead because the traditions and conventions are up for grabs.
Christopher Finch: How were your contemporaries reacting to you doing this? I mean you had just come down—a lot of people like Brice Marden who have come directly from Yale to New York and there were other people, like Richard Serra and Nancy Graves who’d gone to Europe with you and then come back to New York… What was Richard Serra’s reaction to that? Richard Serra and Philip Glass?
Chuck Close: Oh God, I don’t know.
Christopher Finch: I recall you telling me that he was actually sort of vain about it in the sense that wanting to look—
Chuck Close: He wanted to look dumb, tough, and ugly. I was pretty reasonably successful.
Christopher Finch: Yeah. But what did they think about what you were doing? They must have had some—
Chuck Close: I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. They probably thought I was nuts. But what Richard was doing was, he didn’t want to make stuff that looked like art. No bronze, no wax, no carved wood, no stone, no marble, no welding, no anything. And first of all, no pedestal. He’d go down to Canal Street, he’d find rubber, he’d find lead, he found all this stuff, he’d come home and he’d figure out what it does. He’d lean it, he’d cut it, he’d stack it up, whatever you can do. Philip Glass was limiting his music to seven notes or something, very reductive, very minimal, and all very involved in process. It was the root out of what you were doing. Ad Reinhardt probably had more influence on me and a lot of the rest of us than anyone else because, even though Ad would hate what I do, because he made the choice _not_ to do something a positive decision. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. So you realize if you construct the “can’t”s—can’t do this, can’t do that—it will force you to do something else and that will kick open a door and you’ll go through it, see if you like where that goes. If you don’t, back up, kick open another door and go there.
Christopher Finch: But in your case why portraits? This was the most unlikely thing in the world to be doing at the time.
Chuck Close: Oh, I know. Clement Greenberg was the art critic at the time, who had a stranglehold on the art world and on the minds of just about everybody. And he had said that there is only one thing left that an artist can’t do, and that’s paint a portrait. And I thought, “All right, I like a challenge, and I won’t have any competition from anyone else.” But if painting was dead, figurative painting was deader than a doornail, and portaiture was the most moribund of all activities. And I have to say that I’ve been around long enough to have painting be dead four or five, six times. Always the best time to paint is when people decide that painting is dead because the traditions and conventions are up for grabs. You have to remember that this was about 1968 when all hell broke loose after the assassinations and this civil rights stuff and the war in Vietnam. Every institution was distrusted including those institutions that were about art. So it was an amazing moment in the art world.
Christopher Finch: Well, I want to throw another thing in about portraiture. You, I’ve seen the evidence, suffer from something called prosopagnosia which is a—
Chuck Close: I’m glad you can say it. How many people know what that is? It’s face blindness.
Christopher Finch: The inability to recognize faces.
Chuck Close: Everything in my work is a direct outgrowth of my learning disabilities. And I never recognized anybody. I didn’t even recognize the woman I lived with for a year, two years later.
Christopher Finch: Last week, we were in Chicago, and we went to dinner at the house of this woman that Chuck had been on the board of the Whitney Museum with for how long, a year or two?
Chuck Close: Who had flown us out on their private plane. And we were involved in other projects together. She was in the audience, and I didn’t know who she was. I can have a conversation over dinner with someone, stare in their face, know everything about them, where they went to school, where their kids went to school, and incredibly intimate details and stuff, conversations with great urgency, not just cocktail chit-chat, and see them on the street the next day and have no idea that I’ve ever seen them before.
Christopher Finch: Chuck has to be nice to everybody because it could be somebody who paid three million dollars for a painting last week.
Chuck Close: I have no greater chance of knowing somebody who paid three million dollars for a painting than I do anyone else. I hear people say, “Oh that Chuck Close is such an asshole, I’ve known him for years, and he walks right by me. Now he rolls right by me.” And the reason that I talk about it, not only because I’m very interested in helping people with learning disabilities—I’m on boards and things doing that work—but really so that it’s generally known that this is my dilemma and so that people will understand if I don’t recognize them. If I were the Ayatollah—God knows it would be a better place if I were—there’d be like in the army, where your name is written on your jacket, you know, and right underneath it I would have a short bio so I could—
Christopher Finch: Well actually, what wonderful stories you were telling me about how you still have these notebooks that you kept when you were teaching at Amherst in which you would make sketches of the students’ paintings at different stages, and as you went around, you wouldn’t be able to identify the student, but you could identify the painting.
Chuck Close: I didn’t know their names. So when it was time to give a grade, I didn’t know who these people were. And I didn’t recognize them when I was going around the room.
Christopher Finch: Twenty years later when they come to you for a reference—
Chuck Close: Right, so what I did was I made drawings of their paintings in my notebook. I kept a notebook for every year I taught. But at any rate, so it was time to get the grade list. And I’d say, “Oh, gee, I remember that painting.” And I’d know what grade to give them. Twenty years later, when it was time to write a recommendation for somebody who was applying for a grant or something, I’d say, “What year did you study with me?” I’d get the book out, I’d go back and say, “Oh, yeah, I remember those paintings.” And I’d not only remember the surface. But I’d know layers underneath, what was on the canvas first. So I have all these photographic memories of things that were flat.
Christopher Finch: Except for faces.
Chuck Close: But the reason that I decided to work with portraits was to commit to memory the faces of people. I don’t do commissioned portraits, they are all my family and friends and other artists. And I’m trying to commit these images to memory in a way that is seared into my brain path or whatever the hell it is. And that means I must flatten it out and scan it. And the more I flatten it out and scan it, the more I have almost photographic memory for anything flat.
Christopher Finch: But you are not posing somebody to sit there for a few hours a day while you paint them. You are actually painting a photograph, something that is already referring to an image.
Chuck Close: Right, pre-flattened. I know I wanted to make a big, aggressive, confrontational image that was Brobdingnagian in nature, as if the face were a landscape, thinking about Gulliver’s Lilliputians crawling over the face, knowing everything about that face, tripping over beard hairs, falling into a nostril, knowing everything about that face, and not even knowing that they were on a face. So that was the original impetus. You can see what I did was, I decided to make paintings in which there was no pallet. I wanted to make every decision on the canvas in context. So I used only really thinned-down black acrylic on a white canvas.
Christopher Finch: This was a problem for an accountant as I recall. He couldn’t figure out how you had so little materials.
Chuck Close: I had nothing to deduct; one forty-cent tube of acrylic black lasted me for years. But the important thing was that I found a way to work that suited my learning disabilities. I could work, I had to find a way to draw that wasn’t an art shape, so I had the shapes in the photograph. I had to find a way to work in which I did not endlessly put off making decisions. So I just used black paint on a white canvas to force myself to make decisions early. I got color totally out of the picture, which I’d depended on so much. And, you know, all these things were tailor-made to move me from where I was to where I was going. Now at the end of these black and white paintings, I was looking for a variable to alter, to move on…
Christopher Finch: Something that interests me, something you said this evening, if we could go back just to that one picture of Phil’s mouth, I’d never heard you say this before: you said, Al Held said to you once that you were in danger of becoming every abstract artists’ favorite figurative painter, just as he had become every figurative painter’s favorite abstract painter.
Chuck Close: And he said, “They never love you, they only tolerate you.” Because I thought the work was pretty abstract. I had a lot of issues that had to do with Minimalism, and reductiveness and process and whatever. I just happened to have a process where I ended up making a figurative painting.
Christopher Finch: Though once you get to doing color, that changes somewhat. These continuous-tone color portraits didn’t have quite that same abstract—
Chuck Close: Well, I don’t know, I think they do. I have a way of working in which I make three one-colored paintings on top of each other, a red painting, a blue painting, a yellow painting. So that all the mixing, everything that happens is in the painting itself, not pallet.
Christopher Finch: And the viewer’s eye is mixing the color.
Chuck Close: Every piece of the painting—this is the conceptual aspect of it—every piece of the painting has some magenta, some sienna, and some yellow—red, blue, and yellow for our purposes. It is just a relative proportion, more red than blue, more blue than yellow that determines the generic color and then the relative density. So you can see, I think we have a slide of a painting in progress. Oh, here is a detail and you can see that you have full colors made out of just those three sort of stupid colors. And this is what the painting looks like in progress. See, just the red nose, you add the blue and you have the purple nose, add the yellow and you get full color. So I learned an awful lot about color by mixing it on the canvas, and I was able to make pictures again without using the pallet, where everything was mixed in context, in relation to pieces that had already been completed and in anticipation of things I’m going to do next.
Christopher Finch: Why did you move to working with color in this way rather than just changing your subject matter?
Chuck Close: Well, you know, if I’d changed the subject matter, and I thought about it for a little bit, I thought maybe I will do, you know, landscapes or something… Well, I thought, I don’t care about rocks, I don’t care about trees. I care about people. And besides, I wouldn’t be changing what I did in the studio each day, I would still be making the same paintings, the subject matter would be different. Philip Glass famously said that he was to me what haystacks were to Monet, or bottles to Morandi. And that’s true. In a way, he is simply the subject matter. Clearly, I care about these people, and they have great importance to me. But on one level that is the case. But I don’t know that people would say that Monet’s haystacks are without emotion.
I’m pre-pixel. They got it from me.
Christopher Finch: No, but you made a big cult initially, and certainly in the black and white portraits and to some extent when you moved into these continuous-tone color portraits, of talking about mug shots that you wanted them compared to, the FBI’s “Most Wanted” or passport photographs.
Chuck Close: Just the facts, ma’am. Everything you need, you know, to understand who the person is because, after all, I was using them as a police mugshot to try and figure out who they were.
Christopher Finch: When you paint your wife, were you able to do—
Chuck Close: It was a seven-foot-high water color, made it three colors on paper.
Christopher Finch: But when you are doing somebody that you know that well, how did you manage to keep that as a mugshot?
Chuck Close: Well, I try to do things in a straight-forward, flat-footed way, with no editorial comment. This is done with a hundred and four thousand dots, each one sprayed into a grid, about a sixth of an inch. And here I’m trying to construct an image where every square inch of the painting _is exactly_ the same, and where I thought the most important thing about American Modernist painting was its commitment to the entire rectangle, and all-over-ness, whether it’s Pollock’s skein-like ribbons of paint, or Frank Stella’s black stripes, where you march across, boom-boom-boom, no variation, no incident. And I wanted to make a figurative image that is as committed to the rectangle, that has no nuance or subtlety by the mark itself, because they’re pretty dumb marks, but only the way the clusters of marks read together.
Christopher Finch: And these marks are made with… ?
Chuck Close: Just sprayed paint right into it, right onto these… You see, _clusters_ of marks make something that reads like hair… There’s no hair-like mark.
Christopher Finch: But it’s also very, like, pixels making up a digital photograph.
Chuck Close: Okay, we’ve got to get this pixel thing out of the way right now. I did this show of dot drawings, about like three years’ work, and I was on my way to the opening, right on 81st Street, right opposite the handicapped entrance of the Met, and I’d been making these dot drawings. And on the way to the opening, I walked by a newsstand on which hung the copy of _Scientific American_ with the first computer-generated image, and I thought, “Oh God, now everybody’s going to think I used the computer.” And it was very primitive then, the images were very coarse. And, I’m pre-pixel. They got it from me. This is a color painting of my friend Mark Greenwald, the wonderful painter. And you can see in the next slide, the dye transfer color separations, the yellow one, the red one, the blue one that I’m working from, the ever-present TV.
Christopher Finch: One thing, if anybody reads the biography, you’ll get a lot of detail about the talk shows, and game shows, and soap operas that Chuck watched while he was working. Which I think was actually part of the process, really.
Chuck Close: Well, it did keep me… it was like having a dumb friend in the room chattering away at you.
Christopher Finch: If I wasn’t around, he’d watch television.
Chuck Close: It keeps you company. But it’s not demanding. You know, you don’t really have to listen, or think.
Christopher Finch: But in the book we have a thing that was actually done by my wife. She was doing a project in which she was taking a day in everybody’s life in which they took extensive notes, and so on. Chuck’s notes, in detail, on the talk shows, the game shows that he was watching… What Vanna White was wearing, and so on, it was quite extraordinary.
Chuck Close: _Hollywood Squares_ was a big one for me… Should we move on?
Christopher Finch: [Laughs] Can you give a _very_ brief background of why you were using grids? I mean, it goes back to the drawing we saw of Bob, that we haven’t talked about the grid at all until…
Chuck Close: We haven’t talked about the grid?
Christopher Finch: Well, we talked about the grid in terms of the drawing, but…
Chuck Close: Well, again, with my learning disabilities, I am overwhelmed by the whole. “Oh my god, what am I going to do, how to make a nose, how to make an eye, where do I start, where do I finish?” The grid was a perfect armature on which to hang the marks. I start in the upper left and end in the lower right. This is a system that’s been used since ancient Egypt to enlarge; things are gridded off, and then you can make them bigger. Certainly in the history of painting, there’ve been lots of examples of people gridding up a drawing as a cartoon, and then enlarging it with larger squares. So I just used that system, and it was a way to break down problems into bite-size decisions. If you’re overwhelmed by the whole, make it a bite-size decision. And also, if you’re a nervous wreck, and crazed, everything that you complete is another positive result towards making what you make.
Christopher Finch: But you also began to play all kinds of elaborate games with the grids themselves.
Chuck Close: This was a circular grid which I thought looked a little like Spin Art, remember Spin Art? Or, for that matter, Damien Hirst has those spin paintings.
Christopher Finch: That’s interesting, the comparison to Damien Hirst.
Chuck Close: At any rate, if you know Lucas Samaras, he would be Svengali if you give him a chance, and mind control, you know those old horror films with the “dnn dnn dnn dnn dnn,” where concentric circles are radiating out of someone’s head? I thought it would be particularly appropriate for Lucas to have them emanate from his third eye, even though I don’t believe any of that stuff, because that’s what he would do.
First I thought, “Well, I can’t move anything, so I’ll have to make work of a conceptual nature; I can put a lava lamp on a shelf just as well as anybody else.”
Christopher Finch: But it was at this point, this show, where you were suddenly struck down by the occluded artery.
Chuck Close: Paralyzed from here down.
Christopher Finch: And you had to learn to paint all over again.
Chuck Close: Yeah, this is the first painting that I made in the hospital. And I have to say that my wife _really_ fought for me; she went to bat for me in the hospital. They wanted to have me learn how to put my clothes in the washer and dryer. And I said, “Well, I didn’t do the laundry before. Why would I want to start now when it’s so much more difficult?” And I went down the hall in a power wheelchair, and I saw occupational therapy, “Oh, good, it’ll get me back to my occupation!” But that didn’t turn out to be it. That’s where you learn to put spools on pipe cleaners. But my wife went in, and she fought. She said, “You’ve got to help this guy get back to work. He has to find a way to work.” And I had some wonderful physical therapists, some wonderful occupational therapists, in a hospital that was basically a snake pit. But there were good people in it. And I made this painting in one of those rooms, art therapy rooms, with the half-finished baskets where the person died before the basket was done. And they actually had people with spinal cord injury, had them wood burn! I mean, wood burning! Are they crazy? But, anyhow, in this depressing room, I managed to make this painting.
Christopher Finch: I have to say that when I saw Chuck beginning work on this painting and thought, “Oh my God, he’s going to make it!” I mean, a few months earlier when he first went in, I mean he was saying things like, he was always determined to make art, and he was saying things like, “I’m going to spit paint onto the canvas if necessary!”
Chuck Close: First I thought, “Well, I can’t move anything, so I’ll have to make work of a conceptual nature; I can put a lava lamp on a shelf just as well as anybody else.” But then I would have missed the physicality, because I love pushing paint around. Once I got enough head and neck movement, I thought, “Well, I’ll put a little brush in my teeth,” and make little paintings about what it’s like to be in the hospital. Then I got enough gross motor movement that I could sort of move my arm a little bit. I still paint with both hands. I have to press them together to get stability. And I paint with the brushes in a Velcro-attached painting device in which I pull the brushes with my teeth. And I remember my wife and the physical therapist, we were in the occupational therapy room, and put a piece of cardboard in a primitive vise, and drew a primitive grid, and I got some crappy acrylic and a bad brush. And I’m trying to figure out if I can put a daub of that paint into the square. And I sort of fell into it, and I immediately broke down crying. And I said, “You see? I can’t do it. I can’t do it, there’s no hope!” I’m thinking to myself, “Well it’s not _so_ bad.” So after I collected all the sympathy that I could wring out of the situation, I thought, “Well, you know, maybe we _can_ do this after all.”
Christopher Finch: When you look at this painting now, which is actually, we’re seeing it very large, it’s actually what, thirty-six inches high?
Chuck Close: Yeah.
Christopher Finch: How do you feel about this painting?
Chuck Close: Well, you know the interesting thing, I took a photograph before I went in the hospital. So clearly the photograph is not emotional, particularly. And yet, it came out profoundly sad. I thought, a little bit like those really scary clown paintings, you know, where they’ve got stuff drawn on the frown or whatever. But it also was, as depressing as the image was, it also was celebratory. The paint was brighter and more colorful than what I’d been doing before. And Rob Storr, in a stroke of brilliance, decided to take the work of the show that I did before I went in the hospital, and the first show I did after I went out of the hospital, and sort of challenge the viewer to determine which paintings were done before I went in the hospital, and which ones were done when I wasn’t. In the book, you’ll see a Cindy Sherman profile circular painting, and that’s the last painting I did before I went in the hospital. And it’s as loose as a goose; it’s as loose as anything I’ve done since. So it was great to have people not be able to determine which paintings were done before and which ones after, because everybody’s very invested in seeing that the work changed. They like the idea that the work was going to change.
Christopher Finch: But you’ve always said that the last painting in one show is the first painting in the next show.
Chuck Close: That’s right. Absolutely.
This is part of my “old men with ponytails” series. And this is my friend, Roy Lichtenstein. And this is to show you the difference between a horizontal-vertical grid and a diagonal grid. In this case, if I had used a diagonal grid, his nose would have been like a ski jump. And, iconographically, the image would have been the same. But experientially, it’s different, because now, your eye splashes down the shapes of his nose like water over rocks on a waterfall. And as an experience, that’s a very different one, than a shhhhht.
Christopher Finch: There’s also the square jaw.
Chuck Close: For a guy who made his career out of comics, I thought a little Dick Tracy jaw would be a good idea. There you can see a close-up of the nose. This is what a painting looks like in progress. You see, I may be crazy but I’m not stupid, so I’m not going to paint uphill. I turn the painting on its corner so I can paint straight across. Everything below the line is the first pass. The first pass is capricious and arbitrary selection of color, so that when I make the corrections of four or five or six corrections on top of that, to sneak up on what I want, and find what I want. Again, I wanted to make the decisions in the rectangle.
Christopher Finch: Do you dare do the golf analogy?
Chuck Close: I thought that using a palette was like shooting an arrow directly at a bull’s-eye. You hope that you make the right decision out of context. But when you shoot it at the bull’s eye, you hit what you were aiming at. And I thought, as a sports metaphor, golf was a much more interesting way to think about it. If you think about golf, it’s the only sport—and it’s a little iffy if it’s a sport, although Tiger made it into a sport—in which you move from general to specific in an ideal number of correcting moves. The first stroke is just a leap of faith, you hit it out there; you hope you’re on the fairway. Second one corrects that, the third one corrects that. By the third or fourth you hope that you’re on the green. And at one or two putts, you place that ball in a very specific three-and-a-half inch diameter circle, which you couldn’t even see from the tee. How did you do it? You found it moving through the landscape, making mid-course corrections. I thought, “This is exactly how I paint.” I tee off in the wrong direction to make it more interesting, now I’ve got to correct like crazy, then I’ve got to correct again. What’s it need? I need some of that. And then four or five or six strokes, I hopefully have found the color world that I want. Then I can sort of celebrate, you know, put that in the scorecard, and move on to the next one.
Christopher Finch: I once figured out that a painting this size was probably equivalent to about nine thousand rounds of golf, to get it right.
Chuck Close: I never do commissioned portraits, but I did have an opportunity to paint President Clinton, and um, I am an “F.O.B.” I am a “friend of Bill,” and I was in the White House, no, I don’t know how many times. I shot him. Ooh, that got me in trouble! [Laughter] When I got to the White House I said I was here to shoot the President. The secret service went nuts, but that’s how you say they take a picture: “You gotta shoot him.” I shot him in the White House in the Oval Office for his re-election. I did work for Hillary, for her re-election to the Senate. And Gore for his… we raised a lot of money, obviously, cause we spent some of it in Florida. We find we have a different world today, but the interesting thing about doing—I wanted to see what it was like to paint, perhaps the most recognizable person in the world at that point. Maybe Obama’s more recognizable now. And I thought: “What’s it going to feel like to paint it? What’s it going to be like to read it?” And I said to him, when I painted him, I said: “This is going to the National Gallery, and you will be the first President to be in the National Gallery since Gilbert Stuart painted the Founding Fathers.” And I said: “But you’re going to be much more excited ‘cause you’re gonna hang next to Andy Warhol’s ‘Elvis.’”
White Canvas House:
What’s revealing about Obama’s art selections for the White House has nothing to do with gender or race. It’s more abstract than that.
Prelude to Thunder:
The night before a bike ride that would change his life irrevocably, poet Paul Guest imagined his heartbreaking fate.
To contact Guernica or Chuck Close, please write here.