Who’s Here: Painter Chuck Close

Chuck Close
Chuck Close, Photo: Patrick McMullen

The Hamptons has been home to many of the world’s most respected artists at some point during their careers, but few are as esteemed as Chuck Close. The 73-year-old painter has spent most of the last four decades mastering his unique style of portraiture and remarkable ability to bridge the abstract and photorealistic on one canvas.

Through some strange alchemy Close manages to combine hundreds of multicolored, organic shapes into nearly perfect, lifelike representations of his subjects—and it has made him famous.

These paintings are typically quite large and achieve an almost faceted look, as if the viewer is seeing his subject behind thick, polygonal glass. But the image changes and breaks down upon approach. The whole becomes a varied collection of marks and color separated into a patchwork of individual cells.

“I always liked the difference between artificiality and reality,” Close says of the duality in his work, which deftly exhibits both an abstract and representational sensibility. “One of the reasons I didn’t like being called a realist is that I was as interested in the artificial as I was in the real,” he adds, noting later, “All paintings are artificial, mine more so than most.”

It was Close’s love of the abstract that led him to the East End of Long Island, where he lived and worked for decades before moving to his current home in the city of Long Beach.

In the early 1970s, Close and his then wife Leslie Rose and daughter Georgia Molly (his second daughter, Maggie Sarah, was born in ’84) followed his abstract expressionist heroes to East Hampton. “I was really a diehard de Kooning fan, and slightly less of a Pollock fan, but I just wanted to go out and see what de Kooning was talking about in terms of the light,” he says, recalling that de Kooning said the light reminded him of Rotterdam, his birthplace in the Netherlands.

“So I went out there, and at first we stayed at a restaurant, at a hotel that burned down on Main Beach called the Seaspray Inn—the Lobster Inn was the restaurant in there, the same one as in Southampton, and there were cabins. And we rented a cabin on the beach,” Close remembers, noting that they bought property in Springs and rented in King’s Point, but eventually bought a home on Newtown Lane in the Village of East Hampton.

“We had a small child, and getting her into town for nursery school or summer camp was like 14 miles that I didn’t want to drive, so we decided not to build there [in Springs].”

About 10 years later, Close bought a home in Bridgehampton, where his ex-wife still resides. “I built a house on the ocean in Long Beach. And it’s really the un-Hamptons, let me tell you,” he said. “It’s working class, it’s cops and firemen.”

Even today, Close still names de Kooning as a primary influence. “My favorite painter was always—well, the mirror—but also de Kooning. I like Dutch painters.”

And if one looks beyond the initial impression, Close’s work reflects his love of abstraction. Close says he’s pleased when a painting “rifts back and forth between a flat reading and marks on the surface,” especially when the marks work to produce the image he sets out to create. “That for me is a real pleasure of painting.”

The artist never named his style or method of painting, but he’s quick to point out that his paintings came before the pixelated digital images they so closely resemble.

“I predate pixel,” Close says. “I was doing them first. It was my idea that a computer could do it,” he continues. “In fact, at MIT the program that they use to make images out of other things, the little images that make big ones—that’s called a Chuck Close program.”

It’s also said that Close’s early airbrushing techniques contributed to the development of ink jet printers.

The artist recalls his shock the first time he saw a pixelated image on the cover of Scientific American. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, now everybody’s going to think I used a machine to do it,’” Close remembers. “But I’ve tried to set the record straight ever since, that I came first.”

Close painted his first faceted canvas (like “Emma” on the cover of this week’s issue) around 1984, but he began developing his process of creating photorealistic portraits from painterly marks in 1967.

The writings of painter Ad Reinhardt were profoundly inspiring to Close in those early years, when he threw out his paintbrush in order to use less traditional tools. “He gave me a way to work, introducing the idea of self-imposed limitations,” Close says. “It’s always more interesting what you can’t do than what you can do. The choice not to do something is usually more important and it will move you from where you are to making something different. It kicks open a door and you can go through it.”

Without the help of computers, Close follows a meticulous process of breaking a photograph into a grid and then laboriously recreating that grid, in a grander scale, on canvas. From there, each square within the grid is reproduced in a larger, typically more abstract format. The resulting image can be as much like a photo as he desires, but Close’s true genius lies in what makes his paintings different from their source.

Close’s eye for those indefinable nuances, the life behind a face, is of equal import to his inimitable style. One could follow him technically, but without a powerful subject the work would fall flat.

“Many are called and few are chosen,” he says, explaining that he usually photographs friends, family and other artists. “I shoot lots and lots of people—many more than I’ll ever paint. And then I wait for one of those images to float to the surface and demand to be painted. Some just need to be painted.”

But finding the right person isn’t always enough. “It’s interesting because sometimes there’s somebody I really, really want to paint, but I won’t get a good photograph to work from,” Close says. “Sometimes the sitter sabotages the photograph. They just will not allow themselves to be taken,” he says. “They may feel like they have to do it for me and they really don’t want to do it. There’s all kinds of unconscious sabotage as well.”

In spite of his best effort and intention, Close says some subjects just don’t work out. “The problem is that I photograph somebody and they think it’s a contract and there will be a painting. And they’re really disappointed if I don’t paint them.”

Close will not paint anything or anyone he doesn’t want to paint. He doesn’t do commissions and he has little interest in painting celebrities, with the exception of a few famous friends, but Close does on occasion photograph celebs for magazines.

Locally, Chuck Close ‘s work can be seen in the permanent collection of the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, and a large show of recent paintings, prints and tapestries is on view at Guild Hall through October 14, 2013.

Chuck Close portrait of his niece Emma
Chuck Close portrait of his niece Emma, Photo Courtesy Guild Hall

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