Published May 30, 2004 in South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“Much more interesting than problem solving is problem creation,” Chuck Close explained during the installation of his print exhibition at the Miami Art Museum. “If you can ask yourself an interesting enough question, back yourself into your own corner where no one else’s answers are applicable, you’d be much more likely to come up with a personal solution.”
Close, who emerged on the American art scene in the early ’70s, is acknowledged as a visionary artist whose prints and paintings have been the subject of numerous exhibitions, and are prized in museum collections around the world. Dealing with problems — those of his own making as well as those imposed from without — and finding innovative solutions has been the central practice of Close’s art and life. His experiences, many of them difficult and tragic, have both formed and informed his output, so that his art and self are visibly intertwined.
“Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration,” which came to Miami from its successful run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was conceived to offer a more comprehensive portrait of the artist than the typical print retrospective. Instead of a host of finished prints that span Close’s career, it assembles a small, but significant, selection of prints drawn from the artist’s personal collection. The prints are displayed with the various states, proofs and plates (or blocks) used in their making, revealing the systems and thought processes involved.
Rather than deflating the experience, as when a magician reveals his tricks, this demystifying of the creative process enhances the viewer’s appreciation of the powers of the artist’s eye and mind.
Since 1969, Close has taken as his subject the human face and head on monumental scale. His own image has been used frequently, as have those of his family and friends, many of them also famous artists. From their inception, the portrait heads have been based not on observation, but on extreme close-up photographs that Close took and then transferred, by means of a grid system, to canvas. This involved drawing a grid over the photograph and then working from top to bottom, left to right, painstakingly transcribing the image square-by-square.
In the earliest paintings of this type, which were in black and white, an airbrush was used to transfer black tones onto a white canvas. In the mid-’70s, Close employed the three-color process used in printing, overlapping layers of red, blue and yellow to form naturalistically colored images. The grid system used in these paintings was obscured in the finished works so that the heads appeared seamless, continuous in tone and realistic (in photographic terms), with every hair, pore and mole magnified.
By the mid-’80s, small dots of pure color were used to articulate the squares of the now-visible grid. In some of these works, the grid was set on the bias so that diamond shapes replaced the previous squares.
Years before, Close had begun to reveal the individual grid units in his prints, as seen in Keith/Mezzotint (1972), his first print as a professional artist (he had studied painting and printmaking at Yale University, where he received his master of fine arts degree in 1964).
Like the prints that followed, Keith/Mezzotint was based on a painting. True to his desire for “problem creation,” Close chose to produce this print in mezzotint, an etching process that had not been used for 100 years, so that he and his printers would be forced to learn it together. He also decided to produce the piece on a scale never before seen (3 by 4 feet). This required considerable improvisation on all parts.
“When we went to really large etchings, they didn’t make etcher’s copper that big, so we bought copper that was made for printed circuit boards,” Close said. “It wasn’t polished, so we had to go to a plate-glass polishing company and have them polish the plates. We also had to build a press, as there had never been an etching press that big.”
The handmade-paper print Georgia (1984) posed an entirely different set of challenges. The image of Close’s daughter did not feature the artist’s usual grid; instead, a marvelously eccentric grill was constructed and used to mold the liquid paper pulp into the desired configurations. The grill hangs beside the print in the exhibition.
Close, 64, had long before grown adept at overcoming obstacles. As a dyslexic child, he labored in school to convince others he was neither lazy nor stupid.
“Everything I do has been a direct consequence of my learning disabilities,” he said. “Art saved my life. It was what got me through school, doing extra-credit art projects, like a 20-foot mural of the Lewis and Clark Trail, to show my teacher that I cared about the material and was working hard, even though I couldn’t spit back the names and dates.
“Because of my learning disabilities, I learned to break big, overwhelming decisions into bite-size pieces, so the whole notion of working incrementally [for example, square-by-square] is definitely part of it.”
In addition to dyslexia, Close suffers from “face blindness” — he cannot remember faces.
“I’m sure that drove me to portraits,” he said. “If you move your head half an inch in real life, to me it’s a whole new head, but once it’s flat, I can commit it to memory. So by effecting this translation to something flat and by scanning and digesting it, I’ve made images of people that matter to me part of my memory bank.”
Close is quick to point out that nature compensates for disabilities by providing extra faculties. “I can draw you a floor plan of every building I’ve ever been in,” he said. Also, he can easily reverse an image from black to white and vice versa in his mind, which helps greatly in printmaking.
In 1988, Close had to overcome his greatest challenge — a spinal aneurysm left him partially paralyzed from the shoulders down. With only limited movement in his hands and arms, he again improvised, enabling himself to paint by attaching the brush to an arm brace.
“I think the fact that I’ve been able to cope with my physical disabilities is largely due to the fact that I’ve spent my whole life coping with other disabilities, learning disabilities, and finding solutions to them,” he said.
Within a few months’ time, he extended his previous work in unanticipated directions, producing a vibrant and ingenious new series of paintings. In these works, the markings within the square or diamond patterns of the grid are not just dots, but concentric squares, circles, lozenges and still more eccentric shapes rendered in pure colors (no blacks or earth tones are used). From a distance, the image of the face is visible. Up close, the image dissolves into a kaleidoscope of brilliantly colored, seemingly animated fragments.
Focus on Prints
Close paints very slowly, producing only about three paintings a year. That’s why, in the late ’80s, he started devoting more attention to prints, which come in editions of as many as 80 individual images. This assures that more people will be able to see his work.
“I know that there are a lot of places where people will not have seen one of my paintings or would not have seen one for a very long time, but they’re liable to see prints, so I really wanted to make a print as important as a painting,” he said. “It would stand for me, my work, my vision and my hand just as much as a painting.”
Close’s prints have continued to reproduce not only his paintings, but his previous prints, photographs and drawings as well. The exhibition at the Miami Art Museum clearly demonstrates that these prints are by no means poster imitations of his earlier pieces, but independent works of art. At some point in their creation, the prints take on a life and begin to provide an experience wholly their own.
“You don’t know what is going to happen when you effect the transition” from a painting to a print, Close said. “It’s a bit like translating a poem from German into English. If you translated it directly, the verb would end up at the end of the sentence and it wouldn’t read right. So you have to understand the content in one, and then find a new language to make it in the second one that means the same thing as the first. It’s not a direct, one-to-one translation.”
In moving from a painting to a print, myriad decisions are made with regard to the choice of process as well as the paper, inks and colors that are used. Visitors to the exhibition can compare Emma (2000), the single oil painting in the show, to the Japanese-style woodblock print that reproduces its image. Emma/Woodcut (2002) offers the same smiling face of Close’s infant niece, but here it took 27 blocks, 113 colors and 132 pressings per sheet to realize the result.
Even with the evidence on display, viewers will be hard pressed to understand how the seven plywood blocks with embossed shapes and colored blobs, produced in collaboration with printer Yasu Shibata, led to the final print.
Close’s prints are very expensive and time-consuming to produce (as long as two years). Although some of the pieces in the exhibition, particularly the early states of the 126-color silkscreen John (1998), look computer-generated, Close is a self-described technophobe and does not use computers or other labor-saving devices in his work.
Represented are lithographs, silk screens, paper pulp multiples, etchings, linoleum cuts, woodcuts and more. In addition to the opportunity to view the work of one of the foremost printmakers of our time, the exhibition therefore also gives visitors a crash course on the various print media.
In almost all cases, however, Close extended the possibilities of these media and made them his own. In displaying both the methods and the results of Close’s creative process, this wondrous exhibition offers learning experiences, visual delights and insights into a remarkable artist.