Chuck Close’s work is both unbelievable and encapsulating. From far away the images are photorealistic but close up, all you can see is a grid of colorful squares. Each is filled with an abstract design of color. The colors are vibrant as they swirl around the confines of their box. Standing with your face a foot away from Close’s canvas, the painting seems abstract. It seems like you’re looking into a kaleidoscope. But somehow there is an order to the playful colors. As you take a step back it becomes clearer. Keep stepping back. Now twenty-five feet away from the same painting, you see something completely different. You see a face. A portrait. A photorealistic portrait. It is amazing how one painting can change so much in twenty-five feet. That is the genius of Chuck Close.
Close, an American photorealist, has been a leading artist in the contemporary scene since the 1970s. He specializes in close-up portraits using a completely unique method to achieve the finished product. To Close, the artistic process is just as important as the finished product. This idea is clearly present in his work. One can see the process in each square, with each brushstroke, each swirl of color. Take a look at a close-up of one of his portraits.
Looking at each little square full of multiple colors is overwhelming when we compare it to the large-scale size of the canvas. Each line or shape of color is a part ofthe overall whole. But when you are close up to the canvas, you would not know it. It is amazing to know that Chuck never allows himself to view the work from a distance when he is in the process of painting. He said: “I never back up. If I did, I’d never get the damn thing done”. Instead, he moves from general to specific in a methodical pattern in order to complete the overall desired image. Do you think you would have the patience to do this? To try a grid-method self portrait-click here!
In 1988, Close’s life changed forever. He was at an event celebrating local artists in New York City, ready to go to the podium and present an award. It was at this point that Close began having pains in his chest. He delivered the speech despite this, and when he was done, he got off stage and walked across the street. It was there that he had a seizure. The seizure was caused by a spinal artery collapse. Since that day, Close has been paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair.
The amazing thing about Close is that he didn’t let this tragedy stop him from creating art. He adapted his method of painting to his new lifestyle. Speaking about his transition from the hospital after the incident, Close said “things had a greater urgency and pleasure, and it was more celebratory.” In regards to painting he said “When you lose something, you’re very happy to get it back.”
After much physical therapy Close learned how to paint again, with the paintbrush strapped to his wrist. He constructed a large slot in the floor of his studio, allowing him to mechanically move and tilt his canvases to be within reach at all times. After an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Close was happy to report that “most people were unable to tell which was which” (when referring to paintings done before and after the hospital). It was quite an achievement for him to master his painting again.
The New Britain Museum of American Art is honored to have one of Close’s pieces, “John”. To fully understand the genius of Close’s work, you must see it in person. Being up close with the canvas and having the ability to move backwards, step by step, is both an exciting and mystifying experience.