A visual masterpiece and technical triumph, this rare impression of Keith/Mezzotint epitomizes the creativity, ambition, and innovation that has come to characterize Chuck Close’s work in all media.
For this first print of his professional career Close chose the mezzotint technique, an archaic and extremely labor-intensive intaglio process. Traditionally, the technique involves “rocking” the metal plate with a sharp toothed tool to create a variegated and textured surface that holds ink, producing a deep, rich black when printed. After rocking the entire plate the printmaker works reductively, creating lights by smoothing the plate in areas that then hold less ink. Able to produce precise tones and exquisitely subtle gradients, the mezzotint once offered an ideal means for reproducing works of art, but the technique fell out of fashion with the advent of photography in the 19th Century.
Close’s work with photography while a student at Yale, and his commitment to photographic qualities in his paintings, naturally led him to mezzotint and its ability to replicate images. He also enjoyed its obscurity, explaining once that “the appeal of a mezzotint was that no one had made one for a hundred years.” But it was Keith’s proposed scale at 36 by 45 inches which was most challenging. As master printer Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press said: “The largest print we had done up to then was 22 by 30 inches…so of course I said it was impossible. Besides, who ever heard of an etching three by four feet!”
As a result of the print’s enormous scale, Close and Brown were forced to forgo the traditional hand-rocking process and adapt a photoetching technique which etched the plate with three hundred bites per a linear inch. Close then worked on Keith square by square. Although the grid in Keith was not originally intended to be visible in the final print, Close became interested in its ability to reveal the process behind his artwork. Keith influenced Close’s future utilization of the grid in paintings and prints throughout the artist’s career: “This print was really key for my future work…Keith’s building blocks never meshed completely in the print as they had in the paintings. The individual grid units stayed as discrete areas. As those that were done first began to break down from printing, the grid became an essential part of the piece.”
In the end only ten final prints could be pulled from the massive and fragile plate, with an additional eight proofs (four artist's proofs and four studio proofs). All eighteen impressions are scattered now between Europe and America, with many impressions residing in museum collections including The MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, Achenbach Foundation in San Francisco, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Henie-Onstad Museum, Oslo, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam and Sara Hilden Art Museum, Tampere, Finland.
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