Chuck Close: Models Object to How He Asked Them to Disrobe

Chuck Close
Chuck Close, Photo: Patrick McMullen

The celebrated artist Chuck Close, who had a studio in Bridgehampton, has been accused of sexually inappropriate behavior by several of his models. The accusers say they were invited to audition at his studio as models—he is known for his portraits and nude studies, both in photographs and in paint—and he then asked them to take off their clothes.

One accuser says that in his wheelchair—he is a quadriplegic—he came in “uncomfortably close proximity” to her body and then made inappropriate remarks about some of her body parts. In one case, a woman said he told her she had a “beautiful” vagina. Another woman, offended by what he said, said she simply got herself dressed and headed out the door, refusing to take $200 that she says he offered as she left. Two of his accusers said they had no idea his work involved unclothed nudes.

Close admitted that he has, as The New York Times wrote, “spoken to women candidly and even crudely about their body parts.” But as frequent displays at galleries show, especially of his photographs, his nudes of men or women are often raw, sexual and startling. Obviously it is impossible to paint or photograph a nude model without having a model take their clothes off.

Reaction to these charges has been swift, some of it designed to shun him. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has indefinitely postponed the show of his work that was scheduled to begin in May. Seattle University has removed a self-portrait painted by Close from its campus.

In New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will not alter its selection of Close for an upcoming show. And in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which currently is showing “Chuck Close Photographs,” says it will continue to show his work, though it will shortly mount a second show addressing gender, power and the politics in the workplace studio directly outside the Close show.

Clint Jukkala, who is Fine Arts Dean at the museum, wrote that the controversy is “a productive, cathartic and immensely educational conversation (that prompted) concrete steps.”

There has also been interesting commentary about this elsewhere.

Sheena Wagstaff, the Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, “If we only see abuse when looking at a work of art, then we have created a reductive situation in which art is stripped of its intrinsic worth—and which in turn provokes the fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be.”

A former columnist for Newsday, retired arts writer Steve Parks, had this to say in Newsday, referencing the alleged encounters Chuck Close had with these models:

“Almost no one argues that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements weren’t long overdue, and that the cause of aggrieved women is a righteous one, supported by men who agree that many of their gender egregiously misbehave in or out of the workplace.

“But like any movement, particularly ones that have gone viral in this social-media-driven new day, an excess of righteousness can creep in along the fringes. Not every perceived offense, or even actual offense, should draw the penalty of a ruined career or irretrievable reputation.”

He pointed out that since Close is a quadriplegic, he is powerless to physically stop anybody. An offended woman can simply get dressed and walk out or decline to undress at all.

Close himself has commented on the situation. He said highly personal interactions between himself and his models are an essential part of his artistic process. He has denied making certain comments, but he also said he is apologetic if women were uncomfortable because of him.

“I’ve never had a complaint in 50 years,” he told The New York Times. “Not one. Last time I looked, discomfort was not a major offense. I never reduced anyone to tears, no one ever ran out of the place. If I embarrassed anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, I am truly sorry. I didn’t mean to. I acknowledge having a dirty mouth, but we’re all adults.”

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