Chuck Close: Research Into Illusion

By David Portz

Chuck Close: Works on Paper was an exhibition at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum from February 9 – April 21, 1985.
Since 1968, Chuck Close has been producing huge views of deadpan faces, transcribed from one or another of fifteen photographs the size of his hand. T his spring, the Contemporary Art Museum presented an exhibition that gave special emphasis to images composed by Close in handmade paper, which he has produced since 1981 with the help of Joseph Wilfer.
Different shades of liquefied paper pulp were sorted onto a grid pattern atop a background paper sheet to duplicate the tones of a black-and-white photographic original. The technique represents one of Close’s most recent explorations of the requisites of a photographic image.
Close is grouped with artists called Photo-Realists because of their use of photographs to fix the content of their images. Instead of blocking out their works from sketches or studies from life, the Photo-Realists transferred photographic information directly to canvas or paper by mechanical techniques. Some used slide projectors to guide their tracing. Others printed images on photo-sensitized canvas, which could then be painted. Certain Photo-Realists, including Close, transferred information from the squares of a grid on a photo to a similar grid imposed upon their work. The grid technique is organic to Close’s work.
Photo-Realist art is said to take for its subject the photograph itself, and to preserve the qualities of a photo. One can observe in Photo-Realist paintings a photographic clarity and flatness of surface, and a duplication of photographic focus, perspective, and depth of field. The Photo-Realists were considered unprecedented in their success at capturing exact instants in paint, for example, the appearance of reflections in shop windows. Photographs captured for these artists certain visual data which was subject to change with the painter’s shift of position or the passage of time.
Close’s huge works, often taking several months to complete, depended on the photographic isolation of a face’s age and appearance.
Though many artists use Photo-Realist methods today, the initiators of Photo-Realism were using the techniques in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was still at that time a significant prejudice against painting from or using photographs. Artists generally credited with initiating Photo-Realism include, in addition to Close, Malcolm Morley, Audrey Flack, Richard Estes, Don Eddy, Robert Becthle, Ron Kleeman, Ralph Goings, Tom Blackwell, Leland Bell, Richard McClean, and John Satt. Other principals in the Photo-Realist shows and catalogs were Joseph Raffael, Ben Schonzeit, Lowell Nesbitt, Jack Mendehal, Howard Kanowitz, James Valerio, and Robert Kottingham, though these tended to soften the photographic qualities.
These artists gravitated to realism from the Abstract Expressionism they were taught, preserving often some visual affinities with Pop Art. The Pop predilections show up in their choices of photographic subject matter, i.e. gleaming dragsters and motorcycles, wrecked cars, small town diners, window signs, and neon marquees.
Chuck Close’s works are closer to Minimalist influences than to Pop. The grid technique demystifies the image and makes every section of the canvas equally important particularly when grid remains visible in the completed work.
Minimalists endeavored, as does Close, to produce an image solely by mechanical means — by simple repetitive operations used to transfer the image to the canvas and minimize the artist’s special discretion.
Close’s first paintings were done with an airbrush. These were very close duplications of black-and-white photographs using only one or two tablespoons of paint. In the early seventies he completed several exacting transcriptions of color photographs, using watercolors or pastels. The bulk of his work, however, has emphasized the presence of the grid, and has employed a variety of marking techniques to transfer the images with a vague tonal longhand. The compositions in different tones of paper pulp ignore photographic focus. The faces slide in and out of recognition, becoming sometimes mottled squares of gray. Close achieves different surfaces on his paper works by drying some of them in a press, while air-drying others for a more dramatic surface. In his “manipulated’ images, he blends the moist pulp with his fingers to contort the tones and grid. Most disconcerting perhaps is the face of his daughter, composed of pulp with his fingers to contort the tone and grid. Most disconcerting perhaps is the face of his daughter, composed of pulp which dripped to the floor and dried into chips while he was completing other work.
Close has concentrated on photographs of expressionless faces, invariably those of his family and friends. The large scale and anonymity of these persons tend to prevent a superficial recognition of the individual, which would allow one to ignore the image and technique. Several of the faces have no gained their own iconographic status because of the wide exposure Close’s works have received. (Ironically, one face is famous not only because of Close’s image, but because it belongs to a major composer: “Phil” is Phillip Glass). Rather than switching from image to image, or visage to visage, he has worked the same faces with different techniques, including the air brush and bristle brush, etching tools, pastels, watercolors, his own fingerprints, and now the hand-made paper. “Close owns the photo-derived, deadpan face with all the variations he can muster,” wrote John Perrault in a recent essay, “On Chuck Close,” published in Chuck Close by Pace Gallery Publications in 1983.
If Chuck Close owns all the photo-derived deadpan faces, we may well ask what sort of faces fall out of his domain. He has sometimes departed his mimicry of photographic images to do large photographs themselves, large Polaroids. Though somewhat out of his avowed thesis, perhaps he owns large photographs of faces, too. But he doesn’t yet own portraits. Or at least he doesn’t think f his image as portraits, according to his own comments published in the May 1984 issue of Artforum. I believe this means he isn’t really attempting to reveal character or personality in the faces he depicts.
Close’s various statements in that same issue of Artforum particularly manifest this intellectual interest in how an image is built. “There is no device that one can rely on to make an illusion. It’s only the way those clusters of mark begin to build a ‘situation’ that stands for hair…Part of what I’ve done here is break down the steps necessary to build an illusion.” The notion that Close’s painstaking efforts relate to a larger question of how photographic images are transmitted has been advanced throughout his career by various advocates. Yet the actual revelations are never discussed.
One must be suspicious of pseudo-scientific rationales garnered to beguile the viewer’s respect. The synthesis of a picture’s information pertains more to the brain’s perceptual operation than with manner of execution of the picture itself. Regardless of the high-sounding toot behind Chuck Close’s work, I respect his diligence and enjoy his techniques. I find his images memorable too.