By Stephanie Murg
An artist sits before a painting in progress and pauses to appraise his work as the smoky voice of Etta James wafts through his Lafayette Street studio. He goes right for the periwinkle, loading up a brush with oil paint and then daubing onto the canvas a large dot, the smallest in a series of brightly colored concentric circles, like those that floated through the work of the Delaunays and Kandinsky. The form is beautiful on its own, but take several steps back and a miracle occurs: a massive grid of these softball-sized abstracts combines to form a stunningly photorealistic portrait of a face you want to scrutinize for hours. Behold the mastery of Chuck Close.
A new documentary playing through January 8 at Film Forum allows you to do just that. Produced, directed, and edited by the late Marion Cajori (with final editing completed by Ken Koblund), “Chuck Close” traces the artist’s evolution, surveys his influences and peers, and follows the 82-day creation of a self-portrait that is now in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Along the way, the viewer gets to know a warm, articulate, serene, and joyful individual who just happens to have reinvented the art of portraiture.
Cajori was compelled to undertake the documentary after seeing a 1993 self-portrait by Close. “I wanted to know about him and what went into the creation of this painting and others,” she wrote before her death in 2006 at age 56. The project was also shaped by Close’s 1998 book of interviews with 27 of his portrait subjects. “[Cajori] liked the way the story of my art and who I am was woven into the lives of these other artists and how these various threads became sort of a fabric of the art world at that moment,” said Close, now 67, by phone. “So she thought that cinematically, that would be a way not only to say what my work was about and who I am, but also to say something about the way the art world functions and the way artists help each other and inform each other’s work.”
The documentary features an impressive line-up of artists and historians including Philip Glass, Robert Storr, Elizabeth Murray, and the delightfully deadpan jokester Robert Rauschenberg who use words like “eerie,” “intense,” and “incredibly released” when describing Close’s work, struggling to verbalize the contradictory responses elicited by its double meanings: the part and whole, the surface and the subject, the realism built from abstraction.
“Chuck’s work I thought of initially as amazing, the way it could control the space in a room from the up-close to the back,” says painter Alex Katz in the film. “It was much more interesting than the story about the person…the story about the person is just another story about a person….It seems very uninteresting next to the thrill of seeing an object that’s magic.”
Of course, it is almost impossible to talk about Close without reference to his own incredible story. Born in Washington state and educated at the University of Washington and Yale, Close moved to New York in 1967 and soon began painting black-and-white portraits. Within two years, his work was included in an exhibition at the Whitney, and by 1970, he had his first solo show. It was about a decade later that he began oil paintings and his photography-based portrait series.
“When I was coming up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was tremendous cross-fertilization between painters, composers, and choreographers. Everybody was trying to figure out why to make art at that particular moment and what was different about that time from other times,” said Close. And so the focus was on the process, putting faith in a strategy whether gridding out a giant Polaroid photo and reproducing it one box at a time or composing music based on repetitive structures. “We knew that we were signing on to a system and that if we followed that, wherever that went, we had a chance to make our art more personal and specific to our vision than what was going on in general in the art world.”
Close’s rapid, enduring embrace by the art world belies the many obstacles he has had to overcome. Severely dyslexic, he also has a condition known as prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. “I’m sure that I was driven to make portraits to commit images of people that matter to me to memory better,” he said. “Also, my learning disabilities being overwhelmed by the whole drove me to break things down into small, bite-size chunks, where I didn’t have to work in any kind of global way.”
In 1988, he endured the collapse of a spinal artery that left him a quadriplegic, but he fought to regain his ability to manipulate a brush, along with some movement in legs. Cajori skillfully balances the telling of this story with the rest of Close’s biography, all the while following him at work in the studio and sprinkling the film with interviews that Close calls “mini-portraits” of his family, friends, and colleagues.
Like Close, Cajori is a skilled mixer with a soft but powerful touch. She, too, created a work from which you stand back and are amazed at all that has been captured. “It’s almost as though you add up all the details and get the soul,” Brice Marden says of Close’s work in the film. “Whereas some people go for the soul…Chuck, in some sort of avoidance, can’t help but getting it.”