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Dotting the eye
Chuck Close at Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery
"Chuck Close Prints:Process and Collaboration"
Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy | Rte 28 and Chapel Ave, Andover | Through December 4

Related Links

Chuck Close: Process and Collaboration Web site

Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy's Web site

Chuck Close’s breakthrough was a nine-foot-tall painting that he dubbed, with typical deadpan, Big Self-Portrait. It mimics a black-and-white snapshot he took of his own mug. You find yourself staring up at this scruffy bohemian behemoth, up past the smoking cigarette dangling from his lips, past his moustache, up his nose, through his glasses, where you meet his eyes staring sleepily back down upon you, demanding, "What you lookin’ at?"

Big Self-Portrait was done in 1968. In the few years since finishing grad school at Yale, Close had reached a dead end with the Willem de Kooning knockoffs he’d been churning out. ("When I finally met De Kooning in the early ’80s, I said it was a pleasure to meet someone who had painted a few more De Koonings than I had.") Pop art, minimalism, and process art were in the air, and Close drew on all three to invent a style that would bring him fame. His idea was simple: he’d photograph the faces of family and friends; he’d reproduce the photographs on canvas; he’d paint them as tall as the ceiling of his Manhattan loft; he’d limit himself to one color, black; and he’d banish his individual expressive touch by wielding an airbrush. The effect was astonishingly complex. "One of the things the ’60s was about was a belief in the process, a belief that the process would set you free," he recalled years later. "All you had to do was follow the process wherever it would take you." The 27-year-old concocted a step-by-step scientific formula for painting. He flipped the switch and four months later Big Self-Portrait popped out. When he tested it again, what would it produce?

The answer is face after face. Portraits remain a constant in Close’s equation, even as over nearly four decades he’s changed variable after variable and set the process in motion again. About a hundred of these faces — prints, working proofs, and objects — now hang at the Addison Gallery in Andover in "Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration." Meeting one of these faces can produce the uncanny feeling of being in the presence of strange homely gods or the giant, disembodied, levitating head of the Wizard of Oz. He resists calling these images portraits. It’s clear there’s something charged in his choice of imagery, but for him, selecting a single subject all those years ago — the human face — cleared a variable out of the way so he could focus his attention on formal matters.

The earliest piece here is Keith/Mezzotint, a black-and-white mezzotint from 1972 resembling Close’s early photorealistic paintings. Keith (artist Keith Hollingworth) appears with a thick head of wavy hair, pinched lips, glasses, and a turtleneck. Your mind invents a life for this fellow. Fashion clues link it to its historical moment, even though in this instance Close adopted a technique that had been little used for a century. Like almost all of his art, the image was built by transferring Keith’s likeness square by square from a grid laid over a photograph to a grid on the printing plate. In the show’s catalogue, he says, "One of the things that came out of this, which directly led to most of what I have done since, was that the incremental unit remained apparent throughout the whole process. Keith’s building blocks never meshed completely in the print as they had in the paintings. After finishing Keith, I started doing dot drawings and other pieces in which the incremental unit was visible and ultimately celebrated in a million different ways."

So printmaking would inspire Close’s future experiments. But I’d argue that printmaking is also where his central subject — interrogating visual perception in the age of mechanical reproduction — is most completely developed. His paintings explore the subject; the prints add the delicious paradox of being mechanical reproductions themselves. Keith began as a photo; over a few months it was hand-sketched onto a copper plate and then mechanically printed once more. It’s a mix of handmade and machine-made imitating a machine — and the hybrid makes it all the more curious.

Leslie/Fingerprint (1986) is a portrait of his wife built from his own fingerprints, which he photographically transferred to an etching plate and then printed. The gray fingerprints suggest he’s feeling his way over her face, intimately, caressingly, as if with his eyes closed. The portrait recalls cartoonist Saul Steinberg’s 1953 Passport Photo, in which one fingerprint becomes the face of a fellow in a jacket and tie; the sketch toys with the idea of the fingerprint as the ultimate self-portrait. (The cartoon appears in the catalogue for Steinberg’s Whitney Museum retrospective in 1978, which is also the year Close began his fingerprint works.)

Despite the warmth of this image, Close’s art frequently leaves me cold. He has produced astounding works, like his photorealist color portrait paintings from the ’70s (not part of this show), but "Chuck Close Prints" demonstrates that such visual pyrotechnics were a side effect of his cerebral experiments — a dispassionate examination of formal permutations. After Keith/Mezzotint, the grid — in addition to the faces — became a constant, and prominent, factor in the formula. In Self-Portrait, a 1977 etching and aquatint, each square is variably filled with hatching to create a pixilated face. In Phil III, a 1982 portrait of Close’s pal the minimalist composer Philip Glass, the grid becomes dyed squares of paper pulp. In the 1986 Japanese-style woodcut Leslie, his wife’s face is rendered in a grid of dots built up from 117 layers of watercolor.

Close woke on December 7, 1988, with pains radiating from his chest down to his fingertips. He willed it away, but the symptoms grew so severe that in the evening he checked himself into a hospital. Within hours he was paralyzed from the neck down. The cause? A blood clot in an artery feeding his spine. After months of physical therapy, he regained limited movement in his arms. Nurses rigged a brace around his right arm so he could hold a brush. "I could make a lozenge shape and then my hands would drop back in my lap," he recalled. "I thought about making little teeny paintings. I’ll paint in my lap little two-inch paintings backed with Velcro and then they’ll all go together on the wall like a big jigsaw puzzle."

When he returned home from the hospital, that’s what he did — but all on one canvas. He had a rig constructed, with a trapdoor in his studio floor, that allowed paintings to be adjusted so he could reach each part while seated in a wheelchair with a brush strapped to his arm. He had shifted to a pixilated way of painting — like a television getting spotty reception — earlier that decade, and now he continued along that path. The 2000 painting Emma (his infant niece), the 2000 screenprint Self-Portrait, and the 2002 woodcut Emma, all at the Addison, dissolve into jiggling grids of "hot dogs and lozenges and doughnuts."

The marvel is not that Close’s style changed but that it advanced almost uninterrupted. The look suggests insects squirming across a face or molecules coming apart. When you turn back to warts-and-all portraits like Keith/Mezzotint, you realize that something of this skin crawling feeling was always there. Your eyes struggle to force the pieces together, but Close designed the pictures so the images keep shifting between component marks and composite portrait, between raw artifice and transporting illusion, never quite settling into one or the other. And this restlessness, I think, reveals his greater point: that your eyes are trying to deceive you.

Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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