Cindy (smile), 2013 will be on view at Close’s Guild Hall exhibition.
Chuck Close’s studio is lined with self-portraits as well as photos Close took of other famous faces, such as President Obama.
Artist Chuck Close
“I paint people who I want to get to know better,” says artist Chuck Close, whose one-man show of tapestry and watercolor self-portraits opens this summer at Guild Hall. “I started painting artists older than me, my heroes like [Robert] Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Paul Cadmus. Then I painted people generations younger than me, like I’m painting right now, Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker, Kiki Smith.”
Close, who has been spending time in the Hamptons since the early 1970s—first in the Springs before moving to East Hampton at the encouragement of his art dealer at the Bykert Gallery, Klaus Kertess, then later, Bridgehampton—was paralyzed in 1988 and remains in a sophisticated wheelchair. Despite his catastrophic injury, Close has never felt anything but fortunate. “I was eight months in the hospital, rehabilitation, and I managed to have a good time,” recalls Close. “I put a bar in there, people stopped by for drinks. As soon as I got a power wheelchair, I took everybody out for drinks. The art world, as well as my family, showed up for me. Art is the only belief system I have. If I were religious, I would say I’ve been blessed. I like to think of myself as lucky, and I think it’s better to be lucky than smart.”
For Close, art has been his lifelong passion. At 8 years old, his father found him a private art instructor, and he began drawing nude models. “I was destined to be an artist; I was destined to paint portraits,” he says. “I [have prosopagnosia, face blindness], so the only way I can commit an image of a person to my brain is if I flatten it out. I have excellent retention for flat imagery, but if you move your head half an inch, to me it’s a whole new head I haven’t seen before. If I have a photograph of you, especially if I scan it, I have a much better chance of remembering it.”
Although he cites Johannes Vermeer as a favorite artist, it was seeing a Jackson Pollock painting for the first time at age 11 that cemented his destiny. “My grandmother got Collier’s, and I got Voice, Life—all these had painted covers,” Close recalls. “I used to study them with Grandma’s magnifying glass trying to figure out how an image got built out of paint and brushes. I pixelated a long time before the computer.”
His grandmother also played another major role in the development of Close’s signature style—large-scale portraits comprised of smaller pixels of color. “She would crochet stars and flowers, individual ones, and stack them up on the floor until she had hundreds of them,” he remembers. “Then she would crochet them together and make a big banquet-size tablecloth, making a big complicated thing out of small incremental units—exactly what I do. I watched how knitting and crocheting made her calm down—it was like raking gravel in a Zen Buddhist garden. I think that this really struck a cord with me.”
Coming of age during the 1970s, Close avoided the rock-star persona that attached itself to breakout talents of the 1960s, such as Andy Warhol, and then again in the 1980s with those like Keith Haring. “If you look at the artists of the ’60s, they may not have made a lot of money, but they were treated as superstars,” says Close. “The trouble with being instantly famous is you have to mature in the spotlight, and that’s a very hard place to change, evolve, morph, and develop. There is a lot of pressure to do the same thing or to try something else.”
Close traveled with his peers Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Sylvia Plimack-Mangold and Robert Mangold, Janet Fish, Newton Harrison, and Jennifer Bartlett from Yale to New York in the decade in between. “I find the period that we’re in right now very similar to the ’70s,” Close says. “People work collectively; they don’t care if their name is connected to [a project]. I am going to this show of the art that Richard Serra made in the late ’60s and early ’70s when Philip Glass, Steve Reich, novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, filmmaker Michael Snow, and I all helped him. When a dealer came to one of our lofts, we would say, ‘You should go see my friend’s work’; it didn’t become competitive until later.”
Today, Close’s work is as recognizable as the artist himself, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars per painting at galleries and auctions. His print show, “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration,” curated more than 10 years ago by the Parrish Art Museum’s Terrie Sultan is currently traveling, having just completed its run at its 19th venue, the White Cube Bermondsey in London, before it makes its way to Australia and China later this year. “I keep updating it and keep putting new print techniques in it,” says Close.
While there are currently no plans to bring the exhibit to the Parrish, Close still holds loyalties to the East End. “I’ve got too many friends [here],” he says of the Hamptons. “I’m coming back not only for Guild Hall and for the Parrish, but frankly I want to get the fried zucchini chips at Nick & Toni’s.”
Currently, Close is also dedicated to implementing art in the public school system as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which is currently working on a pilot program called Turnaround: Arts, an art and music education project that aides a group of the most underserved, lowest performing schools in the United States. “I very easily could have dropped out if it weren’t for having art and music in school,” says Close, who confesses to having a learning disability. “I said to the committee that everybody needs to feel special, and if you don’t feel special because you’re not good at science, math, or spitting out dates and names, then you are going to drop out of school. I disagree with those people who say that we should all be studying the same things, and that there should be uniform testing. I think it’s a very unfortunate way to present information.” Get advance tickets for Chuck Close’s exhibition, which will be on view starting August 10 at Guild Hall, 158 Main St., East Hampton, 324-0806