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Remembering Acclaimed American Painter Chuck Close

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. We're going to remember artist Chuck Close, who died last week at the age of 81. Regarded as one of the leading artists of his generation, he was known for his giant, larger-than-life hyper-realist renderings of faces. They were based on photographs he'd taken initially of his friends, who included Philip Glass and Lou Reed. Later, Bill Clinton was the subject of one of his paintings. Close's best-known portrait is of himself. Up close, his 9-foot paintings looked like a patchwork of abstract dots, circles or squiggles. But when viewed from a distance, the painting would coalesce into a face rendered with photographic precision.

In 1988, Chuck Close suffered a collapsed spinal artery, which at first left him paralyzed from the neck down. After a partial recovery, he was able to paint from his wheelchair, using brushes strapped to his hand. Four years ago, Close faced charges of sexual harassment, charges made by several women who had been in his studio. He apologized and acknowledged that he had spoken crudely to women about their body parts, claiming that this was in the context of evaluating them as possible subjects for a painting.

According to a New York Times obituary of Close, he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2013. Two years later, it was further diagnosed as frontotemporal dementia. His neurologist was quoted as saying that Close's inappropriate conduct could be attributed to that disease. Terry Gross spoke to Chuck Close in 1998, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York was showing a retrospective of his work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Let's try to describe what's happening formally in your paintings. Your paintings are built not of, like, big elaborate brushstrokes, but of little dots or little circles. And it's the accumulation of all these dots or circles or squiggles, depending on the period that we're looking at, that kind of together add up to the larger structure of a face. But all the components are just really small dots or squiggles or bits of color.

CHUCK CLOSE: There's no there's no direct relationship between the photograph that I work from - the imagery that's embedded in that photograph - and the marks that occur on the canvas. It's a little bit like translating from one language to the next. If you were to translate it directly, it might not make any sense. You sort of have to understand it in one language and then deconstruct it and reconstruct it in the new format. And of course, paintings don't happen the same way a photograph happens. Photo - paintings are built. And my paintings are built incrementally, one unit at a time in a way that's not all that different from, say, the way a writer would work. That is, there's never any time that a writer is doing anything more than slamming one word up against the next and rejecting one word and slipping another one in and seeing how that works. And because I work incrementally, I do the same thing. I push little pieces of paint up against each other. And I work essentially from the top down, from left to right. And I build - I slowly build these paintings, construct them the way somebody might make a quilt or crochet or knit.

GROSS: I want to talk a little bit more about the faces themselves, the way you paint the faces themselves. You've said that you try to see the faces neutrally without opinion or subjectivity, without editorializing in any way about the face. And yet the face always reads in some way to me. I see the faces very subjectively, even though you as the painter didn't see them (laughter) subjectively. Talk with me about the approach that that you're taking to the subject matter of not kind of imposing any kind of feeling or point of view.

CLOSE: Well, it's not that I'm uninterested in the psychological reading of the paintings. I just don't want to lobby for one reading over all others, and to present them straightforwardly and flatfootedly without editorial comment, without cranking it up for extra psychological readings or without drawing big circles around things, saying make sure you see it this way, I sort of leave it to the viewer, to, you know, to read the image. And I believe that a person's face is a kind of roadmap to their life. And embedded in the imagery is a great deal of evidence, if you want to decode it. If a person has laughed his or her whole life, they'll have laugh lines. If they've frowned their whole lives, they have furrows in their brow. And it's not necessary for me to have them laughing or crying or anything in order to have people be able to read them.

GROSS: Your canvas is very large, and because you include every detail of a person's face, every line and wrinkle and pucker and pore, every flaw is included, or what we would consider a flaw is not only included, but it's kind of enlarged because the painting is so large. And that's part of what I find so fascinating. The faces are so real and recognizable. Looking at one of your faces in a painting, it's a lot like looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror with the kind of harsh lighting that you have there, and you see everything. So there's something so recognizable about the landscape of the faces, the way you paint them.

CLOSE: Well, yeah, I - we don't stand close enough to each other. We don't invade each other's space enough to really be able to see the intimate level of detail that I typically put in one of these paintings, because they're, in fact, usually 9 feet high. So if there's more information than you ever really wanted to know about someone, and it makes it perhaps a more intimate experience. I make these - try to make these big, aggressive, confrontational images that you can see from clear across the room. And you have one kind of relationship with it there and then another relationship at a middle viewing distance where you scan it, and you can't readily see the thing as a whole.

And then hopefully I've sucked the viewer right up to the canvas, where you can see the individual marks and the methodology, how it got there. But in a way, what I've tried to do is make something, rip it loose from the context in which we normally see it and make a kind of Brobdingnagian world, whereas the viewer behaves almost like one of Gulliver's Lilliputians crawling across the landscape of the face, not even necessarily always being aware of what it is that they're crawling across, stumbling across - stumbling on a beard hair and falling into a nostril. That makes it for a very active and very personal physical experience for the viewer, I think.

GROSS: You know, we think of classical painters as having wanted to paint models who were beautiful. But it's not, you know, classic beauty that interests you in faces.

CLOSE: Well, I, you know, I'm not looking for the grotesque or the ugly. I think...

GROSS: I think you're looking for the fact of the face.

CLOSE: Well, I'm looking for every man, every woman. I first painted my friends - usually, they're artists - because they were anonymous. And I didn't want, you know, Warhol was painting superstars and movie stars. And the history and traditions of portraiture have often been the wealthy, the famous, popes, presidents. And I wanted regular people that we didn't know. Unfortunately or fortunately for them, many of them managed to get famous on me. And they became much more recognizable, at least within the art community. And now I don't worry that much about trying to find anonymous people. And so many of my friends have become well-known, I just paint them as they come.

GROSS: I've read that you've had a learning disability that's affected your ability to actually recognize faces in real life.

CLOSE: Yeah. I think I was probably driven to do what I do because I do have a great deal of difficulty recognizing faces. I have almost photographic vision for things that are two-dimensional, which is probably why I work from photographs instead of working from life. But I believe I was driven to painting the portrait at least partially by a desire to commit to memory and to really understand and scan the images of people that I care about because I do have this trouble recognizing faces. And, of course, I don't remember their names either. So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLOSE: ...I'm in big trouble.

GROSS: So one of the reasons why you paint from photographs is because you recognize faces better in two dimensions than in three. So it's easier for you to use a picture than a model. Are there other reasons why you work from photographs for your painting?

CLOSE: Yeah. When you paint from life for an extended period of time - and my paintings have taken as long as 12 or 14 months and routinely now take three or four months each - if you work from life, the subject gains weight and lose weight. The hair gets long, and they cut it off. And they're happy. They're sad. They're awake. They're asleep. And the painting becomes a kind of mean average of all the changes that the model went through, plus whatever feelings you have for them while they're occupying your space. I would hate to have this subject in my studio for a year.

So the paint - the photograph, gives me an opportunity to have a poem-like frozen moment of time, sort of cuts across time, a hundredth of a second. And there's something of the freshness and the immediacy of that hundredth of a second is still there hopefully in the finished painting, which I construct over a more novelistic time frame. And it allows me to just keep working and to always refer back to the original photograph to see whether I actually saw what I thought I saw.

GROSS: Now, tell us a little bit about the way you work with grids when you're painting a face from a photograph.

CLOSE: Well, the use of a grid as a scaling-up method goes back to ancient Egypt and was, of course, used in the Renaissance and used all along as a way to take a small drawing or a preparatory sketch and enlarge it by having smaller squares on the preparatory sketch and bigger ones on the painting. It's just a way to scale up an image. But at a - and all of my work from the 1960s on have been built with the use of a grid. I don't use a projector or anything like that to get an image on. But at a certain point, I decided to let the grid remain a visible part of the image.

Initially, I would get rid of the grid, so nobody knew that I used it. But at a certain point, I began to leave the incremental unit to show. And I found all kinds of ways from using my own fingerprints to gluing on little wads of pulp paper to any one of a number of ways of working incrementally and letting the individual unit show. One of the things I like about working that way is that there's nothing about the building block which says anything about what's going to be made from it.

GROSS: Exactly. Right exactly.

CLOSE: There's no mark that equals hair. There's no mark that equals skin or anything else. It's a little bit like an architect choosing a brick. The brick doesn't determine anything about what kind of building will be built from it. You stack up the bricks one way and you make a gas station, or you stack up the bricks another way and you can build a cathedral. Both of them will be very different experiences. But it wasn't the brick that determined the nature of that experience.

BIANCULLI: Artist Chuck Close speaking to Terry Gross in 1998 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1998 interview with artist Chuck Close. He died last week at age 81. His giant paintings of faces were made up of smaller units of squiggles, circles and other shapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So what suits your personality about working in these smaller units, one dot at a time or one grid at a time?

CLOSE: Well, you know, actually, I'm a nervous wreck.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLOSE: I'm a slob. I'm - I have no patience. And I'm rather lazy. All of those things would seem to guarantee that I would not make work like I make. But I felt I didn't want to just go with my nature and say, well, that's what I am. I can only make big, sloppy, nervous, quick paintings. I thought to construct a situation in which I couldn't behave that way was also to address my nature.

But I found that one of the nice things about working this way, working incrementally, is that I don't have to reinvent the wheel every single day. Today I did what I did yesterday. And tomorrow I'll do what I do today. You can pick it up and put it down. I don't have to wait for inspiration. There are no good days or bad days.

And I'm - every day essentially builds positively on what I did the day before. In some ways, I think it's rather like what used to be called women's work. That is quilting, crocheting, knitting or whatever. And the advantage of that way of working was that women could knit for a while, put it down, go feed the baby, come back and pick it up and knit a little more and then put it down and go out and weed the garden.

And it was - it allowed for a way to just keep working. If a belief in a process - for instance, how do you make a sweater? Oh, my God. I wouldn't know how to make a sweater. But if you believe in the process and you knit one and you purl two long enough, eventually, you get a sweater. And I think given my nature, it was very good for me to have a way to work in which I was able to add to what I already had and slowly construct the final image out of these little building blocks.

GROSS: What's amazing is if you were the kind of painter who did canvases with big virtuoso brush strokes, you would have never been able to keep up with that once you lost your movement. But because you work in these small kind of dots or circles or squiggles and use those as building blocks, you're still, with that paintbrush strapped to your hand, able to do more or less the same style of painting that you did before.

CLOSE: Right. I was lucky that the way I was working was ideally suited for the condition I found myself in. The one thing that I haven't been able to do - and it does bring me considerable upset - is that because I don't - my fingers don't move, I haven't found a way to really draw because drawing requires much more of the wrist and the movement of the fingers for a kind of nuanced kind of control. But painting, you really do with your whole arm anyhow, and you move with your shoulder and your elbow more than you do your wrist and fingers.

GROSS: How do you think your style or your vision has changed in the nine years that you've been paralyzed?

CLOSE: Well, I don't think there's been much change at all. The one area in which there might be some change is that I think there - because I have so many more eggs in this basket, there are so many things that I can't do that I used to enjoy doing, luckily, painting is - if I had to pick one thing that I could still do, it certainly would be painting. And luckily, that I can do. But I guess there is a slightly increased sense of celebration in the work, a more celebratory aspect to it, because I am so pleased to be able to still work. And I've - I enjoy the activity so much. And in fact, the days and hours that I paint fly by, and the times that I'm doing other things move at glacial speed. And those times drag on.

GROSS: Because you don't have much movement now at all and you have to paint with the brushes strapped onto your wrist, have you given a lot of thought to how much painting is something that happens in your mind and how much is something that happens with your hands?

CLOSE: Well, somebody told me in the hospital - and I don't remember who it is - that, oh, you'll be all right because you paint with your head and not with your hands. And I thought, oh, easy for you to say, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

CLOSE: And I thought, gee, that's like something that came out of a fortune cookie or something.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLOSE: I was actually quite annoyed that they had this kind of throwaway answer for my very severe problem. But in fact, you know, they were right. Once you know what art looks like, you can figure out how to make some of it. And it's just a question of adaptation.

I would like to say, also, that part of my ability to get back to work is largely due to the fact that I am and have been for 30 years a very successful artist and have made a lot of money. And I can afford to equip myself with what's necessary to be able to get back to work. I can have a totally wheelchair-accessible studio. I can hire assistants who can get me where I want to go. And I still make the paintings entirely by myself. My assistants don't help me paint, but they help me with all the other things.

So if this were to happen to another artist who was not as recognized and celebrated as I was and not as financially successful as I was, no matter how much they might have wished to get back to work, it may have been an impossibility. So again, I think that I'm very lucky.

GROSS: Chuck Close, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much for talking with us.

CLOSE: Thanks. Thanks very much.

BIANCULLI: Chuck Close speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. The pioneering artist died August 19 at age 81.

After a break, we remember war correspondent and war hero Joe Galloway, who died last week at age 79, and Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who died Tuesday at age 80. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL RIESMAN'S "IN THE UPPER ROOM: DANCE II") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.