The largest survey in the Southern Hemisphere of the work of American artist Chuck Close is being hosted by the Museum of Contemporary At, Sydney, as part of the Sydney International Art Series. Lucy Rees speaks with Close about the trajectory of his artistic career and the unique process behind his photo-based portraits.
Lucy Rees: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
Chuck Close: From the time I was five years old, I knew I wanted to be an artist. When was six or seven I asked my parents for real paints, the Genuine Weber Oil Color set from Sears. My father made me an easel himself in his shot at the McChord Field sheet metal shop. By the time I was in probably the second grade I made a picture of our house in perspective. I just know how to do it intuitively. I had to stand up to teachers who kept telling me I was doing it wrong.
LR: Was there an artist or group of artists that had an effect on you during your early years?
CC: My first instructor when I was eight or nine years old, was a woman whose paintings my father had seen at a diner he frequented on Route 99. It turned out she has attended the Art Students League in New York, but was then living in an old house with several other women. I could have been a rooming house, or ... anyway, for about two years I would go there once a week and learn the academic techniques – working on still life and sometimes landscapes. Sometimes we did figure drawing and her “housemates” would pose – sometimes even in the nude! My ninth grade art teacher, Helen Cook, was very encouraging.
I spent a lot of time looking at illustrations in magazines like Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and Look by artists like Robert Fawcett, Steven Dohanos and especially Norman Rockwell. My teacher Larry Bakke at Everett Junior College was very influential. Not only did he challenge me intellectually and introduce me to Abstract Expressionism, he also encouraged me to apply to the Yale Summer School Program, which led me to entering Yale the next year.
LR: You are vocal about the importance of art in education and do a lot to help underprivileged children. Why is it important to you?
CC: I joined President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities because I believe strongly that arts education can be life changing. People say that we need art in schools because it helps with math skills. But it’s much more than that – it keeps kids engaged and keeps them coming back. When I was in school, as learning-disabled as I was, the music and art classes we had several times a week is what helped me connect. I probably would have dropped out of school without that outlet.
LR: Marion Cajori’s insightful documentary reveals your methodical working process, how you use a horizontal/vertical or diagonal grid and approach colour correcting squares. How long does it take to complete a work? Is there room for error or spontaneity?
CC: It can take several months to complete a painting from start to finish. I am very much about process, so once the major decisions are made about the subject and how the picture will be partitioned by the grid, it’s really a matter of starting at the top and working my way down to the bottom. But within each mark there is a problem to be solved, a correction to be made. I don’t believe in error, per se – it’s more a question of keeping at it until I know it’s right.
LR: You have done, for example, over 150 paintings of Philip Glass’s face and you have always stayed within the format of one large photograph of a face. What is the reason for this repetition?
CC: It’s true that in my paintings and prints – thus far anyway – I have focused on what I call ‘heads’, but I don’t think of them as portraits. A photograph of a head is something that doesn’t change – unlike what happens with a live sitter. For me, with my face blindness, each time someone shifts just an inch, it is an entirely new thing. With a photograph, I can focus on the increments of each integer of the image within the confines of the grid – it’s a way of transferring information from one place to another.
LR: Your show at the MCA presents your new series of Jacquard tapestries. How did you come to this medium?
CC: I always loved tapestries. I love the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York. When I was using the big 40 x 80 Polaroid camera at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I discovered that this camera was officially used by the conservators to record the backs of the tapestries in the collection, because the backs showed the colours before the work was faded or stained. I thought that was really interesting. My first tapestry project was Phil made in 1991. My friends Sol and Carol Lewitt went to China and brought back a little silk tapestries of Mao, which because of the way it was loomed in black and white, looked like the black and white etching plates I was making in the studio, scratching through the ground in negative to make positives. A friend helped me find the factory in China that had made the Mao, and we worked together to make Phil.
I met Donald Farnsworth in 1972, and reconnected in 2003, at which time he had been working with weavings. He approached me with the idea of making tapestries. I wasn’t sold at first, but he was persistent, and convinced me to try. We started relatively simply, but over the course of time we have pushed this medium to incredible heights, getting nuance and detail we hadn’t thought possible.
Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration, MCA, Sydney, 20 November 2014 – 15 March 2015.
An edited version of this article was published by Art and Australia in November 2014.