Close-up:
Chuck Close at MOMA
Jesse Richards - April 21, 1998

Chuck Close paints with such energy and freshness you might forget he's been repeating the same subject for three decades. Close, who became famous for his gigantic, photorealistic head-shots in the late 60s, still paints huge portraits, but his style couldn't be more different. Close has evolved from photography into the computer age - and his portraits have reached a new level of detail, color and vivacity. The portraits reflect technology and modern culture but have an amazing individuality and humanity as well. The work also shows, in its emphasis on process and attention to detail, the difficulties that the physically disabled Close has had to overcome.

It is easy to see Close's evolution in his new retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit, which runs through May 26, is Close's first show at MOMA since 1991, when the artist curated an exhibit of portraits from the museum's collection.

The current exhibit is arranged to allow an easy progression through the thought processes and changes throughout Close's career. The entrance contains the artist's earliest works, dating from 1967, with the other rooms following in chronological order until it reaches Close's current work, near the exit. Since the majority of the pieces are seven or eight feet tall, only a few fit in each room. Several pieces are accompanied by Close's equivalents of sketches - smaller versions of the finished work, gridded off to allow Close to transfer the picture to his larger canvases.

The exhibit starts strongly with Close's famous black-and-white portraits, paradigms of photorealism. It has several rooms of these before meandering through Close's transition period of the 70s and 80s. The exhibit then finishes off with a flourish with his new, more colorful, more abstract style.

The first rooms of the exhibit showcase paintings that are striking in their accuracy and attention to detail. The detail Close pours into the pieces can be seen in the varying crispness and haziness of the faces, which reaffirms their kinship with photography. One of his most famous works, Big Self-Portrait of 1967-68, is a clear example of Close's interest in photography and emphasis on process. The self-portrait is accompanied by his study for the work, which is simply the original photo covered by a grid.

The inclusion of the study reveals much about Close's process. Defying a traditional process, Close instead begins with a square and inches his way along the work, square by square. This process is Close's connection with technology. His method of painting is completely mechanized, with himself as the machine

Though his materials and subjects change, his process remains the same throughout his career - meticulous, time-consuming, but still fresh and artistic. The similarities of his style to mechanical processes are even more evident in his color works. In these, Close lays down red, then blue, then yellow, just as in color separations in a printing process.

Close's works falter slightly in the middle of the show, in his transition period of the 80s. Though they don't flow well with the rest of the exhibit, some of these pieces are extremely interesting individually. Close begins to vary his media, using airbrush, paint, ink, charcoal and even fingerprints in some portraits. It is amazing to see what is essentially a fingerpainting, as in Fanny/Fingerpainting from 1985, retain such a level of completeness and photorealism.

Close also does his only textured, slightly three-dimensional work here with a few impressive canvases of collaged pulp paper, as in Jud/Collage of 1982. Some finished photography is also included, with another portrait of himself, Self-Portrait/Composite/Nine Parts, of 1979, montaged la David Hockney.

The exhibit finishes with Close's best work - portraits still divided into squares but painted with abstract blobs of vivid, fresh color. Like a Seurat, the blobs are incomprehensible close up, but from far away they combine into portraits every bit as detailed as Close's previous work. Each of the squares now contains layered color - some with as many as six shades - which seem to breathe and shimmer in their contrasts. Close also varies his dead-on views with side views and turned heads, and even some spiral patterns. The day-glow colors and amoebic shapes allude to the 90s trend in computer graphics - a shift from his earlier focus on directly mimicking photography.

Close's art certainly reflects life, with these new works mirroring our culture's struggle to incorporate computers into our lifestyles without losing our humanity in the process. Close acknowledges this and turns it around by using his process to instead bring out the work's humanity. These latest works contain more life than any of the earlier pieces, and are eccentric and almost hallucinatory in the effect they produce.

Close's creative new style is even more impressive when you consider the obstacles he's had to overcome. Less than a decade ago Close became a quadriplegic when a spinal artery collapsed. Through intense physical therapy, he managed to regain enough strength in his arms to be able to paint via a paintbrush attached to his hand. Confined to a wheelchair, he now uses a large, maneuverable easel which moves on a motorized track, a machine also used by Willem de Kooning. Close's physical dependence on technology contrasts and works with the intense willpower needed to overcome his weaknesses. Similarly, the themes of mechanical process and vivid humanity combine in his most recent works.

Close's portraits contain a gritty, in-your-face attitude that is emphasized by their being hung at eye-level. The portraits actively confront the viewer and act as mirrors. It is impossible not to see similarities to ourselves when staring into the portraits - a mirror reflection is the only other circumstance in which one would stare at a person so close-up.

The overwhelming popularity of Close's work is also the cause of one of the only unfortunate points about the exhibit - the crowds. By mid-afternoon, the rooms of the show are packed tight. Try to visit during a weekday or a morning, preferably both, but don't let scheduling problems hinder you from seeing the exhibit. Also, enjoy identifying the portraits - Close includes such famous artists as Roy Liechtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Cindy Sherman, Philip Glass, Alex Katz, and Francesco Clemente.

The exhibit is successful in its comprehensiveness. By following Close through his career, we can experience his process firsthand and better appreciate his brilliantly realized current work. Close's portraits are tributes to the human presence, and they have to be seen to be believed.