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Up Close and Very Personal

Review: Chuck Close's portraits defy the notion that painting is dead by forcing an emotional response.

May 10, 1998|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

NEW YORK — The opening encounter in the Chuck Close retrospective currently at the Museum of Modern Art is with the monumental black-and-white portrait heads that the New Yorker painted between 1967 and 1970. These are paintings with the power to make you rock back slightly on your heels. It's the same destabilizing feeling I had the first time I saw one of the blunt, excruciatingly detailed, 9-foot-tall portraits 20-something years ago. The physical response isn't one of being stunned, exactly, but more like being mightily confronted, then mesmerized. It's a kind of "Put up or shut up" moment.

Which is to say, these are portraits that draw a psychological and emotional profile of the viewer, not the sitter, as portrait paintings have traditionally sought to do. Close doesn't give you much insight into the personalities of Phil or Nancy or Richard or Frank--or, for that matter, of Chuck himself, whose shaggy-haired, unshaven, bespectacled face stares out into the middle distance in the first looming portrait he painted. (It's the star of the show.) However, he does show you a lot about what went into making the picture.

In Close's photographically precise self-portrait, which shows him from the collarbone up, he's shirtless--ostensibly naked and exposed. A cigarette is loosely held between casually parted lips, smoke snaking up into his mustache. His head appears tilted ever so slightly back, as if he's leading with his chin, and the angle makes his nostrils into deep black caverns.

The tilt may just be a result of the angle of the camera that took the photograph on which the airbrushed acrylic painting is so obviously based. (A pair of white spots in Close's glasses also reflect a glaring studio light, set up for the original photo session.) The effect, though, is to give the sitter an inescapable look of focused concentration--that kindof daydreamy, lost-in-thought look of rigorously maintained attention to the business at hand. This is a monumental portrait of an artist hard at work, making the imposing painting you are looking at.

Somewhat like a contemporaneous civic portrait of Chairman Mao--minus the heroizing gloss of official Communist Chinese art--the portrait's giant size gives the picture a distinctly public, rather than private, scale. An all-important you is the object of address. And if the portrait shows the artist hard at work, deep in concentrated observation, then what, by implication, about you? What is your end of the deal that's been struck here, if not to bring every bit as much focused concentration and skill to the activity as Close did before you?

That, I suppose, is about as plain-spoken a demonstration as could be imagined of what is meant by art that is challenging or demanding. The artist does his job, the art is the go-between, now it's up to you.

Close's first group of big portraits dates from a period when painting was in a bind. Since the early 1950s, abstraction had been advanced as the highest, most exalted form of Modern art, but by the 1960s, abstract painting had long since come to seem limited in its options, at best, and at worst moribund. On one hand, the new Pop painting was under attack as a trivial pursuit; on the other, Andy Warhol had announced he would quit painting to make movies full time (it didn't happen).

Many things conspired to make painting seem a dubious proposition: the rise of Conceptual art, the fall of object-making in favor of the elucidation of artistic ideas, wariness of the potentially corrosive qualities of the new market for contemporary American art, the emergence of genres and technologies such as performance and video, even the general 1960s skepticism toward all things suggestive of the establishment. Painting heard the first of what has turned out to be a 30-year string of eulogies, praising its glorious past at the moment of its supposed death.

As they say, though, death has a way of focusing the mind. When I look at that booming self-portrait Close finished in 1968, that's exactly what I see pictured--painting's carcass focusing the mind.

There's more than one way to skin a cat, too, and after the initial wallop provided by its introduction of Close's first mature body of paintings, the MOMA retrospective slides quietly into a demonstration of just how many ways there are. For the next 16 or 17 years, theme segues into variation in Close's art.

The subject--portrait heads--never varied, but Close switched from black and white to color, applying to painting the color-separation process of photography, which meant that each labor-intensive portrait was actually painted three times: once in red, once in yellow, once in blue. He made watercolors, pencil drawings, pastels and prints. He used paper disks in shades of gray and clumps of wet paper pulp, fashioning illusionistically precise faces. For painting, he reintroduced the brush and oil paint, rather than the spray gun and acrylic that got him started.

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