For nearly forty years, the inveterate artist Chuck Close has created a virtuosic series of monumentally-scaled portraits that dazzle with precision of their proto-photographic technique. In Self-Portrait of 2007, the artist returns to the most quintessential motif of his long and storied career, a subject that he has explored more often and in more detail than any other: his own self-portrait. Meticulously rendered over a series of many months, the painting has the awe-inducing effect of snapping into focus when viewed from a distance, yet upon closer inspection, the details of its depiction dissolve into a world of pure abstraction. A variety of idiosyncratic squiggles, ovals and lozenge-like forms begin to emerge, which Close has arranged within a carefully-constructed grid. From such a vantage point, these seemingly unrelated forms have the appearance of cells under a microscope, yet stepping away from the painting, they merge into a cohesive whole to produce a unified portrait of brilliant complexity.
The first self-portrait that Chuck Close created was the epically-scaled Big Self-Portrait of 1967-1968, a stunning black-and-white monolithic masterpiece that portrayed the bravado of a young artist mugging for the camera. Big Self-Portrait was critically hailed as one of the best paintings of its era, and it ultimately launched the artist’s career. In the following decades, Close has adhered to the same working method that he established in Big Self-Portrait, returning time and again to rendering his own likeness.
A stunning visual companion to the artist’s Self-Portrait is Leslie, a deeply personal portrait of the artist’s former wife, Leslie Rose, that he painted the same year as Self-Portrait. Over the course of his decades-long career, Close has repeatedly turned to his friends and close family as the subject of his work, and Leslie, also an artist, is one of his most recurring subjects. Measuring six feet tall, the painting rises over the viewer with its rigorous, carefully-constructed network of interconnected abstract shapes. Rendered in varying shades of gray, the painting adheres to the same, unique set of parameters that he employs in Self-Portrait. In this earnest portrayal, the zoomed-in viewpoint and monolithic size of the piece forces the viewer into an intimate connection with the sitter, locked into a prolonged and mesmerizing exchange. In this particularly poignant depiction, the effect of Close’s technique is rife with meaning, given the personal nature of its creation.
The artist often refers to the feeling of “getting lost” in his own unique creative process, and he has recently described the surface of the canvas itself as a sort of geographical survey, a kind of map that both guides and bewilders its viewers. In Leslie, the effect of its abstract forms is nebulous and hard to pin down—on the one hand, the image appears ready to snap into focus like a photograph, yet on the other, it threatens to dissolve into pure abstraction. His depiction has the effect of a glistening surface, whose facade lingers in a kind of nether world between figuration and abstraction. Much like the shimmering, prismatic landscapes of the Pointillists, Seurat and Signac, Chuck Close creates a vibrant and intricately-knit surface by the meticulous rendering of small abstract bits of color. Its effect presents a more lively impression of the sitter than traditional portraiture, which the critic Roberta Smith has pointed out: “Mr. Close has revealed a basic emotional truth: The human face is never at rest because the human mind, awake or asleep, is never still” (R. Smith, “In Portraits in a Grand Scale, Chuck Close Moves On,” New York Times, November 8, 1991, sec. C, p. 24).
The laborious nature of the artist’s working method is evidenced by the sheer scale and technical complexity of each painting, which can take many months to complete. To begin with, Close photographs his subject in a frontal, head-and-shoulder style that mimics the impersonal, utilitarian look of a passport or driver’s license (lately Close has revitalized the genre of daguerreotype photography, and his works maintain the earnest, unflinching honesty of those early photographs). He then overlays the photographic image with a grid, at times experimenting with its orientation by rotating it forty-five degrees or expanding outward from the center in a series of concentric circles. Upon transferring the grid to canvas, Close begins the meticulous process of re-creating the photograph in step-by-step, time-consuming detail. He often works in a gray-scale that mimics the look of black-and-white photography, a technique that requires rigorous discipline and a keen sense of composition.
His recent innovation of lozenge-like abstract forms require him to first color each individual square a varying shade of gray. Once each square is given a particular shade, he then begins to paint the abstract forms that comprise his own unique visual vocabulary. Ovals, squiggles and other marks fill each square, and for a typical painting, Close will go over each of the 104,072 squares of his grid an average of ten times. This process “adds up to over a million separate painting acts, completed day after regular work day for months on end” (R. Storr, quoted in Chuck Close, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, February-May 1998, p. 36). This curious process allows the artist’s genius to slowly unfurl, as each individual daub and squiggle works in tandem to balance the other, to create a thoroughly unified whole where there previously was none: “Though never more than arms-length away from the canvas as he makes them, Close instinctively knows how they will interact to form an image. ‘I’ve made enough of them to know how they will read from a distance. I don’t have to back up and look at them. The analogy might be to a composer scoring a composition for a number of musical instruments. He knows what [the instruments] will sound like when they are played together’” (M. Friedman and C. Close, quoted in M. Friedman, Close Reading, New York, 2005, pp. 81-82).
Throughout his career, Close has been a relentless innovator, exploring diverse methods and means of image-making in often astonishing and laborious ways. His paintings continue to dazzle with the inventiveness of their technique and the rigor of their execution. In circling back to his earliest subjects, his own self-image and his first wife, the artist continues to innovate while working within his own signature style. The curator and art historian Robert Storr has commented, “[H]is habit of recycling old images for use in solving new problems warps biographical time. Not only does Close double back to retrieve artistic raw material, he doubles back on himself as he once was — and on his friends as they once were — when he first set out to make all he could of his apparently obvious idea.… Such visitations by the past on the present have a special place in Close’s output…. Their effect is to preserve a former self in amber” (R. Storr, quoted in ibid., exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 54).