Since the late 1960’s, Chuck Close has led a renaissance in the art of self-portraiture, almost single-handedly bringing the genre back to prominence in a time when photography and technology have threatened its very existence. In this example, Close revisits the most notable motif of his illustrious career, one that he has explored assiduously throughout his oeuvre: his own self-portrait. Reworking his first ever self-portrait, Big Self-Portrait, with a new and innovative technique, Close has continued to augment and elevate his art throughout his over 40 year career. Up close, an array of black ink thumbprints are meticulously placed on a sheet of paper; seemingly abstract it is only when viewed from distance is the true form revealed. As the viewer moves further from the image, it rearranges itself miraculously exposing its hidden subject; Close’s face, 15 years younger as it appeared in Big Self-Portrait.
The first self-portrait that Chuck Close created, Big Self-Portrait, is an expansive black and white painting that shows a young Close from the neck up, cigarette in mouth, seemingly already basking in his achievement. Painted in 1968, it is in the collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the same institution that curated the largest ever exhibition of Chuck Close self-portraits back in 2005. Close made the work seemingly in response to the comment made by storied art critic Clement Greenberg that “With an advanced artist, it’s now not possible to make a portrait” (W. S. Hylton, “The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close”, New York Times, July 13 2016, via http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/magazine/the-mysterious-metamorphosis-of-chuck-close.html?_r=1). At the time when Close started this work he was living and working in New York City and at a time when artists were diving headlong into a world of deconstructed forms and perception based realities, the pioneering endeavor to revert back to portraiture was daring.
When Close first started to develop his style he used a grid system and worked directly from photographs. He would break down the image he was working on by laying a square grid over it and then would work on each segment individually. After gaining a plethora of experience with this method, he developed the perspicacity to anticipate the aesthetics of the full image without having do view it from a distance. “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. Close explains in an interview with Martin Friedman, ‘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). This ability permitted Close to continue making his work even after suffering a collapsed spinal artery that left him paralyzed and in a wheel chair in 1988.
After many years of working with his grid technique, Close continued to evolve his art as seen in the present work. Instead of using paint to render his composite portraits, he experimented with his own thumb print dipped in to stamp ink. Building from his pioneering portraiture techniques and following the same grid process he had developed earlier, Close continued to his thumb print, precisely positioned to form a new and more personal style of portraiture.
Undoubtedly one of the oldest form of painting, portraiture has been around since the beginning of human civilization. From ancient Cycladic figurines through current day representation, portraiture has evolved and continued to echo the sensibilities of its time. Early portraiture often depicted royalty and gods and was deigned to instill power and notoriety in its subject. In more recent history, however, artists like Gustave Courbet took a different approach towards portraiture, abandoning an idealized depiction in favor of one that emphasized truth over beauty. Chuck Close has adopted this angle for his works and strives to highlight the imperfections in his subjects’ faces. Often referring to his own works as “mug shots,” Close tends to use close friends and fellow artists as subjects not only because of the connection he shares with them but also to not detract focus from the artwork.
Largely celebrated as the patriarch of modern self-portraiture, Chuck Close has continuously reimagined the genre, catalyzing advances both creative and technological. Meticulously laid out, Close’s paintings offer a unique spectacle when viewed in person that cannot be translated to reproductions or screens. In a time when the genre had all but been abandoned, Chuck Close dedicated himself to it and single handedly gave the self-portrait a firm place within the contemporary art movement.