NEW YORK - It was quite a thrill when I got to swing by Chuck Close’s studio the other day, as well as his art-filled home, which are not too far away from each other in New York’s NoHo neighborhood.
He’s one of those artists who has made us see the world differently. When I see a face at close range in another context, I often think of his incredible grid portraits, in which he breaks up a face into its component parts, but with each “dot” a fascinating little abstract artwork of its own. Up close, it seems random; step back a bit, and the whole work resolves into a brilliantly painted human visage. Close’s work is that meeting place of Pointillism and Conceptual art, but it’s certainly a lot more than the sum of its parts.
And there’s a show of his work at Guild Hall in East Hampton that just went up. “Chuck Close: Recent Work” features 23 works, and is on view until October 14. I asked him why a show at that venue now, and he said with a laugh, “Because Arne wanted a show.” Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery, has been his dealer for more than 35 years, and is a longtime East Hamptonite. Close used to be a resident of the East End himself.
Installation view from “Chuck Close: Recent Work.”
Our conversation ranged over many topics, from his meetings with the great Willem de Kooning to wine to the late stages of artists’ careers, but the issue of fame and his portraits was interesting. “The art changes based on how well I know them,” Close told me. “If I know them really well, I start putting in things that aren’t there.”
When Close started out, he used the cheapest model known to man – himself. And he has actually continued that to this day, producing a slew of memorable self-portraits that never seem self-indulgent.
“At first I tried to do only people that no one knew,” Close said. “All my friends were anonymous artists.” He’s talking about now-legendary types like composer Philip Glass, whose wild-haired head is one of Close’s most iconic images, and also the one he has “recycled,” in his words, the most times, always putting an intriguing new spin on it.
Merely sitting in Close’s studio seemed to have an effect. “Phil said, all you had to do was show up at one of my photo shoots, it was like the Colbert bump is now – it was the Chuck Close bump,” he told me, referring to TV’s irrepressible Stephen Colbert. “Even though I was nobody back then and they were nobody, the minute I photographed them, their careers took off. My anonymous people became famous people.”
Cindy Sherman and Chuck Close at the opening of “Chuck Close: Recent Work.”
And as Close has gotten older and more famous, so have his friends. “Chuck Close: Recent Work” includes portraits in a few different media, and some of the familiar faces on view include Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, Lou Reed and Kara Walker.
And a caveat in case you’re ever lucky enough to get photographed by Close, who doesn’t do commissions: Many of the pictures never turn into paintings, since the artist’s grid systems have to fit well with the face in question, something he can’t predict in advance. As Close told me with a smile, “Many are called, few are chosen.”
Photographs courtesy of Guild Hall/Barry Gordin