Always a highly visible artist, Chuck Close is currently benefiting from an enormous amount of public attention. He has two major solo shows on tour: Chuck Close: Self Portraits 1967- 2005 recently opened at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; and Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration runs from April 9 through June 25, 2006 at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
In November, Harry N. Abrams Inc. published Close Reading : Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait by Martin Friedman, and on April 24, he will appear in Robert Storrs Artists Visions series at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He recently spoke to ArtInfo, discussing the nature of his portraits.
Chuck, can we start by thinking about the whole question of portraiture as a viable way of making art in the early 21st century?
Well, Im a human being and I take pictures of people and I make paintings about them. These are images that matter to me. I dont do commissioned portraits, and I dont paint people that Im not close to.
The portrait has traditionally been seen as a carrier of human content, but people have sometimes talked about your attempts to drain expression from the faces of your sitters, particularly when youre taking the Polaroids that you work from.
I dont try to drain all expression out, I just want a very neutral expression. If you have an extreme expressioneither laughing or crying or whateverthen thats the only content that you will get out of it. Whereas if its presented neutrally and flat-footedly, you can read whatever evidence is embedded in their visage, like laugh-lines and furrows or whatever, in the same way that you can make assumptions about people when you meet them at a cocktail party. I am a humanist and I hope that a bit of humanity is in there somewhere; I just dont like to editorialize it.
Sol LeWitt has suggested that its in your self-portraits that theres the most psychological insight. What would you say to that?
As far as my own images go, I am the last person to know whether they are more psychologically loaded than the others. They only differ in the fact that I am posing for myself rather than someone else posing for me. And I use the word posing deliberately. Its a relatively carefully constructed view of myself. I presented myself one way in 1968 and I present myself another way now.
In the self-portrait show thats traveling around just now, theres one image of me smiling. People were amazed: Oh my God, he actually smiles! Anyone who knows me knows that I smile all the time and that I laugh all the time; Ive just never chosen to make a painting like that. But I dont think the fact that I havent done so means anything in particular. I certainly dont think that Im such a serious person that I have to present myself that way. Im just doing the same thing for my own image that I do for other peoples, which is to present it without much editorial comment.
As youve said, your models are always people that you know.
Yes, other artists, family and friends.
Ive always been struck by the portraits that youve done of Alex Katz.
Alex is a hero of mine because in my opinion he makes truly modernist, intelligent and forward-looking portraiture. And we agree on the question of why anybody would make a portrait painting at this stage in the history of art. I dont think either of us are interested in breathing new life into 19th-century notions of portraiture. I think were interested in making paintings. The paintings happen to be portraits. First and foremost were both making paintings; thats the most important thing.
And in your paintings, theres a lot going on that isnt about portraiture at all.
Well, Philip Glass said something that I thought was wonderful. He said that he is my haystacks! What he meant was that he is to me what haystacks were to Monet or, I would add, what bottles were to Morandi.
Are Monets paintings truly about haystacks? Are Morandis paintings truly about bottles? I dont know. Theyre paintings first, and the subject matter is there and you know something about it, but clearly its not essential that you have a meaningful relationship with a haystack or a bottle. I think those paintings of Morandis are about isolation and loneliness. Theyre bleak. He uses bottles as a stand-in for humankind. But he does it without drawing big circles around it. He doesnt make it into an editorial position.
Youre talking about paintings ability to function metaphorically?
Yes. You can look at my late works as reducing a human face to wallpaperin which case they are simply an armature on which to hang brushstrokesbut I also think there are other levels of meaning, some of which have more to do with the subject and some of which have more to do with paint.
When your work first came to public attention, you were often linked with the photorealist artists, something that you strongly objected to.
I didnt want to be linked with those painters. I dont feel I have much kinship with people painting motorcycles, really. It wasnt so much that I hated their workalthough in most cases I didI just wanted to be seen as an individual.
I dont think that I sprang from the same place that most of those people did. The things that influenced me, and the people that I went to school with, and the artists that I knew in the sixties when I was coming up, the common influence was that we were all trying to figure out how we could stop making abstract expressionist paintings which wed been trained to make in the academy. And the influences were Pop and Minimal and maybe Arte Povera and a few other [movements] like that.
The way Ive described it is thatwhether its Philip Glass, or Richard Serra or Brice Marden, all of whom were my friendswe all climbed out of the same primordial ooze at the same time. We were nurtured by the environment that we came out of, and then once we got on land we all went our separate ways.
Thats not an easy thing to write about or talk about because its not the same as work that is very similar on some superficial level which can be written about as a tendency or movement. It was a pluralist era and nobody likes pluralist eras. People like things simplified, and they like one high art thing going on so they can ignore the other stuff.
The situation youre describing is very like the situation today.
Were again in a pluralist era where nothing dominates and several different tendencies are going on at once. I think its really healthy for the art world, but frustrating for people who like easy answers and want to think about this as a particular kind of moment.