February 2012

Portraiture or Not?

The Work of Chuck Close

The splendid Renaissance portraits now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see our review) prompt reflection on the diametrically different approach to that art form employed by the renowned postmodernist Chuck Close--who will be featured in a "Super Session" interview at the 2012 National Art Education Association (NAEA) convention in New York next month.

From the beginning of his career in the mid 1960s, Close has been known for enormously enlarged paintings of friends, family members, fellow artists, and himself based entirely on photographs he takes. At the start, he was an outright photo-realist, meticulously transferring exact replicas of photographs to canvas by means of a grid system. Big Self-Portrait [more] (1967-1968) was the first of his works to utilize this technique. After selecting one of several photographs he had taken of himself, Close made two 11 x 14-inch enlargements, drawing a grid on one, then lettering and numbering each square of the grid. He then transferred the image, square by square, onto a 107 ½ x 83 ½ -inch canvas. (The process took some four months to complete.)

In later years, Close began producing pixellated images such as this Self-Portrait, based on a color photograph marked with the usual grid. (The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art treats the source image as an independent work of art, labeling it Self-Portrait and characterizing it as a "collage" consisting of a "color Polaroid with tape, ink, and oil mounted on board.") No longer working as a photorealist, Close fills the grids on these canvases with arbitrarily abstract shapes in colors approximating those in the original photo. The individuality of the face in the resulting image is thereby obscured rather than revealed. As observed by Deborah Wye, a retired Museum of Modern Art curator, these paintings display "none of the nuances of individual personality found in traditional portraiture." In fact, then, Close's work is the antithesis of the art of portraiture.

What accounts for Close's counterproductive approach to this major artistic genre? As it happens, he has suffered since birth from a neurological condition known as prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. (That unfortunate condition is poignantly documented by neurologist Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.) Close says he began to use his mechanically photorealistic method to make paintings of people who were important to him, as an aid in recognizing them.

As the result of a spinal bloodclot in 1988, Close's neurological handicap has been made all the more challenging by a grievous paralysis. Now he paints [more] using a brush attached to a brace on his arm--which explains his use of abstract shapes (referred to above), in place of detailed photorealism requiring total control.

The courage and perseverance with which Close has striven to transcend the problems life has dealt him are admirable. But art teachers, of all people, should recognize that there is a world of difference between work such as Close's painting of his niece, Emma, and true examples of portraiture--such as Rubens's classic drawing of his son, Nicolas; Renoir's painting of his daughter, Margot; or this modern-day pastel portrait of a young boy by artist Shirley Pulido, all of which capture something of the inner life of very young children.

Why has there been no place in major NAEA convention sessions for contemporary painters like Shirley Pulido and her husband Numael (whose work could provide instructive and often inspiring examples of contemporary art)? The answer is plain. Shunned by the artworld establishment, these traditionalists lack the celebrity status that can attract large numbers of attendees. At an ordinary session presented a few years ago by a teacher who offers Classical Realist instruction to high-school students (see "Other Face" article below), there were just three NAEA members in attendance, including the two editors of this journal.

-- The Editors

Further reading:

For more about neglected traditional contemporary painters, see "The Legacy of Richard Lack" (Aristos, December 2006); and "What About the Other Face of Contemporary Art?" (Aristos, June 2008; originally published in the March 2008 issue of the NAEA journal Art Education.)