by Sukanya DebJan 15, 2023
The year 2021 witnessed the passing of another icon in the world of art, Chuck Close. His death on August 19 came as a result of congestive heart failure at the age of 81, preceded by a creative legacy. Close was a painter and photographer whose style embodied the highest calibre of photorealistic painting. Close was born in Monroe, Washington in the United States and continued to live and work in America with a brief stay in Vienna where he formally studied painting at Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien (1964) on a Fulbright grant. Prior to this he was a student at the University of Washington and then Yale in 1963. As a child, he suffered from dyslexia and used painting as a method to release and sublimate his emotional and mental energies.
Close garnered reputation as a noteworthy artist during the 70s and 80s. His career was ignited with inspiration from artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Arshile Gorky. Although Close developed a style which can be considered figurative, his influence from abstract artists lent an Expressionist style to his work. Close was known for his large format portraits, which looked to capture people with intimate detail. He often photographed and painted people who were his friends, and within his social circle. A few examples include Philip Glass, Bill Clinton, Cindy Sherman and Lou Reed. In 1960s he began to paint self-portraits as well, which eventually became his most famous works. Close generally used photography to compose his images, following which he would superimpose a grid which enabled him to translate the image onto massive canvases while maintaining proportion and realism.
Close mostly used airbrushes to effectively achieve depth in his images but explored a wide range of media such as watercolour, oil paint, acrylic paint, pulp paper and more. Although he worked primarily with grayscale, he eventually began to incorporate colour into his images. During one specific phase in his career, Close would create portraits using only three colours - cyan, magenta and yellow, applying one colour at a time on the canvas. This rendered an aesthetic similar to print formats, as seen in newspapers. Later, he even developed the fingerprint technique in which he would ink his thumb and forefinger, using them to create a range of subtle greys, instead of brush tools. Close gained renown in the art world primarily for crafting numerous innovative methods of portraiture, taking the art form to new heights. His careful attention to detail moved each work to a space of vulnerability, particularly effectively for the viewer, a feeling amplified by the large scale of the work. The scale of the work, up to nine or ten feet high, added a sense of confrontation to the interaction, and even an invasion of personal space.
In 1988, Close suffered from a spinal artery collapse which left him almost completely paralysed. For the rest of his life, he was confined to a wheelchair. Naturally, this is a significant blow to anyone. It is possibly even worse for an artist who requires physical agility in order to create his works. After extensive rehabilitation, he was able to return to practicing as an artist with a brush-like device attached to his forearm. He would use velcro to attach brushes to his arm, which significantly transformed his aesthetic. His oeuvre shifted to a more loose style, much preferred by most critics. In a feature in an edition of Times in 1998, Close has been quoted saying, “My entire life is held together by velcro”. By the early 1990s he had returned to his exploration of portraiture. He began to work with silk tapestry and by the early 21st century was engaging with Jacquard tapestry. In 2013, Close began to develop frontotemporal dementia.
As significant as Close’s contribution to the landscape of art history has been, it does not come without controversy. Like many others, Close was also called out in the #MeToo movement which spread like wildfire across the globe after Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of many sexual crimes. Although this social justice uprising began in Hollywood, it spread to many countries, and seeped into all industries both creative and otherwise. Many visual artists were also named in this worldwide scandal, including Chuck Close. Close was accused of inappropriate behaviour and lewd comments by multiple female models who worked in his studio.
Although Close made a public apology, the incident brings up questions of the boundaries between art and artist. With multiple notable artists coming under this light, we are fraught with this conundrum - is the artist to be held accountable along with their art? Are we morally bound to boycott the oeuvre of an artist, no matter how relevant their work may be? How does one draw the line between personal behaviour of the artist and the narrative value held by the artwork itself? While this question is under continued debate, we can certainly hold galleries and museums as well as other institutions for propagating and supporting more female artists and artists of colour, encouraging the viewer and the buyer to reconsider the hegemonic structure of the white male driven art world.
It is often that the larger the name is, the more disappointing it is when their reputation is tarnished by such an occurrence. It is of vital importance that power, fame and renown are not abused by the holder regardless of creed, colour, class or race within the walls of any social or industrial structure. While I do not enjoy writing about an artist’s misdeeds on a day that should be dedicated to remembering his contribution to the history of art, the intention is to remind us all of the complexities of art versus artist, as well as the responsibilities of being in a position of power and negotiating fame and influence.