Explained: the difficult and inevitable legacy of Chuck Close
Chuck Close’s artistic life was divided into three distinct phases – two successful, one not. From 1967 until the end of 1988 he was a famous painter, a singular kind of photorealist known for enormous grisaille portraits of close friends and family (and of himself, perhaps his favorite subject) rendered on a pencil grid with diluted paint and an airbrush. His work was immanently desirable. Museums and private collectors began to fight for this even before he had his first solo exhibition in New York in 1970. He had the instant power of pop art – indeed, the artist had declared his desire to knock off people’s socks. But he also had the haughtier and more conceptual print of post-minimalism, arguably the last avant-garde artistic movement of classical modernism. He was also admired by connoisseurs and the public.
The artist himself projected an impressive author character. At 6ft 3in with a deep voice, quick wit and sort of goofy face, he was so widely beloved and ubiquitous that he was once called the “Mayor of SoHo”. At times he seemed to be the main representative of the upscale inner city art worlds, attending dinners and benefits and serving on the boards of museums (including the Whitney Museum of American Art) and foundations.
It was while carrying out a civic duty at Gracie Mansion on the night of Dec. 7, 1988 – presenting an award – that Close felt so ill he walked to the hospital of the neighboring doctors. In the morning, he was paralyzed from neck to toe, after suffering a collapse of a spinal artery. He eventually regained the use of his arms and was able to paint with a brush attached to his hand and forearm.
This was the start of the second phase of Close’s career, as an even more successful painter. His condition forces him to devise a new way of working that actually rejuvenates and improves his art. I remember the thrill of his 1991 show, when he showed off his last big heads, as always from photographs he had taken – Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl, Lucas Samaras and Roy Lichtenstein, one of the few images profile of Close. Not only was he painting again, but it was also his best effort since his black-and-white portraits of the late 1960s. Accurate rendering was now beyond his skill: the grids had been enlarged and filled with pops of vivid color. Up close they read like tiny abstract paintings. From a distance, they had a pixelated and hallucinatory buzz which nevertheless also revealed their photographic roots.
Already much appreciated and respected, Close seemed for a time to become even more cherished, heroic. He has appeared often at gallery openings – especially to Pace, who had represented him since 1977 – surrounded by supporters, as he strolled around in his state-of-the-art wheelchair. It was hard not to be impressed by the ferocity of the will that allowed him to continue his life as an artist. Fortunately, Close – enriched by his work – was able to come out in style.
And then, in late 2017, Close suddenly became persona non grata in many parts of the art world after several young women accused him of sexual harassment. Two museums have canceled exhibitions of his work and others have removed him from display. While artists’ work often fades from view for some time after their death, Close has survived his art’s greater visibility.
It was a sad end brought by the artist himself, to what increasingly seems a strange career, plagued almost from the start by the repetitiveness of his work. By the time the accusations surfaced, Close had already been absent from the art world, abandoning his home and studio in East Hampton for new mid-island neighborhoods at Long Beach and establishing a second home base. operations in Florida.
His obituary in the New York Times revealed that in 2013 Close was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, adjusted in 2015 to “frontotemporal dementia.” He cited his neurologist as saying the illness may have contributed to his inappropriate behavior. I suspect this is true, although it seems likely that Close’s fame fueled a sense of entitlement, which is not uncommon.
In fact, I think Close was a particularly brilliant one-shot wonder, twice. His idea of the head made colossal and detailed enough to dislodge anyone’s socks propelled the portrait into the 21st century and supported some type of sideways expansion – a franchise, if you will. It translated well in different mediums – prints, drawings, Polaroids, pulp collages, ink stamped fingerprints, daguerreotypes and even tapestries. Every time the medium changed, the work physically changed, but it wasn’t enough.
This lateral growth offered only the appearance of development, but in reality there was very little of it in Close’s work. Only his paralysis had pushed his idea of scale and process into new territory – perhaps beyond his wildest imagination – causing a change he had reluctantly flirted with for nearly a decade: more colors. vivid, more freely applied, which distorted the image and upset visual perception in new ways.
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Part of the problem may also have been the popularity of his art: through its ubiquity and similarity, it became a sort of corporate brand that represented contemporary museum art and also the Pace Gallery. It was different from other artists, like Josef Albers or Mark Rothko, for example, who progressed towards motifs that seemed immutable only after decades of exploration.
It will be interesting to see when and how Close’s career will be rehabilitated and whether she will receive an “asterisk,” a label warning viewers about the less salty aspects of her life. Because rehabilitation seems inevitable. Even when the scandal was at its height, museum directors defended his work – pointing to other artists guilty of offensive behavior through the centuries but which made art worthy – or at least worthy of a museum – art. .
And Close’s work can be found in countless museums – an essential part of any self-respecting public collection. His big faces continue to surprise and even shiver without offending. They are extremely accessible and slightly sensational at a time when museums are careful not to minimize their elitism and push for public awareness. I suspect his paintings won’t be out of sight for long. And who knows, maybe asterisks aren’t that bad. There are dozens of male artists who qualify, maybe women too. It’s healthier to see them – and their work – without the rose-tinted glasses.