What if an observer familiar with Chuck Close's entire output as an artist – more than 40 years of work, hundreds of images, thousands of hours – were asked to sum it all up in a single word? Most likely, after discarding the obvious but superficial choices – portraiture, say, or the erudite-sounding but largely inaccurate Photorealism – one would inevitably arrive at the word process. Whether in reference to his unique paintings or his editioned prints in a staggering array of media (woodcut, etching, aquatint, daguerreotype, tapestry, silkscreen, and handmade paper, to name only a few), the common thread to Close's work – and the key to understanding its significance – is the artist’s rigorous emphasis on process.
Watercolor on paper, 58 x 40 in. (image courtesy Pace Gallery)
After all, to take a brutally cynical tack – how else could a bespectacled, bald fellow create pictures of his own face for nearly fifty years and remain relevant and influential? How else could Close get away with revisiting his 1969 painting of Philip Glass over and over again, as an etching, an inky fingerprint mosaic, as an intimate watercolor on paper and in several unique renderings made of raw paper pulp? In a tongue-in-cheek nod to his own obsession with repetition, Close himself gave a 2003 touring exhibition of his digital prints, tapestries and daguerreotypes the wryly understated and banal title "A Couple of Ways of Doing Something." And yet, rather than having been written off as a "one-note" artist and fading into obscurity, Close has been celebrated and even lionized by the art world. For decades – after the initially unfavorable reviews that are often a bellwether for art that is worth paying attention to – his work has received critical accolades from the likes of Robert Storr, Terrie Sultan, and Richard Shiff. He has even become something of a trendsetter (e.g., the recent art world fawning over Craigie Horsfeld's 2010 grisaille tapestries, which Horsfeld himself has admitted were inspired by the black-and-white tapestry portraits Close has been creating since 2003). How, the cynic might wonder, is this possible?
The answer lies in Close’s unflagging commitment – to borrow the title of yet another exhibition, a 2003 retrospective of his editions seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and several other museums around the country – to "Process and Collaboration." Close has kept his career in perpetual motion by making process his raison d'etre; it is the defining characteristic of his work and the reason why so many artists, even those whose work looks nothing like his own, cite him as an inspiration or influence. Yes, Close recycles images; but each painting and each edition serves as a unique record of its own construction, offering a meta-commentary on the very convention of representation itself. Close's work subjects both the creative act of generating an image and the critical act of visually perceiving that image to equal scrutiny. His paintings, prints and multiples serve as a two-way mirror, reflecting both the decisions of the artist to make marks and the decisions of the viewer to make meaning from those marks. As such, those artistic decisions, moreso than the subject, emerge as the focus of each work. Another name for this creative decision-making, the crux of Close's art and the reason for its impact, is process.
A distinction worth making at this point is the difference between process and formula. In the catalogue for "Process and Collaboration," Close describes himself as "an artist looking for trouble," adding: "Problem solving is greatly overvalued in our society. Problem creation is much more interesting." Close is not and has never been looking for a solution, a formulaic, predictable approach to image-making where he is able to get the "right answer" every time. To reduce his work to a formula – as, for example, a digital artist recently attempted with the so-called "Chuck Close Filter" algorithm – would be to miss the entire point of Close's artistic enterprise.
For example, Close's painting style since the mid-1970s – those grids of concentric, abstract rings and blobs of color which Storr calls "tiny optical jitterbugging Mondrians" and which ultimately, against the eye's expectations, somehow coalesce into a realistic, representational portrait of a human face – has become something of a trademark and might easily be mistaken for a formula. And in fact, there is a technique behind it which is consistent from painting to painting – Close lays down a color in each square, then responds to it with another color, then responds to that combination with another. Paradoxically, this systematic approach acts as a set of rules designed to introduce the unpredictable and to challenge the artist’s decision-making capacity at every turn:
I want to mix it up. Ultimately it allows me to be intuitive. The system is liberating in that when I used to allow myself to make paintings with any old color, I would use the same color combinations over and over again. I found myself much too much a creature of habit. One of the interesting things about working this way is what seems to be a kind of rigorously imposed system that might seem limiting or perhaps stifling in terms of the choices you can make. But it ends up allowing me to let my mind go blank and respond. (Chuck Close: Storr, Varnedoe, et al. 2002)
Close's painting method, then, uses a self-imposed series of limitations to repeatedly open up a space of improvisation. It is a predictable procedure, but one whose goal is to access the unforeseen: those ephemeral moments of strange alchemy where one color becomes another, where blobs of blue and orange and purple pigment suddenly turn into Philip Glass's chin, where accident and intention unite to push the work one step closer toward the impossible – toward the very edge, the periphery of what a given medium is thought capable of. This alchemy is different depending on the medium, but it is known to artist working in all mediums. The history of each medium is the story of creative minds building on each other’s innovations (and in some cases, making identical breakthroughs at the same time without realizing it) to access this unfamiliar, improvisatory space, in which discoveries are made which inadvertently redefine the limits of that medium.
Close himself is well aware of this collaborative aspect of innovation – hence "Process and Collaboration," rather than simply "Process." There have been a handful of key collaborators – in particular, Joe Wilfer of Dieu Donné in New York; David Adamson of Adamson Editions in D.C.; and Donald Farnsworth of Magnolia Editions in Oakland – who have been central to Close’s exploration of various print and multiple mediums beyond painting.
Often their contributions have begun with a challenge: like anyone, Close has his own prejudices for or against certain ways of working, and only at the urging of one of the forementioned collaborators has he begun to explore a medium he might previously have dismissed. Sultan writes that Wilfer "encouraged, teased and pestered" a reluctant Close into working with pulp paper; the portraits which the latter eventually created at Dieu Donné set a new standard for artists working in that medium. In a 1997 interview with Storr, Close spoke of computers disdainfully as "labor-saving devices" in a quote that has been unfortunately divorced from its context and circulated in an effort to depict Close as an old-fashioned Luddite. Yet Adamson was already working to change Close's mind: in 1996, a time when "digital" was still a pejorative in the art world and a full year prior to Close's comments, Adamson Editions published his first digital editions, two Iris prints of Bill Clinton. In the last decade, Close has repeatedly taken advantage of the extraordinary detail, control, and image size afforded by Adamson's digital printers and Magnolia Editions' tapestry translation techniques, using contemporary technology to transform the intimacy of daguerreotype plates and Polaroids into powerfully haptic, large-scale confrontations. More recently, Close has worked with Farnsworth to create editions of archival watercolor prints: the surface of each digitally composed print bears the kind of unique, painterly visual information (reticulation, granulation, bleeding, and chance movement) that is the exact opposite of algorithmic certainty. Ultimately, each partnership bears witness to Close's devotion to process as challenge, rather than as solution – even when that challenge is being posed to the artist's own ideas about the relative limits of a given medium.
The nonlinear nature of Close's choice of media may provide the strongest evidence of his commitment to process. The artist is always circling back, revisiting techniques and visual methods; in his career, writes biographer Christopher Finch, "cross fertilization has been the chosen method of propagation, with each technical approach informing every other." The photorealistic aspect of his large-scale photographs of the early 1980s finds an echo in the staggeringly detailed tapestries and prints of the last 15 years. And while his recent watercolor prints have direct antecedents in the systematic, color-separated watercolors Close began creating in the 1970s, the allover, continuous nature of these recent compositions blurs figure and ground and distorts pictorial legibility in a manner reminiscent of his particularly loose, abstracted oil portraits from the mid-1990s. Close has repeatedly returned to etching and paper pulp, among other mediums; at any given point in time, he is creating images using very different methods with highly varied degrees of abstraction, color, and tonality. This devotion to multiple ways of working again suggests that it is the process itself which is paramount. No one medium is sufficient to solve the artistic problems Close has posed for himself, because he is not looking for a solution. And whether a given creative experiment succeeds or falls short, Close says, the outcome is always the same: "I get right back on the horse again."
In 1978, Close told an interviewer that by exploring images in series he was "not trying to figure out how many ways there are to skin a cat," but rather was interested in "seeing how subtle shifts in materials, devices, and attitudes can make drastic differences in how the image is perceived." In the decades since, the availability of sophisticated imaging technology has grown exponentially; in turn, Close's "subtle shifts" are increasingly relevant to how we apprehend and assess an image. Works of art built from grids of tesserae have existed for approximately as long as humans have organized themselves into nations; whether Close arrived at this mode before digital art, a question some have taken pains to pedantically answer in the negative, is moot. In Close's newest work, the series of watercolor prints created at Magnolia Editions, one sees evidence of a more nuanced relationship to mark-making and digital technologies.
Contemporary digital imaging is recognizable by the relentless ferocity of its realism: with each technological advance, image files contain additional millions of pixels, and prints are created from tinier and tinier picoliters of ink, in turn yielding greater degrees of detail. As informed viewers, this level of detail clues us to the image's composition. Even if the pixels are too small to see, we know that a mechanical process must have been involved in generating an image of such precise mimetic accuracy. In the case of Close's airbrush portraits of the 1970s, the expected machine was a camera; in the present day, we trust that software and digital printers are responsible for the wealth of detail before us. Then and now, Close's work delights in confounding our expectations. In Close's watercolor prints, this uniquely digital precision is conflated with the gauzy abstraction and tactile values of watercolor – that plebeian, Sunday painter's medium, an art-historical byword for Impressionistic lyricism. As the viewer's eye relaxes focus, the subject's face coalesces, rich with the color and tonality afforded by digital media; sharpening one's gaze, the surface of the prints dominates: an array of tiny, sensuous color field paintings, each square reading individually as a wet blur or puddle of pigment. Close has embedded the "subtle shifts in materials [and] devices" directly within the work, playfully disarming the received wisdom that poses an artificial distinction – whether historical or otherwise – between such seemingly disparate technologies as inkjet printing and watercolor.
This embedded tension, a series of visual and perceptual frissons between surface and figuration, digital and analog, pixels and pigment, beaux-arts tradition and 21st-century trailblazing, makes no conclusive statement; it is instead the record of an open-ended inquiry, one currently engaging a great number of Close's contemporaries. Writing about Christopher Wool in 2011, Mark Godfrey asks: "How does an artist show painting's involvement in technological networks of digital photography and printing – yet also engage the specific marks that only liquid materials can form when spilled and smeared, or when their pigments and binding mediums are allowed to separate?" That Close is not the only one exploring this Moebius loop of digital and analog processes reveals his role within a larger discourse of image-making, a discourse that is as crucial to his process as the pigment and substrates with which he works. Close's work is part of an ongoing conversation, the goal of which is not to arrive at some teleogical certainty; there is no "E=mc2" to which it all boils down. A formulaic approach to Close's work can only skim its surface; it is his creative, collaborative process which breathes life into the work, providing inspiration to contemporary imitators and – more crucially – to the artistic innovators of the future.
More art by Chuck Close at Magnolia Editions