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Chuck Close: Close and Closer

September 13, 2010

I can’t possibly be the first to note the irony in the artist’s name. Here you are (above), nose to nose — literally, as you’ll see in a moment — with a print by Chuck Close hanging last week in D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Note the nursery palette, which makes sense when you look at this next shot, taken from a few steps back:

There’s no Anglo angle to Chuck Close, but this was such a cool show, I had to blog about it.

Close was termed a “photorealist” when he burst into popular consciousness in the ’70s with his monumental, pixellated close-ups of friends and fellow artists. (“Pore-traits?”)

But photorealism’s a misnomer,  or at least reductive, as this fascinating — and, alas, just ended — Corcoran retrospective demonstrates. (The show originated with the Blaffer Gallery. Not clear where it will come to light again next. But you tour it and hear Close’s narration in a video, here.) What really made the show, in addition to expansive gallery spaces that permitted not just nose-to-nose eyeballing but lots of backward pacing for broad perspectives, was its focus on process.

Five myths about Chuck Close:

  1. Chuck Close is “just” painting from photographs, graphically recreating them on a monumental scale.
  2. Chuck Close is just painting at all: The works featured in “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration” did include at least one canvas — the template for a print series — but the rest consisted of prints, sketches, reduction (linoleum) blocks, paper collages, mylar stencils, wood cuts and even a carpet.
  3. Chuck Close works in _______ [insert medium here]. He can’t be pinned down that way. Close’s media range from traditional etchings, aquatints, lithographs, silk screens, wood cuts and reduction-block prints to hand-dyed paper pulp collages and the afore-mentioned throw rug.
  4. Alex Katz, by CC

  5. Chuck Close delegates the artistic heavy lifting. It’s true that Close works closely with a California print studio to realize his works (the machinery alone — giant presses and the like, shown in exhibition videos and photos — must require a hangar-sized space). But the vision is his and he is highly involved in the print-making process. That makes a difference when the process proves unpredictable, as in the almost shiny, plastic-looking monotint reduction prints of painter Alex Katz that resulted when giant linoleum blocks cracked and the printers resorted to using the stencils that remained.
  6. So, credit belongs to Chuck Close alone. The making and manipulating of complex stencils, plates and cut-wood blocks in layers and layers of color that go into Close’s brobdingnagian studies require an artistry in themselves, hence the word “collaboration” in the show’s name.  Close’s reliance on master printer Yasu Shibata to render the above portrait his niece, Emma, which Shibata calls “the biggest woodblock ever made,” is a good example.

Speaking of Emma and woodblock prints, you may have heard the medium discussed before by another name, ukiyo-e. And you have probably seen what may be the most famous ukiyo-e ever, Hokusai’s The Wave, from the early 19th-century:

The exhibition shows how Close and Shibata got from the original cut and dyed blocks — like this one:

and this:

to this:

Chuck Close, "Emma" 2002, woodblock


One Comment leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    September 20, 2010 7:13 pm

    Thank you, Mandy, for reminding me how much I love Close.

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