Chuck Close: the Face-Blind Artist Reflects on his Career as a Portrait Painter
By Jason Edward Kaufman
On a recent visit to his studio in downtown Manhattan’s Noho district, the renowned artist Chuck Close responded to questions about his method, his disabilities, and the problem with museums and collectors today.
Jason Edward Kaufman: All of your work is based on photographs you make of faces that you grid off and transfer to canvas, painting quadrant by quadrant until you’re done. You were doing that even before you were disabled. Is there something about the repetitive process that appeals to you?
Chuck Close: The thing I love about the way I work is today I’m going to do what I did yesterday, tomorrow I’m going to do what I did today. The way I like to work is to sign onto a process and you stay there until you’re done. It can take months or more than a year. I like three hours in the morning, break for lunch then three hours in the afternoon. I can’t work more than six. I can’t work more than three at a time without messing up. People say how can you work on a painting for a year? Work is work. I used to make a painting every day, but [if you] work every day and make a painting every year – no difference.
It’s been 25 years since a spinal artery collapse left you paralyzed from the neck down. You regained partial movement of your arms and resumed painting using brushes strapped to your hand and a motorized easel that rotates and lifts the canvas to allow you to paint from a wheelchair. What part do assistants play in your painting?
They stretch canvases and grid them off, put them on the lift and bring them up. But no one ever makes a stroke that I didn’t make myself.
This is really important: I love Jeff Koons — we’re close friends. I love Damien Hirst. But I don’t understand why anyone would want to be the chairman of the board of an artmaking factory [like they are]. The fun part is making the paintings. I don’t want to give that to other people. I don’t want to assign that to other people and then run a business…I don’t hold it against them. I just couldn’t do it. No one gets more pleasure day in and day out from what he or she does for a living than I do.
You had – still have — a lot of neurological challenges: dyslexia, memory and attention problems, you can’t recognize faces easily. Did that influence your career choice?
Absolutely. It determined the whole trajectory of my life. When I was a kid I couldn’t run or play ball. They said you throw like a girl. If I’d run my legs would lock up. I couldn’t go up stairs. I couldn’t change a lightbulb over my head because I couldn’t hold my arm up long enough. So I decided that I needed to entertain the troops to keep them around me. I did magic shows and puppet shows, and some kid…would say draw me a P38 or a B17 and I got a lot of attention and praise for drawing. So then when I was eight, my father got me private art instruction.
Was it an easy decision to make art your career?
I had no other skills. There was no fallback position.
Why do you paint only faces?
With my “face blindness,” if you turn your head a half an inch it’s a whole new head I haven’t seen before. It’s amazing how it will shift. To commit an image to memory I have to flatten it out, make a photograph and transfer that photograph to another flat surface. I’m sure I was driven to portraiture because of my learning disabilites and face blindness.
Were you ever interested in still life or landscape?
Well, when I was in school I had to paint still-lifes. How boring is that? I’m glad Cezanne painted apples and glad Morandi painted bottles, but I’m not interested in that and I cared more about people. That’s what I do: I paint heads.
Most of your sitters are family members and artist friends. How do you choose?
I never know what’s going to interest me. Sometimes I really really want to photograph and paint someone, and never get a photograph I want to work with. Many are called and few are chosen. People think that there’s a contract the minute I photograph them, and there isn’t. Images are compelling or they’re not.
Your latest commission is for the future Second Avenue subway station at 86thStreet. What do you have in mind?
I’m doing at least ten — hopefully 20 – 9-foot-high mosaic portraits reflecting the ridership. They’re all artists: the Asian artist Zhang Huan, black artists that I know, old men such as Jasper Johns. The only one that’s not an artist is the baby who is my niece. Each one is done a different way, ceramic or glass or whatever.
You have had hundreds of museum shows. What issues do museums face in the 21st century?
The problem is conventional wisdom. Everyone agrees that these are the artists of the moment. There’s a hit list and they go after the same artists. It’s a nation of sheep. The museums do the same thing that collectors do. They are buying their Ryman or their Basquiat or whatever. It’s a bucket list of art collecting.
What is the cause of that?
It’s not easy to be a connoisseur, to be knowledgeable enough to make decisions that buck the trends and that go against the common wisdom. They want their friends to come and say, “Oh my god, what a great Richter,” or, “I love your Damien Hirst spot painting.” The fact that there are a hundred thousand spot paintings doesn’t keep them from wanting to have just one more. I’m sensitive to this because I’ve made less work in my entire 50-year career than Damien makes in one year.
Jason Edward Kaufman //
This article appeared in Artphaire (Online), March 4, 2014.