Portraiture is one of the most ancient and most traditional of artistic genres, and would appear to have little relevance or vitality to bring to modern artistic expression. Yet through the genius of Chuck Close, portraiture returns with full force to the forefront of Twentieth Century art, as the artist chooses this seemingly straight-forward subject matter to produce an oeuvre of extraordinary complexity. Through a variety of medium, Close experiments with the parameters of portraiture from the eerily factual representation of his early portraits such as John (1971-72, lot 9) to his later work, such as Eric, in which a fractured prism of details coalesce into a resemblance only at a distance. For over 35 years, Close has painted friends and fellow artists, yet his intent is not to record likenesses but to work within a discipline in which he can thoroughly express his devotion to the process of art. Based on photographs of his subjects, Close creates a proscribed area in which he can experiment with various media and investigate the nature of perception, often creating several works of astonishing variety from one photographic source.
Over the centuries, portraiture has fallen into specific categories. In its most primitive forms, such as funerary art, portraiture was the assertion of an individual presence intended as memorial – a statement of presence now lost. As society developed, the portrait was most often a statement of status or position, whether as a secular ruler, a spiritual leader, or simply as an individual of wealth or influence. The pose, the attire and the props in these portraits spoke more than the face to convey the individual’s role in society. During the Renaissance, humanism brought a more psychological dimension to portraiture, rendering the face and its expression as the true subject of the likeness. Artists idealized the outward appearance to focus on revealing the inner character or the humanist spirit of the individual, thus celebrating the importance of the enlightened Man and his central role in God’s universe. Photography appeared to bring a new, radical dimension to portraiture which could now serve as a factual record without filter or alteration; however art and the artist are rarely content to stay out of the equation, often using mood, lighting, pose and composition to manipulate our interpretation of the record we observe. Yet, against this rich history of portraiture, Close creates his own unique genre that exists on a plane of its own, obeying its own rules and parameters.
Close adapts many of the classic tenets of the canon: the extreme frontality of his Heads is as basic to portraiture as early church icons, Greek funerary portraits and Roman coins, yet it is also most closely related to present-day passport or yearbook photographs. Close’s portrait heads press forward to the picture plane, leaving only a non-descript background, and their gaze at the viewer is nothing more than the gaze toward the camera lens as the likeness is captured. As with many Modernist painters who explore the painterly possibilities in figuration, Close does not paint from life, but paints from an image of life. And with Close, the photographic process is further intimately linked to much of his earliest innovations – from his early monochromatic paintings of the late 1960s to the layering, airbrush technique with which color returned to his palette in a process associated with photographic dye process (see lots 9 and 10). By the 1980s and the 1990s, the link with photography becomes more complex, intuitive, and less technical. As Jochen Poetter has observed, ``[Close’s] portraits are free of emotion and affectation; they make no attempt to shape a `character’ or typify. Even if the focus is always on the human being, Close never ventures beyond the realm of visibility, devoting equal care and attention to each external detail. Whereas the liveliness is lost in a photograph, the painting gives birth to a new, lively and colorful cosmos. The instrument of color employed here brings with it `life’ from the world of sensual experience. The documentary statics of the photographic representation are clothed in a veil of brilliance which, though taken from the external world as material and phenomenon, obeys internal intelligible laws – namely those of painting.’’ (Exh. Cat., Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Chuck Close, Ostfildern 1994, p. 17)
Through much of the 1970s and early 1980s, Close largely abandoned paint and continued his experiments in portraiture throughout a range of media, from etchings to monumental watercolors to ink fingerprints on paper to photo-collages to paper pulp compositions on canvas. Beginning in the early 1980s, Close returned to painting at a significant moment in artistic criticism and development, as Image and paint returned to the forefront of the New York art world with figures such as Eric Fischl, celebrated for his gifted touch as a painter and as a master of figurative subtleties. As Robert Storr relates, ``The early eighties was a period in which expressionist or bravura painting seemed pitted against various conceptual and photographic modes of art-making that had developed in the previous decade, and critics frequently championed one type of artist over his or her supposed opposite. …[Conceptual] or narrative photographers Cindy Sherman or Lorna Simpson were often seen as the antitheses of someone like landscape painter April Gornik or abstractionist Dorothea Rockburne. Bridging this divide with his own photographic activity and his increasingly bold but never unbridled painterly paintings, Close did portraits of all those just named. Characteristically, Close not only resisted the call to take sides in the aesthetic skirmishes of the moment, by looking both ways he also found new people to paint and new ways to paint them.’’ (Lisa Lyons and Robert Storr, Chuck Close, New York, 1987, p. 49)
With the execution of Stanley in 1980-81, Close returned for the first time to use of a brush to apply pigment to his canvas. A loosening of his brushstroke corresponded to a freer, bolder use of color, and commentary on Close’s work of the 1980s compared the warmth and passion of these works to the cooler, more cerebral portraits of the late 1960s-early 1970s. Close admitted to a certain relaxation in his attitudes toward the posturing of his Heads and toward the discipline he imposed on his techniques. Close still organized and transferred his photographic sources onto the canvas by means of a grid, yet the grid has become more forgiving and almost capricious. The application of color was no longer tied to the scientific dye-transfer process of paintings such as John, 1971-72. Close still `mixed’ his colors on his canvas, but now the process was more arbitrary and experimental. ``I began by blocking in whole areas of underpainting color in tones that were completely inappropriate ..And in painting the face, rather than arriving at a color in one way, I built the color in several ways. For example, I found that I could arrive at a brown by putting down strokes of orange and blue, or red, green and yellow, or purple and orange. … I know what the resultant color has to be, but there is no set way to arrive at it. And it’s more fun to arrive at it in a variety of ways and I think it builds a more complex and interesting painting.’’ (Ibid., p. 39) Just as his first Big Self Portrait of 1968-69 announced the invention of Close’s first series of Heads, a vibrant and confident Self Portrait of 1986 proclaimed his triumphant return to paint and his willingness to revel in the expressive qualities of the medium.
In Eric and other portraits of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this freedom to create color in a myriad of combinations is mirrored in the grand relaxation of Close’s brush. Dots, diagonals, curves and dollops of paint activate the surface, and in their infinite inventiveness, the picture surface and the image are fractured into jewel-like individual units that act as small abstract paintings within the whole. Almost in pointillist fashion, they swim before our eyes when viewed up close. Yet when viewed at a distance, the image not only coalesces into a recognizable whole, but a personality emerges – the sitter has been both deconstructed and reconstructed by Close who has never lost sight of the image and its essence. In an interview with Robert Storr in 1997, in preparation for the Museum of Modern Art retrospective of his work, Close eloquently commented on his affinity for formal concerns. ``I’m as interested in the distribution of marks on a flat surface and the articulation of that and the patterns and the beat that comes up as I am with the thing that ultimately gets depicted. My tendency is to see things formally, but I think some people when they read a poem or a novel… the narrative line is so important for them that they lose touch with the fact that it’s actually built of a series of words. …Other people like the way the words trip off the tongue and really get interested with the syntax… I guess I always liked operating in the tension between the two extremes, where there are times when it’s just the sheer joy of marks falling next to each other and then `oops’ that it shifts into an image, and so that what was flat ends up spatial. It’s the dichotomy shifting from one to the other that really interests me." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Chuck Close, 1998, p. 95-96)
Eric was included in the artist’s 1991 exhibition of recent paintings at the Pace Gallery, and the series of portraits of the last few years served as a pantheon of the late 20th Century New York community of artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Lucas Samaras, Francesco Clemente, and Alex Katz. Having struggled with the debilitating affects of paralysis due to a spinal blood clot in December 1988, Close’s ability to focus on discipline and process, while at the same time celebrate the sheer joy of art-making, allowed him to continue his creative development. In writing of the 1991 Pace Gallery show, Roberta Smith marveled at the renewed vitality and sheer human depth of portraits such as Eric. ``[Close’s] new paintings, made with restrictions not entirely of his own choosing, are actually less restricted than anything he has done before; they take the contest between paint and image to new extremes… Mr. Close has revealed a basic emotional truth: The human face is never at rest because the human mind, awake or asleep, is never still. In his 25-year elaboration of the tension between image and surface, portrait and process, Mr. Close has never before pulled things quite so far apart, nor sandwiched quite so many different layers of feeling pleasure and visual perception into the gap.’’ (Roberta Smith, ``In Portraits on a Grand Scale, Chuck Close Moves On’’, New York Times, November 8, 1991, section C, p. 24)
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