Dec 26, 2013
01:52 PM
Arts & Entertainment

Graphic Art of Chuck Close on View at Bruce Museum in Greenwich

Graphic Art of Chuck Close on View at Bruce Museum in Greenwich

Chuck Close (American, b. 1940) Lucas/Woodcut, 1993 Woodcut with pochoir, 46 1/4 x 36 in. Private Collection, New York . © Chuck Close, courtesy Pace Gallery

A small print on a printed or digital page can give only a bare hint of to what it is like to experience one of Chuck Close’s works face to face.

It helps to stand as close as ten inches or as far as ten feet away, or maybe twenty feet away, in order to see the huge difference that distance makes. Up close you see the surface texture and technique, farther back you see the overall effect.

When Close received his Master in Fine Arts from Yale in 1964, it was fashionable for the art world to look down their noses at any art that wasn’t abstract, but Close and his contemporaries broke away from the influence of painters like Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, according to Kenneth E. Silver, curator of the Bruce Museum’s exhibit called Closer: The Graphic Art of Chuck Close. “His generation looked at abstract expressionism as out-of-date, a little corny, overly subjective, and his generation wanted to be able to take images from the real world and use them in their art,” said Silver.

Closer: The Graphic Art of Chuck Close is on view in the museum's main Love, Newman/Wild Galleries through January 5, and
the portion on view in the Lecture Gallery continues through January 26, 2014

At a time when portraiture was considered passé, Close chose the human face as his subject. Or perhaps it chose him. He has a condition called prosopagnosia, which means it is difficult for him to recognize faces. “I’m sure it’s no accident that I ended up painting portraits,” Close said. (Above, Chuck Close (American, b. 1940) Self-Portrait/Woodcut, 2002 43-color woodcut with pochoir on Nishinouchi paper, 31 x 25 in. Collection of Kristin Heming.  © Chuck Close, courtesy Pace Gallery.)

Family, friends and, very frequently, he, himself, were his constant subjects. He chose himself, not out of vanity, suggests curator Silver, but because he was always handy and available. 

The other constant of Close’s work is that he photographed his subjects first and then transferred the image to paper or canvas by means of a grid. While artists have used grids for hundreds of years, Close “was the first one in any media to leave the grid exposed. It leaves a record of his working process,” said assistant curator Margarita Karasoulas.

Freed of the burden of choosing a subject, Close was free to explore myriad processes. He has made prints in just about every media. He made a mezzotint in 1970 because, he said, “No one’s done one in 100 years.” He has made woodcuts, silkscreen, and lithographs, using pulp paper, spitbite aquatint, and his thumb. Because print-making is a collaborative process, Close has worked with print-makers the world over.

Close “not only raises print making to a new level but aside from that, he increases the scale and makes them much larger objects,” said Silver.

Indeed, a self-portrait made first as a daguerreotype, then translated by Belgium weavers into a tapestry, is about 8 ½ by 6 ½ feet, and amazingly, it actually looks like a photograph. One has to be really close to see that the 2006 portrait is not.

“Self-Portrait/Felt Hand Stamp,” 2012, is 33 ½ by 27 ½ inches, and is created by applying thick, oil-based pigments with a felt-tipped wooden dowel. The paint is applied in three layers and the printers use charts to standardize the placement of the paint.

Particularly unusual is the 1984 portrait, “Georgia.” It’s actually a collage. Close was working with a papermill to make pulp paper, but the wet pulp spilled and congealed on the floor, creating small one-inch curled chips with irregular edges. He picked up the chips, sorted them by color—various shades of grey and cream--and later made the 56 x 44 inch collage of his daughter.

Had the pulp not spilled, it would have become the intended liquid, of the type that he used for his portraits of Phillip Glass on handmade paper, Phil I, II, and III. Indeed, Close made so many portraits of Glass with his slightly wild “Medusa-like” hair that Glass joked that he was to Close, as haystacks were to Monet.

“Lucas,” a woodcut, made in 1993, is unusual in that the grid is actually concentric, with the focal point just between the eyes. It creates a devilish look. The European print-maker carved numerous blocks of wood and used a viscous, oil-based ink that more closely matches the color and texture of the original painting upon which the print is based. Each tiny grid often has more than one color of paint, perhaps the reason for the print having a pulsating look.

Not every print is large. There is one series, Self-portrait/Scribble/Etching Portfolio, in which the prints are only 18 1/4 by 15 ¼ inches. It is a fascinating look into the process of making a print. In this case, the print is made in twelve colors--six more than usual. Close used twelve different colored pencils to draw twelve different scribble line-portraits, one color at a time. After each color was added, a print was made both of the single-color drawing, and then one of that drawing with whatever colors had already been done. The result is twelve single-color plates and twelve plates made with one additional color each time.

Twenty-five years ago, Close suffered a spinal artery collapse that left much of his body paralyzed. It has not kept him from being incredibly prolific. Most of the works in the Bruce exhibit have been done since then.

Silver and Karasoulas suggest that he may have been helped by the advice on process that he took from Jasper Johns long ago: “Take an object/ Do something to it/Do something else to it.”

“I really did believe that process would set you free,” Close is quoted as saying in the catalogue,  “Instead of waiting for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike your skull—you are better off just getting to work … If it isn’t right the first time, you alter the variables and do something else. You never have to be stuck,”

Not has even being paralyzed has caused Chuck Close to be stuck. The New York-based artist recently mentored 34 students in sixth through eighth grade at Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, one of eight schools in the country to participate in President Barack Obama’s Turnaround Arts initiative, a program that hopes to use art to increase student motivation and improve academic achievement in low-performing schools.

The Housatonic Museum of Art, 900 Lafayette Boulevard, Bridgeport, displayed five large watercolor prints by Chuck Close from Nov. 7 through Dec. 15.

The more extensive exhibit of fifty prints at the Bruce Museum is well worth the trip to Greenwich. As Bruce Museum Director Percy Sutton said, Close’s prints “reward close looking and a careful consideration of their mechanics, structure, and optics.”

Close, born 1940, was an early success and has had exhibitions at major museums across the country, including a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997.

“Closer: The Graphic Art of Chuck Close’ is at the Bruce Museum, One Museum Drive, Greenwich, from now through January 5, with parts of the exhibit there until January 26. The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last admission is 4:30 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults and $6 for students and seniors. Closed Monday.

This story appeared in print in Fairfield County Life magazine, a publication of Minuteman Newspapers.

Graphic Art of Chuck Close on View at Bruce Museum in Greenwich

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