Chuck Close: I do believe that painting is the most magical of the mediums because it transcends its physical reality. You have colored dirt and you dip this stick with hairs glued on the end of it and rub it around in that colored dirt and smear it on some cloth that's wrapped around some wooden sticks, it makes space where there was no space and it can punch a hole in the wall. A painting can make you cry and you're just looking at colored dirt smeared on a flat surface.
Steve Paulson: It's Chuck Close: a painter famous for his huge canvases and his uncanny ability to portray his subjects with almost photographic realism. What may be most remarkable is that Close ever became a portrait painter, because he has a neurological condition that prevents him from recognizing people's faces. He's also partially paralyzed, having suffered a spinal artery collapse in 1988. Today Chuck Close is in his early 70s - still painting, with brushes strapped to his hand. And now the subject of a biography by his friend Christopher Finch. Close and Finch recently sat down with Steve Paulson to talk about Close's painting career, going back to his grad school days in the mid 60s when the talk among art critics was that painting was dead. Chuck Close.
Chuck Close: If u were stupid enough to be a painter, you wouldn't want to be a figurative painter. And then the stupidest thing of all to do would be to do portraits. Clemet Greenberg, the dominant critic at the time said, "There's only one thing that can't be done anymore and that's painting portrait." And I thought, "Oh, wow, if Clemet Greenberg says you can't make one, then that looks like a pretty good idea to me,â€ and I'm not gonna have a lot of competition, I'll have the whole area to myself. And it definitely did appeal to me to do something which was sort of perverse that was very surprising, don't you think Chris? When theâ€¦
Christopher Finch: Well, it certainly surprised me when I walked into your studio that first visit because there was a big self-portrait the one that's now in the walker, as a 21 or 28 foot nude.
Chuck Close: A 22.
Christopher Finch: Boy, did those surprise me, this was not what I was expecting to see and I think it surprised the entire art world. The people who were those paintings at the time seemed almost transgressive, as though Chuck had done something terrible.
Steve Paulson: And to some degree I think that they still do look transgressive and yet, if we talk about representational art and painting the human body, the human face - that's as old as it gets in painting isn't it?
Christopher Finch: Well it is, but the scale was different, nobody ever painted anything that large to be seen from close too.
Chuck Close: The thing that I think made it perhaps so shocking was that you weren't sure whether they were photographs, whether they were handmade, so you had to go up and look at them. And it was a <undecipherable> view. I mean, you don't see big images of movie stars or something that haven't been, you know, corrected within an inch of their lives and all the zits and crow’s feet, and everything erased.
Steve Paulson: So size has always mattered to you. The fact that you're painting on such an enormous scale is it just because, I don't know, it hits you over the head?
Chuck Close: I always said, the bigger they are, the longer they take to walk by and therefore the harder they are to ignore. But I always like extremes - make little tiny things or really big. You know, the thing that I hated was practicality. You know when I was teaching at the university, everyone made art, we called it station wagon art. They didn't make anything too big because it wouldn't fit in their station wagon. That kind of practicality begins to make for a numbing sameness in all the work. And really scale is a lot about the way we experience something: if we can't see it readily as a whole, you're forced to scan it and move your eyes dart across it and move around it. You know, I wanted to knock people's socks off. I didn't care if they loved them or if they hated them, but I didn't want them to leave the exhibition saying "Oh, was there a Chuck Close in that show?" Youâ€™re damn well going know there was one there and then you can decide whether you like it or not.
Steve Paulson: Now you have a really interesting way of creating a painting, very elaborate from what I've read. Almost all of your work uses a grid as the underlying structure as you're creating the image, you start by taking a photograph and then you turn that photograph into a painting. Can you explain this process?
Chuck Close: Yeah, but first maybe why the photograph and that comes from the fact that my learning disabilities, which are ordinarily considered to be problems just to be overcome, really drove me to do what I'm doing today and one of them is face blindness or as Chris will tell you.
Christopher Finch: Prosopagnosia
Chuck Close: Which is an inability to recognize faces.
Steve Paulson: This is actually a neurological condition you have, you cannot recognize faces, which is fascinating when you think that what you do is paint human faces.
Chuck Close: But when I flatten them out, I have near photographic memory for anything this flat. So, it makes perfect sense that I work from a flat subject, that is a photograph, rather than painting from a live human being.
Steve Paulson: Well can you explain how you use your system of grids? I mean, how you work on a tiny little piece of the painting and then you move on to the next piece? How do you go about doing that?
Chuck Close: Well, another part of my learning disability is that I'm overwhelmed by the whole, so breaking it down into lots of little pieces. As I am so plagued with indecision, I can't order in a restaurant and then I always wish I ordered what you ordered, but when I break things down into small enough bite sized chunks, I'm able to make decisions. So, once I've got it broken down into a grid, I have a choice as to what systems I'm going to use. Now I might ink up my fingers and put fingerprints in those grids, or I might take wet pulp and push that into the squares or do diagonal lines or scribble in each square or paint 5 or 6 or 7 colors as sort of donut shapes or lozenge shapes or hot dog shapes. I know where I'm going, I don't know how I'm going to go there.
Steve Paulson: But the thing that's so remarkable is that the painting is totally different if you're way up close. I mean you see those painterly techniques you've been talking about: you're playing with color and light, and then when you step way back, it looks almost like a photograph. I mean, this incredible realism. I mean, somehow having both those qualities within the same image is remarkable.
Christopher Finch: You know, actually I feel that most great art, that say since the beginning of the 20st century, has played with attention between figuration and non-figuration. I mean look at a cubus painting: it can be almost abstract and yet you see there there's a violin or a guitar and the front page of Le Monde. Chuck’s just found a new way of doing it.
Steve Paulson: I can only imagine that this whole process must be incredibly time consuming, especially if you're creating a canvas that's 9 feet high or something like that. How long does it take you to complete one painting?
Chuck Close: Well, it depends upon the kind of painting: the war paintings, that took more than a year to make a single painting, there was several of those that took 12 or 14 months. The ones that I'm doing now take 3 or 4 months. So, I do about 3 paintings a year.
Steve Paulson: Much has been made of what happened to you in 1988 when you were 48 years old: you suffered a spinal artery collapse, which left you paralyzed from the neck down. Later you were able to regain some movement, which allowed you to continue painting. When you look back on your career, when you look back at your life do you tend to draw a line between before 1988 and after?
Chuck Close: To a certain extent, but frankly I really can hardly remember life before the event as I call it. And sometimes when I roll by a mirror I'm shocked to see that I'm in a wheelchair, because I set in look out for a world that's essentially unchanged. When people look at me they see me in a wheelchair and they see somebody who is disabled, but that's not really how I see myself. You know, it's a good thing I wasn't a violinist or a pianist because I would not have been able to get back to work. I thought that the 2 great fears of the artists were losing your eyesight and losing your hands. And I thought they were equally devastating. What I found out was losing the use of your hands is not nearly the obstacle to overcome, clearly the blindness would be, and that once I figured out how to strap brushes to my hands and get back to work, I don't think the work changed a great deal.
Steve Paulson: Even though I'm assuming your technique must be very different now that, I mean, you have the brush strapped to your hand. I'm guessing you don't have the same fine motor control that you once had.
Chuck Close: Well, I can't draw easily because drawing requires wrist and finger movement. I don't have wrist and finger movement, but you do paint with pretty much your whole arm.
Christopher Finch: So the things you had to learn to get used to, like you loved work with filbert brushes before, then you weren't able to do that.
Chuck Close: Yeah, I couldn't twist the brush. Yeah.
Christopher Finch: But there was a point in the hospital, early on, when Chuck didn't know if he ever would have the use of his hands back when he said, "One day I'm gonna spit the paint back at the canvas if necessary." And he was deadly serious about that.
Steve Paulson: I assume this must have been terrifying. When this first happened, I mean, wondering whether you really could paint again.
Chuck Close: Well, you know, it's funny. You know, if you have ever been in a really bad car crash, and time slows down and your cars spinning around, and you're not sure whether you're going to, you know, careen into the oncoming truck in the other lane. There's something rather, I don't know, almost calm about what's happening and the experience was a lot less exciting or devastating or whatever that I thought, I'd just lay there stacked on steroids and hallucinating and all of that, but I spent 8 months in the hospital. I remember thinking at the time,"Well, now what am I going to do? I'll have to make work of a much more conceptual nature, I'll have other people execute it." There are so many artists today who don't make their own work, I mean Damien Hearst or Jeff Coons.
Christopher Finch: A whole bunch of people.
Chuck Close: Yeah. My great good friend Sol LeWitt, who had other people execute most of his work, and they still manage to have a signature style, and work look like theirs, so I was prepared to do that. I would've greatly missed the physicality of pushing pain around.
Steve Paulson: Well it's fascinating to hear you describe this as, essentially, a problem that you then had to deal with. You're suggesting that limitations throughout your life have been very important to you as an artist. I mean, in some ways you’ve thrived on overcoming limitations or working with limitations.
Chuck Close: Well, limitations; you're not going to do this anymore, you're not going to do that anymore, and every time you just decide not to do something, that focuses your attention on what is left and what you can do. And it's a way to move forward, it's a way to keep from having an artist block. I think that, in general in society, we're way too involved in problem solving, problem creation is a much more interesting thing to spend your energy on. If you can ask yourself an interesting enough question, no one else's answers will fit and you'll have to be a different artist than you were the last time, and you'll have to come up with a personal idiosyncratic answer to this personal idiosyncratic question that you've given yourself and you're doing it without worrying about how other people are solving this problem, because nobody else is working on it.
Steve Paulson: That's Chuck Close, along with his biographer Christopher Finch, talking with Steve Paulson.