Artist and Musician Biographies


Here is Chuck Close Discussing his Big Self-Portrait (1967–1968).

Chuck Close was born in 1940 in Monroe, Washington. He was an only child, and his father died when he was ten years old. Close has fond memories of his father. He remembers the toys and bicycles that his dad made from scratch. Close's mother skied and sailed competitively. The encouragement his family gave him was very important and special to Close.

From 1958 to 1960, Close attended Everett Community College in Washington. He then attended the University of Washington, and received a B.A. degree in 1962. He received an M.F.A. from Yale University in 1964. The dominant influence in art at that time was abstract expressionism, and Close's paintings were richly colored abstractions. Close a received Fulbright grant to study in Vienna from 1964 to 1965. He returned to the United States and taught at the University of Massachusetts until 1967. He then moved to New York City to an area now known as SoHo.

While studying at Yale, Close was impressed with de Kooning's "Woman" paintings, and was deeply affected by the political and cultural movements of the 1960's. This is when he began developing his own style, influenced by both Pop Art and Minimal Art. Close began painting in a photo-realistic style after shaking loose the "painterliness" of Abstract Expressionism.

This move was based as much on ideas coming from minimalism and conceptual art as a desire to be a realist. Working with a grid, he tried to achieve an "alloverness" on the canvas each part of the canvas was equal to all other parts. With the grid, the results of the painting process came from a set of programmed decisions that resisted any spontaneity. Thus in leaving the painterliness of abstract expressionism, and by using very different means, he arrived back at the place Jackson Pollock, one of the greatest abstract expressionists, had been with his paintings in emphasizing the "alloverness" of the painting. The comparison is conceptual and not physical, nobody would ever mistake a Close for a Pollock.

Close was using photographs as a basis for what he painted. Because of technical problems, Close never finished his first super-realist painting of a nude in 1966. He tried many different tools- spray guns, sponges, razor blades, and erasers- until he finally settled on an airbrush in 1968. It was in this year that he painted a huge black-and-white self-portrait, using a photograph as his basis.

This self-portrait was the beginning of a series of nine-by-seven-foot portraits not only of himself, but also of his wife and friends. Like his self-portrait, these were full-faced portraits based on passport-type photographs, painted in black and white. Close used a grid on the photograph and the gessoed canvas, enlarging the grid proportionally on the canvas. He then transferred the photograph to the canvas square by square, using acrylic paint and an airbrush. Close's portraits seem cold and expressionless, reminding one of mug shots.

In 1969, Close was included in the Whitney annual exhibit in New York City. Close held his first solo show at the Bykert Gallery in New York City in 1970. At this time, non-representational art such as conceptual and performance art was popular. Close's exact representations won him critical acclaim. European interest in his paintings was so strong that a whole wing of a museum in West Germany was devoted to his paintings in 1972.

Chuck Close's huge portraits present the subject exactly as they are, without any attempt to capture or define the sitter's personality. This of course is just the opposite of what most portrait painters attempt to do. In his work there is no attempt to flatter or cover up the flaws of the sitter's face or complexion. Every pore in the skin, every hair, every wrinkle is presented as visual information.

Although many of the people who were painted by Close in the 1970's are now celebrities, they were unknown fellow artists and friends when they were painted. There is a portrait of minimalist Richard Serra from this period that could be described as anything but flattering, as well as one of renowned minimal composer Phillip Glass, who made his living as a taxi driver at the time the painting was done. Each of these portraits has a simple title, the first name of the subject. The photograph for the Phillip Glass painting has been used by Close many times as a source for drawings, prints and paintings including "Fingerprinted Phil", in which Close rubbed his finger over an ink pad and made the portrait by applying the ink to the paper.

In 1970, Close began to use color in his portraits. In order to avoid mixing pigments on a palette, he used a technique similar to the photography process used to make color reproductions. He used a color transparency technique for his portrait of Kent (1971), who was a painter friend from Yale. Close used three continuous time separations of the transparency (red, yellow, and blue) in order to have five dye transfer prints. These were used for the three studies Close made of Kent. For the final painting of Kent, Close used acrylic paint, very carefully matching the dyes in hue and intensity. Close wore a tinted cellophane filter over his glasses, which enabled him to see one color at a time. In time, he discarded the filters, confident in his ability to mix the correct density of a hue. Close has compared the making of a continuous-tone grid painting to building a wall brick by brick.

As early as 1971, Close began experimenting with watercolors. One of the portraits done in watercolor was of his wife, Leslie, who he married in 1967. She is a horticulturist and landscape architect.

From 1967 to 1971, Close taught at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. He then taught at New York University from 1970 to 1973.

In 1988, at what appeared to be the height of his career, disaster struck Chuck Close when he was paralyzed by a collapsed spinal artery that almost killed him. Since then, he has painted from a motorized wheelchair, and although his work no longer has the same sharp focus, it has evolved into a highly innovative type of painting that has in fact garnered him even greater critical acclaim than his earlier work. In these paintings, still oversized portraits of his friends, the underlying grid becomes visible as brilliantly colored faces take form from an abstract grid of hundreds of laboriously painted squares, each on an abstract painting in itself. Now each pixel is like a painting in itself and it gives his portraits a new look, which most critics think is his best work.

Page author: C.A.