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Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005
November 19, 2005 - February 28, 2006
(above: Chuck Close, Self-Portrait Maquette, 1975, black-and-white Polaroid photograph, graphite, masking tape, plastic overlay; 4 x 5 inches. Private collection, New York; © Chuck Close)
This fall the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is presenting Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005, on view from November 19, 2005, through February 28, 2006. Produced in partnership with the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, the exhibition was organized by Madeleine Grynsztejn, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, and Siri Engberg, curator of visual arts at the Walker. The survey focuses exclusively on the artist's self-portraits, consisting of more than eighty works in a broad range of media-painting, drawing, photography, collage, and printmaking-that trace the evolution of his process and self-examination from 1967 to the present. (right: Chuck Close, Self-Portrait, 1987, oil on canvas; 72 x 60 inches. Private collection; courtesy Pace Wildenstein, New York; © Chuck Close)
Through nearly four decades of "isms" and art movements, Close has remained committed to rigorous experimentation within a carefully defined practice, using his own image more than any other as subject matter. In examining this focused body of his work, Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005 highlights how an artist can create a remarkable pictorial language that continues to expand and develop over a lifetime. Celebrated as one of the most influential painters of our time, Close has retained his vitality by continuously reinventing portraiture, a genre often underrecognized in contemporary art.
Notes Grynsztejn, "Close is an artist whose vision was forged early on in a full-fledged synthesis of minimalist, conceptual, and process art practices, combined with an unapologetic image-making that has placed him at the center of vanguard art production since the mid-1960s. By zeroing in on Close's own image, this exhibition presents a physiological record of a distinct human being as he changes through the years, from artwork to artwork, providing a universal entry into his oeuvre. As singular as Close's features are, we nonetheless see them on a continuum with our own faces, and part of the power of these works comes from the recognition that our shared visages are given a respectful and even monumental force."
The exhibition progresses in loosely chronological order and is framed by two major paintings separated by some thirty-three years: the Walker's monumental black-and-white Big Self-Portrait (1967-68) -- the artist's first -- and SFMOMA's recent Self-Portrait (2000-01), a contemporary image painted as a mosaic of dazzling color and the only self-portrait painted on the scale of the 1968 canvas. Throughout the exhibition paintings will be paired with maquettes, and, in some cases, a series of works will be gathered together with the single maquette at its origin. As the viewer moves through the galleries, biographical time unfolds and the artist's physical maturation is revealed in tandem with his artistic development. The final gallery highlights a suite of recent prints given to SFMOMA by the artist.
Born in Monroe, Washington, in 1940, Close attended the University of Washington in Seattle. From 1962 to 1964, he continued his education at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture, where he studied alongside a talented group of fellow artists including Nancy Graves, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, and Richard Serra. His paintings at the time were influenced by the work of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, but he remained dissatisfied with abstraction's open-endedness. While in school, he traveled regularly to New York, became enthusiastic about Pop art, and began to feel an urgency about pushing his work in a new direction.
By 1967, Close had moved to New York City and abandoned the abstract work of his school years to begin painting from photographs. "I wanted something very specific to do, where there were rights and wrongs," he has remarked, "and so I decided to just use whatever happened in the photograph. Whatever shapes were there I would have to use . . . I was constructing a series of self-imposed limitations that would guarantee that I could no longer make what I had been making." The resulting cross-pollination between painting and photography would prove particularly fruitful and long-standing.
In 1968, Close completed the watershed painting Big Self-Portrait, his first self-portrait and the first of a group of eight blackand-white "heads," as he refers to them, that include portraits of fellow artists Nancy Graves, Richard Serra, Joe Zucker, and the composer Philip Glass. Monumental in scale, at nine by seven feet, Big Self-Portrait is made from only a few tablespoons of water-based pigment, applied thinly so as to imitate the slick surface of its photographic source. This series of black-and-white paintings brought Close instant recognition as an artist and set the course for a working method he continues to use today.
Always starting with a photograph as the basis for his imagery, Close first produces a maquette, comprising a photograph overlaid with a grid template. He then systematically transposes the image to another surface-canvas, drawing paper, a printing plate, or a paper pulp collage-square by square. Thus, while the work always derives from photography, it is reinvested with the human touch present in the application method. Though his practice is well-defined, it is far from rigid: For each work he makes, Close consistently "alter[s] the variables." Whether he fills each square with delicately airbrushed pigment, dots of pastel, inked fingerprints, etched lines, or organic brushstrokes in vibrant color, he continues "to find things in the rectangle and slowly sneak up on what I want . . . to make it all happen in the rectangle instead of on the palette and in context." Close has used this method to produce works ranging from large-scale paintings to intimate drawings to elaborate paper-pulp constructions. In addition, he is a master printmaker who has worked with etching, woodcut, linoleum block printing, and screen printing. Examples of all Close's techniques are included in Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005.
As cross-references between painting and photography have increased in Close's work, his paintings have become truly hybrid objects that merge manual and mechanical processes. They also function as explorations of the mutable boundaries between the personal and the social, the unique and the standardized. Close pushes these borders when he creates a self-portrait in the intentional likeness of a passport photo or a criminal mug shot-photographs intended for public rather than private use-which in turn raises questions about the construction of selfhood in a world that constantly impersonalizes.
Close also has been an innovator in the arena of photography, and this exhibition will contain numerous examples of his photographic self-portraits. One of the first artists to experiment with large-format Polaroids, he has created many portraits in the medium, including multipart photo-collages. In recent years, he also has embraced the nineteenth-century daguerreotype technique, which he has used to create a broad range of portraits with an exceptionally contemporary quality.
Beginning in 1988, Close faced new personal and artistic challenges after suffering a collapsed spinal artery that initially left him paralyzed from the neck down. With time and tenacity, his condition improved, and, though dependent on a wheelchair, he was able to begin painting again using a customized brace. The self-portraits made following this event became more gestural and continued Close's explorations into the use of a bold, unexpected color palette. In these works, Close has revealed himself to be a highly intuitive colorist, whose paintings have been connected to many art historical precedents, including the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna and the paintings of Gustav Klimt.
Evident throughout Close's entire oeuvre is a deliberate balancing of the contradictory: the subjective and the systematic; the mechanical and the handmade; the parts and the whole; or the distinct material reality of the painted mark versus the representational coherency of the image.
Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005 will be accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue of the same title that documents this particular body of Close's work in detail and across media. The catalogue includes essays by Siri Engberg, Madeleine Grynsztejn, and Douglas R. Nickel, director of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
In conjunction with the exhibition's opening at SFMOMA, the Museum's Education Department will present an artist talk with Chuck Close on Saturday, November 19, 2005. Ticket information and additional program details will be available at a later date on the Museum's Web site at www.sfmoma.org.
National sponsorship of Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 19672005 is made possible by the global financial services firm UBS.. Additional support for the exhibition is provided by the Evelyn D. Haas Exhibition Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Margaret and Angus Wurtele.
Wall texts from the exhibition
One of the most influential artists of our time, Chuck Close has remained a vital presence by continuously reinventing portraiture. Since the 1960s he has depicted friends, family, fellow artists, and himself. This exhibition focuses exclusively on his self-portraits -- including paintings, drawings, photographs, and prints -- as a means to examine his pictorial language over nearly four decades.
Born in Monroe, Washington, in 1940, Close studied art in the early 1960s at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he showed skill in abstract painting. He was nagged, however, by the sense that he was painting "what art should look like." By 1967 he had moved to New York, abandoned abstraction, and begun to work from photographs. His first self-portrait was one of a group of eight colossal black-and-white "heads" that included portraits of the artist Richard Serra and the composer Philip Glass. These arresting canvases brought him instant recognition and established a working method that he still uses today.
To make his large-scale portraits, Close first selects a photograph and overlays it with a grid. He then transposes the image square by square to another surface-be it canvas, paper, or printing plate. When filling in his grids, he builds the final likeness through marks that can include dots of pigment, inked fingerprints, etched lines, or vibrant brushstrokes. He is also an innovator in the arena of Polaroid photography, and in recent years he has adopted the nineteenth-century daguerreotype technique.
In 1988 Close faced personal and artistic challenges after suffering a collapsed spinal artery that initially left him paralyzed from the neck down. His condition improved with time, and, though dependent on a wheelchair, he was able to paint again with a customized brace. His self-portraits since the 1990s demonstrate his continued use of unexpected gesture and a bold color palette. At the same time, he has become fluent in more artistic media than ever before.
Evident throughout his practice is a deliberate balancing of the contradictory: the subjective and the systematic, the mechanical and the handmade, the part and the whole. With the self-portraits, Close invites us to witness the startling and expansive possibilities hidden in a familiar image.
"Initially I wanted to make big, aggressive, confrontational images. I chose to portray myself as the angry young man . . ."
In 1967, after shooting photographs for a painting he was working on, a young Close decided to use up his leftover film by posing for his own camera. The resulting contact sheet demonstrates an unpracticed effort: While aiming for a straight-on head shot, the artist inadvertently held the camera at a slightly lower angle, tilting it upward. When transposed to works in other media, such as the painting Big Self-Portrait (1967-68), his head looms over the lens-turned-observer, exerting a pressuring presence -- a vantage point Close would abandon in his later projects.
To create Big Self-Portrait, his first painting to portray his own image, Close took up the airbrush, a decisively nonart tool. Like his Minimalist peers, he banished painterly gesture to develop a more dispassionate style. In addition to its arresting scale, Big Self-Portrait is all the more impressive for being made from just a few tablespoons of water-based pigment, applied as thinly as possible so as to echo the smooth surface of the photographic original.
The 1967 photo session resulted in source images not only for that painting, but also for a richly varied group of drawings and maquettes (the gridded photographic studies Close uses to plan his larger works) made over the following fifteen years. One of the first, a drawing from 1968, is striking in its means of execution: Airy, painstakingly rendered pencil marks reveal every wrinkle, pore, and whisker. A later work, made in charcoal, has the immediacy of a sketchbook drawing.
The daguerreotype is a relic from the dawn of photography-and a rather unlikely format to be revived by a contemporary artist. But Close uses this antiquated medium to explore new forms of visual experience. A daguerreotype is a photographic image produced on a plate of silver or silver-covered copper. It is formed from a long exposure, which results in a highly detailed image. When it was first introduced in 1839, viewers were astonished by its clarity and definition. Because of their susceptibility to abrasion, most daguerreotypes were enclosed in special cases like those on view here.
If Close's paintings, with their seemingly pixelated surfaces, dissolve detail and test our ability to recognize the familiar, his daguerreotypes embrace hyperdetail and hyperacuity, tweaking these aspects of photography to the point of distortion. While this process might seem to be the opposite of painting in its direct and unmediated production of an image and the elimination of the artist's "touch," under Close's administration it offers unexpected opportunities for artistic expression. To emphasize this point, he presents us with effigies of the front and back of his own hand-the classic emblem of labor, the organ made obsolete by photography-and calls them self-portraits.
"When I do a portrait, I'm trying to present it flat-footedly, without editorial comment."
Close's paintings are truly hybrid objects merging photography and painting. Often tightly framed, frontal, and black-and-white, his painted self-portraits maintain a fidelity to the "flat-footed" appearance of their source photographs. The artist frequently composes his own features in deliberate imitation of bureaucratic pictures such as those found on passports, driver's licenses, or police mug shots. His self-portraits thus consider the fragile and porous boundaries between the individual and the standardized.
Close's Self-Portrait I and Self-Portrait II (1995), made not long after the Internet became commonplace, exhibit a being who, like each of us, inhabits a space between concrete reality and an increasingly anonymous virtual realm. Though his "handmade pixels" predate the low-resolution computer images they resemble, these painted bits and fractals spark associations with the digital world. Even as Close derives his work from photography and makes allusions to electronic technology, he invests his pictures with the sense of human touch that is always present in the application of paint to canvas.
"It's only through the particular, personal manipulations of these basic units that you can build a transcendent experience that becomes greater than the sum of its parts."
Since the early 1990s, the grids in Close's works have grown bolder and the squares larger. The tiny dots that made up his earlier color paintings have evolved into a more diverse array of abstract shapes -- circles, ovoids, boomerangs, and zooids -- that animate their individual cells and at times even break out of their own squares to invade neighboring ones.
The artist's current painting process starts when he applies an arbitrary color to a primed canvas. On top of this underpainting, he draws a pencil grid to correspond with the grid on his source photograph. Working from the upper left to the bottom right corner, he applies dabs of colors to the squares in differing shapes, constantly making adjustments so that each individual unit forms a coherent flow with adjoining ones. When the canvas reaches a certain uniform consistency, Close turns it to the wall for a while. He later returns to it to look for "any anomaly [that] threatens the particular balance of parts to whole that makes [the] painting's integrity."
Close first adopted the Polaroid for his maquettes in the late 1970s because of its capacity for immediate feedback. His excitement about the medium was evident: "Working with traditional cameras, I never knew what I had until the film was processed, so I tended to shoot essentially the same photograph over and over again to ensure that I would get at least one usable image. But with the Polaroids, I could instantly see my results, and if I got a good shot the first time, there was no sense in making a duplicate."
In 1979 the artist was invited to experiment with the Polaroid Corporation's new large-format camera, which could produce twenty-by-twenty-four-inch instant color prints. Originally developed to reproduce works of art with high accuracy, it made images that were of great interest to Close: large in scale, vibrantly colored, and with extremely fine resolution. "It was the first time I considered myself a photographer," he says.
As he does in all media, Close pushes the boundaries of formal possibility with the large-format camera, reconstituting and remaking his changing visage, sometimes with uncanny results. His Polaroid self-portraits have taken the form of multipart works in addition to straightforward single panels. The nine- and sixteen-piece composite works on view in this gallery show how such arrangements can bring a new and interesting sense of structure to bear upon photography. While the grid operates here in fundamentally the same way as in his paintings, drawings, and prints, the individual panels do not line up seamlessly and thus produce intriguing distortions.
In his work since the mid-1990s Close has revealed himself to be a particularly intuitive colorist whose canvases have been likened to Byzantine mosaics and the paintings of Gustav Klimt. The unexpected acid yellows, candy-colored pinks and greens, delicate lavenders, and other calligraphic strokes of color amass across their surfaces as watery pixels-curiously abstract at close range and strikingly real from afar, as our eyes absorb the whole of the image and the artificial hues resolve into flesh, hair, and facial features.
This gallery contains Close's most recent self-portraits. One of these, Self-Portrait (2000-2001), is the only other painting of himself made on the same scale as his 1968 Big Self-Portrait. These two colossal canvases offer a pair of "snapshots" in time that evidence an artist's self-examination over the course of nearly forty years.
"A photograph is something you can always go back to and check to make sure you saw what you thought you saw. When I've changed working methodology or process, or material or approach, it's sort of interesting to see what happens pumping that image through another approach. . . . In having something stay constant, you get to see how important other changes are."
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Close began an inventive and prolific period of working on paper. Many of his pieces from this time are based on the same maquette: a quirky, five-by-four-inch photograph from 1975 that engendered a constellation of self-portraits. He has rendered the image in versions both unique and editioned, including drawings, prints, and intricate paper-pulp constructions. Close often characterizes strains of his work as "core samples" -- related pieces that radiate from a single photographic source. Again and again he has returned to this particular self-portrait, in which he appears balding and rather blank-faced behind thick, reflective glasses. He last revisited it as recently as 1997.
When asked why he elects to circle back occasionally to this early image, the artist points to the need for a familiar visual (his own face being the most readily accessible) at a moment when he may be exploring a new technique or material. Taking a known entity through experimental paces allows him to apprehend more clearly -- and also to fine-tune -- the impact of a novel means of production. Yet this habit of calling up his younger, scruffier self can't help but evoke a certain poignancy; the recurring presence of a youthful Close, in contrast with a progressively older and ever more sober one, warps our sense of time, making us keenly aware of issues surrounding aging and mortality.
The source photograph (197677) for Close's large Self-Portrait/Watercolor (also 1976-77, on view in the adjacent gallery) generated a rich group of works in 1977, including his first self-portrait print (an etching of diagonal crosshatched marks in tightly packed squares) and a series of related ink drawings, among them Self-Portrait/Dot, Self-Portrait/6x1, and Self-Portrait/8x1 (the formulas refer to squares per inch). He also made his first pastel self-portrait that year, reestablishing an intimate connection between his hand, the medium, and the paper that had not been possible with an airbrush. Perhaps the most intimate variation on the source photograph is a 1980 self-portrait made by transferring stamp-pad ink directly onto paper with his fingertips. About this experimental method Close remarked, "I could feel how much [ink] I'd picked up by how much pressure I was putting on my finger and the viscosity of the ink. . . . I could press lightly, press harder, or rotate my finger."
Extended object labels
Editor's note: Readers may also find of interest:
and from other websites:
Chuck Close in an 80 minute conversation with Jeffrey Weiss, curator of twentieth-century art, National Gallery of Art's Diamonstein-Spielvogel Lecture Series
From Charlie Rose: Charlie Rose - An hour with Chuck Close [56:41]
Philocetes Center presents a discussion with Chuck Close, Vincent Katz, and Matthew von Unwerth about the film "Chuck Close," directed by Marion Cajori. [32:40]
editor's notes rev. 8/10/11
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