Lot 9
  • 9

Chuck Close

bidding is closed


  • Chuck Close
  • John
  • acrylic on gessoed canvas
  • 100 x 90 in. 254 x 228.6 cm.
  • Executed in 1971-1972.


Bykert Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in January 1972 for $9,000 


Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chuck Close, February - March 1972
Kassel, Fridericianum Museum, Documenta 5, June - October 1972, p. 15.14, illustrated (installation shot)
Chicago, The David and Alfred Smart Gallery, University of Chicago, on extended loan, 1975-1991
Chicago, The David and Alfred Smart Gallery, University of Chicago, Contemporary Art from the Robert B. Mayer Collection, January - March 1976, cat. no. 2
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; St. Louis Art Museum; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Close Portraits, September 1980 - June 1981, p. 43, illustrated in color and illustrated in color on the front and reverse covers (details)
Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, on extended loan, 1991-2005
Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle; Munich, Städlische Galerie im  Lenbachhaus, Chuck Close Retrospective, April - September 1994, cat. no. 3, p. 107, illustrated in color
Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Affinities: Chuck Close and Tom Friedman, April - July 1996, cat. no. 1, fig. no. 1, illustrated in color
New York, Museum of Modern Art; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; Washington, D. C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Seattle Museum of Art, Chuck Close, March 1998 - May 1999, p. 117, illustrated in color


In Goya, no. 109, July 1972, p. 44, illustrated
Franz Schulze, "Europe's Big Summer Art Feast", Chicago Daily News, August 5-6, 1972, p. 4, illustrated (installation at Documenta 5)
Bruce D. Kurtz, "Documenta 5: A Critical Preview" in Arts Magazine, vol. 46, Summer 1972, p. 41, illustrated in color
Pierre Restany, "Sharp Focus: La Continuité Realiste d'une Vision Americaine", Domus, no. 525, August 1973, p. 12, illustrated, (installation at Documenta 5)
Linda Nochlin, "The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law", Art in America, vol. 61, September 1973, p. 55, illustrated in color
Linda Chase, Hyperrealism, New York 1975, p. 57, illustrated
William Dyckes, "The Photo as Subject: The Paintings and Drawings of Chuck Close", Art's Magazine, vol. 48, February 1976, p. 33, illustration in color of work in progress
Louis K. Meisel, Photorealism, New York 1980, fig. no. 220, p. 124, illustrated in color
John Arthur, Realists at Work, New York 1983, pp. 50-51, illustrated in color three times (once as unfinished in studio and of painting in progress)
Lisa Lyons and Robert Storr, Chuck Close, New York 1987, p. 32, illustrated; p. 60, illustrated in color; p. 61, illustration in color of painting in progress; illustrated in color on the cover (detail)
Bruce D. Kurtz, Visual Imagination: And Introduction to Art, Englewood Cliffs 1987, illustrated
Lu Bro, Figure and Form, vol. II, 1991, illustrated twice (once as detail)
Bruce D. Kurtz, Contemporary Art: 1965-1990, Englewood Cliffs 1992, fig. 5.6, p. 153, illustrated in color
Larry Smolucha, The Visual Companion, Englewood Cliffs 1995, fig. 5.145, illustrated in color
Garrett Holg, "Two of a Kind?", Chicago Sun-Times, June 2 1996, p. 8B
Dominic Murphy, "Heads I Win", The Guardian, 3 July 1999, p. 27, illustrated
Tom Lubbock, "Too Close for Comfort", The Independent, 27 July 1999, p. 10, illustrated
Owen Demers, ed., Digital Texturing and Painting, Indianapolis 2001, p. 169, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., Milan, Fondazione Prada, Tom Friedman, 2002, p. 282, illustrated in color (installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1998-99)
Edward M. Gomez, "Painting Up Close"Art and Antiques, March 2005, p. 90, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

“Dreams don’t interest him; that this should be real is a richer possibility. And he’s entirely himself, he is certain of it, and he knows that sleep is behind him: to know the difference between it and waking, to know the boundaries, is the essence of sanity.”

(Ian McEwan, Saturday, 2005)

John (1971-1972) is the only painting to appear at auction from Chuck Close’s first series of the artist’s signature motif - portrait heads. Monumental in scale and impact, the eleven paintings, beginning with Close’s own image in the black and white Big Self Portrait of 1967-68 through to John, the final work in this seminal group, established the subject matter, technical approach and aesthetic parameters within which the artist has produced a body of work of critical importance to 20th century art. Significantly, five of the paintings in this group were purchased by museums or institutions between 1969 and 1971, an amazing acknowledgement of their importance at the time. Big Self Portrait was purchased directly from the artist by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1969 for $1,300. That same year, the Minneapolis Institute of Art acquired Frank (1969), the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired Philip (1969) and the Ludwig Collection in Aachen, West Germany acquired Richard (1969).  Currently, nine of the eleven works are in museum collections: John is one of only two works still in private hands.  

To the present day, Close continues to paint portraits of friends and fellow artists – often employing the same photographic source image for works spanning over several years – finding endless inspiration and variation in this genre by altering medium, scale and technique. John is a masterpiece from this seminal group, which began with a restricted palette of black and white and progressed in 1970 to include four color paintings, such as John (1971-1972). Together with the five dye transfer prints, John (1971) [lot 10], also from the Robert B. Mayer Family Collection, John (1971-1972) demonstrates the return of color to Close’s oeuvre and the introduction of photography as inspiration for the artist’s process and technique.  

Close emerged from Yale University School of Art and Architecture in New Haven in 1964, and on a Fulbright scholarship, he studied in Venice and traveled through Europe from 1964-65. Close faced the challenge shared by any young art student: to apply his carefully acquired skills and academic knowledge toward the creation of a unique vision and style that, in a sense, purged all constraints of past influences or derivative inspiration. Close’s student work, primarily gestural or biomorphic paintings, was admired at Yale, but as he has stated, ``I admired Rothko, Pollock and Kline, but they nailed it down so well that I couldn’t do anything but weak impersonations of their work. …All my heroes were dead, and my work was incredibly eclectic.’’ (Jane Cottingham, ``An Interview with Chuck Close’’, American Artist 47, no. 490, May 1983, p. 66).  Returning in the fall of 1965 to the United States as an instructor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Close shifted to figuration, partially from frustration with his inability to break from the habits of his student work. As he stated, ``there was a kind of desperation in my decision to stop painting abstractions. …I wanted to find something specific to do, something with its own set of rights and wrongs.’’ (Lisa Lyons and Robert Storr, Chuck Close, New York 1987, p. 27).  Close turned to found photographic sources as a departure point for multi-media constructions and shallow reliefs. He soon progressed to working from his own black and white photography and limited his compositions only to the image recorded in the photograph. By the time Close moved to New York City in the fall of 1967, the artist had further defined his parameters by abandoning color in his palette, and by working in extreme scale so as to render the replicated image insistent and unavoidable. The result was Big Nude (1967-68), a monumental reclining black and white nude, 21 feet in width.

In November of 1967, Close opted to concentrate on a head-and-shoulder, passport-style composition, in order to achieve heightened concentration and enlargement of detail, thus arriving at a format that has remained the core of his oeuvre. Aptly, Close began with his own image in Big Self Portrait, the first in his series of eight monolithic black and white Heads based on photographs of himself and friends, including his fellow artists Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, and Joe Zucker. Big Self Portrait was completed in early 1968 and the final black and white composition, Keith, was completed in April 1970. Utilizing a grid system, Close faithfully transferred the image in the photograph to a nine by seven foot canvas, square by square, with pencil. Then using an airbrush loaded with a watered mixture of black acrylic paint, Close began with the eyes – the area of sharpest focus in the photographs – and then methodically moved square by square from the top of the canvas to the bottom, spraying on pigment with varying density to match the tonalities of the original photograph. Close’s new methodical technique brought the discipline he desired and in executing his works systematically and incrementally, he achieved a stylistic consistency and absence of aesthetic doubt or conflict. As he has stated, Close is often ``not conscious of making a nose or an eye, but only of distributing pigment on a flat surface’’ (Ibid., p. 29). The overall result established the basic components of Close’s early style: monumental scale, formulaic composition, painstaking execution, photographic literalism, and a non-variated surface.  The paintings are depictions of photographs, capturing a quintessential moment, not a sense of character or emotional resonance. The artist’s individual mark is absent, rendering a surface that lacks individual texture or detail, yet the image is only photographic and flat when seen at a distance. On close inspection, the extreme amplification renders individual features and details almost abstract. Close also painstakingly copies the degrees of focus and planar distortions of the original camera image – in each painting the tips of the nose or the eyes are in sharp focus while the outer details of the face, hair and clothes soften. Some features appear distorted or out of proportion as they are flattened in the two-dimensional plane.

Beginning with the 1970-71 portrait of his friend and fellow Fulbright scholar, Kent Floeter, Close returned color to his palette to add a new permutation and challenge to his technique. To avoid the old habits of his earlier oil paintings and to achieve the closest verisimilitude to the color of the photographic source, Close devised a new approach to color pigments by turning to the photomechanical process. Photo transparencies are converted into three-tone color separations: magenta (red), cyanne (blue) and yellow. Five dye transfer prints were then made: magenta, cyanne, magenta plus cyanne, yellow, and the final state of all three colors combined. (See lot 10). Close then used these five images as color guides for applying the pigment to his four color portraits of this series, Kent (1970-71, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto), Susan (1971, Morton G. Neumann Family Collection), Nat (1971, Private Collection, United States) and John (1971-72). Close applied one color at a time, square by square, moving from magenta to cyanne to yellow. By varying the degree and intensity of the airbrush spray, Close achieved various tones and value of color, virtually mixing his colors on the canvas in the process of application. Requiring an average of fourteen months each, the color paintings are a testament to Close’s deep commitment to his process and technique which produces highly sophisticated and refined masterpieces within the canon of painting. This commitment is nowhere more apparent than in the creation of John (1971-72), a process that was documented at length in a series of photographs of the paint application in process, square by square and feature by feature. One can just visualize Close moving carefully across the canvas, in the specially constructed, movable studio on a forklift that he had invented for this purpose.

John (1971-72) is a portrait of the painter John Roy, whom Close met when both were on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1964-65. John is the ultimate culmination of this first, seminal series of portrait heads, exerting a mesmerizing fascination. The complexity of the color technique coupled with the painstaking process of transferring the image to the canvas is belied by the smooth, realistic impression of the painting at first glance. But by the time he painted John, Close had so mastered his technique that he could dispose with the use of cellophane filters on his glasses that assisted him in focusing on one hue at a time in the previous three color paintings. His intuition and his eye were now sufficient to produce the requisite verisimilitude.

Lisa Lyons has commented extensively on John in the catalogue for the 1980 exhibition of Close portraits at the Walker Art Center and in her 1987 monograph on Close with Robert Storr.  Lyons notes the sheer visual beauty of John as an exquisite feast of detail, color and craft.  ``Of the four color paintings produced by Close between 1970 and 1972, John is the most complex and technically refined. It is a typical Close mug shot in which the figure is posed frontally, looking out from behind wire-rimmed glasses with slightly squinting eyes. A shock of hair falls across his brow and his upper lip and chin are obscured by a full moustache and beard. His tangled facial hairs, rendered with incisive clarity at the front, merge into a soft, hazy mass at either side as they meet his shirt collar. His jacket is an impressionistic sea of swirling colors…. John’s gaze never meets the viewer’s. Rather, his eyes are directed slightly down and to the right, focused, one supposes, on the single eye of the camera. For all of its imposing scale, this great head seems somehow remote from the viewer’s space. This disturbing sensation is caused in part by the amorphous character of the painting’s background. The uninflected white grounds of Close’s earlier monochrome works seem to merge with the wall on which the paintings are hung, making the heads advance as volumetric forms. But the atmospheric gray field behind John contrasts with the wall surface, making the head look flatter and somewhat recessed, as if seen through a window. This illusion of physical distance increases the psychological distance between spectator and image.’’ (Lisa Lyons in Exh. Cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Close Portraits, 1980, pp. 42-44)  

The central eye of John, surrounded by the wire rim glasses, is the quintessential Close motif, capturing our attention and fascinating our intellect as we marvel at Close’s abilities to coolly report a visual fact while enchanting us with its execution. This eye sums up the paradox of Close’s portraits – a balance between description and abstraction, coolness and passion, idea and image, subject and process. It is no mistake that John Roy’s mesmeric eyes were chosen for the cover of the Walker Art Center’s exhibition of Close Portraits in 1980. It is also significant that the images of John and  a few other individuals in this series appeared in a plethora of other works over the decades, as Close experimented with other media. John Roy’s visage recurs in works varying from photo-etchings in 1972 to Close’s fingerprint technique of oil on paper in 1984 to ink drawings that replicate the five dye transfer process in 1983, among others.