Maybe he is America’s greatest contemporary painter. I heard that people either hate or love his work, there’s no room for indifference. If I had to pick a group, I would be part of the latter.
It seems to me that I do remember the first time I stood in front of a Chuck Close painting and after a short moment of not knowing what I was looking at, I went “oh – wow”. It was at the Art Museum in Zurich, Switzerland, and the painting in question was a black and white photo realist portrait. In my mind, it was the portrait of Philip Glass, a musician, whose greatest accomplishment, again, in my mind, is being a portrait subject to Chuck Close. (But I know nothing about music, for which I have a very limited taste, so any music related comments made in this blog should probably be ignored).
What struck me when looking at “my” first Chuck Close was not the photo realism, but it was the size of the work – his paintings are enormous, and they are the purest form or portraiture, just heads, barely a shirt collar here and there, no discernible background. Essentially, faces. Giant faces.
With his early work, you can go up to the canvas, as close as the museum alarm system will let you, and there is incredible detail, just like when you blow up a photo that was taken with an expensive camera.
With his later work, and that is what I love even more, getting closer causes the actual face to escape you – as you get closer, you discover an underlying alternate reality, of circles and dots, made in colors that seem unlikely to be found on skin or eyes or hair of a human being. It’s like really closely looking the photo in an old magazine and discovering all these small dots of seemingly unsuited colors. If you love color, and I do, you can get completely lost in that maze of circles, inhabiting meticulously drawn squares which fill his canvases.
Seeing any of his work is always moving and awe-inspiring. And with some art, it’s ok or even wise not to go beyond the art itself. Van Gogh was crazy, Gaugin was self obsessed, Rousseau was an arrogant asshole. Not knowing the artist as a person and not seeing them work lets you enjoy their legacy without the looming shadow of whom they may have been or whom we believe them to have been.
But watching the 2007 documentary “Chuck Close” directed by Marion Cajori shows an intelligent, likeable person, and amongst very out-there friends like Brice Marden, Alex Katz, and, again, Philip Glass, who may add unintended comedy by hard to follow statements about art, a shockingly normal individual, not just for an artist. His struggles are told but in an unsentimental way, and despite my continuous frustrations with canvas and paint, it even made me want to sit down and pick up a paint brush. Above all, it is very inspiring to see one of the great talents of portraiture work, and I will definitely look at his work with even more appreciation the next time I come across one of his portraits again.
The Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art will show a number of his works from January 17 to April 5 2016.