Renowned artist Chuck Close, who continues to overcome many disabilities, celebrated his 70th birthday July 5, plus a newly opened exhibit at DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, and a newly published biography.
His extraordinary art is even more remarkable when viewed against his astounding history.
“Chuck Close: Life”, the new biography by Christopher Finch, his friend of more than 40 years, is as inspirational as it is fascinating.
The biography, like the exhibit “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration”, which the Corcoran opened July 3, explores the legendary artist’s creative processes. It has been extended through September 26.
And the book also explores his processes in surmounting numerous disabilities — any of which could have destroyed a less determined, resilient, ambitious, and talented individual. To name a few:
- This pre-eminent portraitist has “face blindness” or prosopagnosia — a disability which causes difficulty recognizing faces.
- Close struggled with dyslexia, long before the disability was widely known or diagnosed.
- He’s always had neuromuscular disorders, tentatively diagnosed as myasthenia gravis (MG), which causes chest and stomach pains, often severe.
- One such near-fatal attack, which Close terms “The Event”, and some call a “spinal stroke” in 1988, left him almost entirely paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Finch described the event: “Suddenly Close goes into convulsions. Long and frenzied, it seems they will never end, but then just as suddenly his body is still, unnaturally so, just lying there, dead weight, flesh without animation.”
Close’s biggest fear was that he would never be able to paint again. He told one friend, “I’ll spit paint onto the canvas if I have to.”
With extensive therapy, especially a biofeedback technique, he regained limited use of shoulder and upper arm muscles, and of his hands. Using arm splints and both hands, “one steadying the other, the left hand, as best he can judge, doing more of the work”, Close is able to paint.
Finch notes, “It was the continued adherence to the principles of process that would enable Chuck to revive his career so rapidly.” His first fully realized post-catastrophe painting, “Alex II”, was completed in the summer of 1989.
Also, Close’s all-important processes of coping include, to name a few aspects:
- Perspective. “When the subject of his disability is raised, Chuck has been known to reply that despite it he considers himself the luckiest person alive,” Finch wrote. Close says, “I’m a glass three-quarters full type.”
- A strong sense of humor. During his July 1 tour for Corcoran members, Close joked about his high-tech wheelchair, “I need to ‘beep, beep beep’ like a garbage truck when I back up.” He has said also, “Can you imagine how sore your a– gets sitting in a wheelchair fifteen hours a day?”
- “Maximizing his skills and minimizing his deficits (was) a balancing act that would define his progress in the world,” the biographer commented. “One thing that helped him find the inner resources to deal with this hell was the fact that he had had to learn to deal with his dyslexia and his other disabilities when he was a kid.”
As a boy in Washington state, Close learned to compensate for “face blindness”, lack of athleticism, inability to retain information, etc. through his dramatic flair. He became a magician and a puppeteer. He also walked around with a pet monkey, instead of a chip, on his shoulder.
Close says that by the time he was five, he knew he wanted to be an artist. He began art lessons at age eight. He handed in visual responses to assignments whenever possible, like a ten-foot long illustrated map of the Lewis and Clark Expedition for one history assignment.
“It’s one of my strongest beliefs that kids should have access to art and music programs, preferably five times a week,” Close says. “I dread to think what might have become of me if I hadn’t had those classes to look forward to.”
Ironically and “Inexplicably, he was awarded an F for art” in high school, Finch wrote. And due to his “dismal grade point average, his career counselor suggested that he consider body and fender school.”
But again, Close was “saved” by art lessons, this time from Russell Day. Then Close studied at Everett Junior College in Washington state, later at University of Washington, and eventually at Yale where he earned a BFA and MFA, both with highest honors.
“The two years I spent there (at Yale) were the most important of my life,” Close says often.
Ever the joker, Close prepared a surprise for Yale visitor artist Robert Rauschenberg who declared “This place reeks of Matisse.” Close had placed a live chicken in the room where Rauschenberg was to critique students’ work. The chicken gave his own critique of Rauschenberg’s notorious “taxidermist art” period, by “sending a projectile stream of excrement across the room.” Reek indeed.
Close’s first exhibited works caused a stink of a different kind. In one of two scandals, University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s campus police raided a show which included full-frontal male nudes by Close, who was teaching there. Close and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit and won initially. But the decision was overturned on appeal.
A student of his, Leslie Rose, “hated me” at first, but eventually became his wife.
As Finch wrote, “If Chuck saw Leslie as exotic (a Jew from New York), she seems to have seen him as an antiestablishmentarian bad boy–the kind your mother warns you against, hence irresistible, or at least intriguing.” She also “detected a vulnerability about Chuck. She was swept up by his skill and ambition and his youthful arrogance, but she quickly grasped how dissatisfied…he was with the work he was making…and obsessed with the fact that so many of his Yale friends were already established in New York.”
Close called his wife “my best critic.” (However, after 42 years of marriage, they separated in late 2009.)
From the beginning of his career, Close was firm about having “no interest in producing work for private collectors.” His works “were meant to be hung in museums and seen by large numbers of people.”
With only one “partial and special exception…Chuck has never accepted a commission to make a painting or drawing.”
Finch added, “It is crucial to him that the sitter is in some way integral to his life. Chuck Close, the only child, was building an extended family…through his work.”
His latest work, “Roy Paper/Pulp”, 2009-2010, unveiled at the Corcoran exhibit, is of his late colleague, pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.
The image Close returns to most often is the now-famous composer Philip Glass — who installed plumbing in Leslie and Chuck Close’s 27 Greene Street (SoHo) loft in the 1960s. Close is fascinated with “that Medusa hair, those hooded eyes, the lips” of Glass.
Close has always maintained that “he has enjoyed such success precisely because he did not care about money.”
His first sale, facilitated by Christopher Finch, was for $1,300 (a small sum even by 1968 standards) for “Big Self-Portrait” to Minneapolis’ Walker Arts Center.
In 1969, Close’s work was included in the Whitney Museum’s Annual Exhibition, an important sign of recognition. And in 1970, he had his first full-scale New York exhibition, at the Bykert Gallery.
“New York Times” critic Hilton Kramer characterized Close’s debut exhibition as “The kind of trash washed up on shore after the tide of Pop Art went out.”
But by the mid-1970s, reviews improved vastly. Close “is perhaps the only artist of his generation who has really extended the meaning of portraiture,” wrote “Time” critic Robert Hughes in a full-page feature.
Fame came: exhibitions at most major American art museums, including a retrospective and other shows at the Museum of Modern Art; honorary doctorates from Yale and even U Mass, Amherst, which he’d sued; celeb status…
And more physical problems, including colon cancer in 2008, which he has survived.
“Not that there were not many times every day when he became frustrated and even enraged by his disabilities, but at least (late 2009) he was back functioning in his chosen world and making paintings that met his own high standards,” Finch wrote.
Throughout his 70 years, “Art saved my life,” Close sums up.
For more info: “Chuck Close: Life” and “Chuck Close: Work”, both by Christopher Finch and both published by Prestel. Corcoran Gallery of Art, www.corcoran.org. “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration”, extended through September 26.