Thursday, November 1, 2012
Monterey Museum of Art’s La Mirada exhibition of world-famous portrait artist Chuck Close emerged from an exhibit that opened there almost exactly one year ago. That show – prints and lithographs by pop art stars Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein – included artwork by political Mexican painter Enrique Chagoya. MMA executive director E. Michael Whittington got Chagoya’s work on loan from voracious Portland art collector Jordan D. Schnitzer. Schnitzer liked how Whittington organized the show so much he asked Whittington what he’d like to borrow next.
“He said, ‘How about Chuck Close?’” Schnitzer says. “I said ‘It’s a blockbuster name, amazing work.’ The wheels started turning.”
Last weekend the wheels turned onto the opening of Chuck Close: Works on Paper 1975-2012, a near retrospective of prints and multiples of many of the painter’s famous works. For the occasion, Schnitzer came down from Portland, and guest curator Brad Thomas flew in from The Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., the museum from whence Whittington came to MMA.
The exhibition is impresssive.
As a child, Close was beset with learning and neuromuscular disabilities. That might have stunted him were it not for an acute talent for visual art that propelled him all the way to a graduate degree from Yale, where fellow students included Janet Fish, Richard Serra, Nancy Graves and others who would change the landscape of modern art.
“Contemporary art is more difficult than it looks,” says Schnitzer. “To be a fine artist, get critical acclaim, stand the scrutiny of baring your soul, it’s tough.”
Close made waves in the 1960s by swimming against the currents of pop, minimalist and conceptual art, honing in on big, photo-realistic portraits of people who would later become famous, like Alex Katz, Cindy Sherman, Lucas Samaras and Philip Glass. Even after a 1998 arterial collapse in his spine confined him to a wheelchair, Close would do portraits (but not commissions) of the already famous, like Brad Pitt, President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. Close did portraits in a way never seen before.
They are huge works – just the face and hair and sometimes the shoulders – that begin as large format photographs. Then he superimposes a grid on top of the photograph and paints, on a corresponding gridded canvas, each square, pixel-like, using several colors to approximate the bigger color.
He had found his unique technique. (He’s said that his compulsion to do portraits spawned from one of his disabilities, prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces.) But he expanded on that technique, experimenting with finger painting, watercolor, graphite, etching, woodcut, linocut and silkscreens. He used Polaroids, daguerreotypes, tapestry and ink. Though his paintings and prints look like they were informed by digital media, he predates that technology.
“[His portraits] are a painfully organized sequence of dots,” the curator Thomas says, “lonzenges, triangles, squares, blips.”
Now 72, Close has worked a lot with master printers, echoing his portraits with variations. For one silkscreen of artist James Cienna, he uses 178 colors. Stand back and the boxes of colors coalesce more sharply into the visage of the human face. The closer one gets, though, the more the portrait reveals itself to be hundreds of little paintings.
“I think Chuck Close is saying to [us], the closer you get the more you see we’re all complex human beings,” Schnitzer says. “We’re all made up of thousands of facets. And we’re all changing.”
Whittington adds, “There is a tension. Close captures the likeness of a sitter, but not the narrative, the psychology.”
Close’s work has been in 800 group shows, 80 solo shows, and important retrospectives – from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to the massive Whitney Biennial – books, and documentaries, one of which MMA is showing on loop.
La Mirada’s Dart Wing is filled with Close’s subjects: a black-and-white of Lichtenstein’s weathered mug; a galaxy of color silkscreens of a boy named Lyle; a 25-piece, 12-color etching of Close’s own face that reveals how the meticulous steps of the printing process work. There’s a kids area that uses Close’s imagery and methods for instructive play. It’s an accessible show, following the same egalitarian ethic that Close, appointed by President Barack Obama to the Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and some of his contemporaries were following.
“Artists would make a print as a copy of a painting,” says Schnitzer, who loaned the Close artwork for free. “They did it to get it out to a broader public… because art is for everyone.”
This show deserves a good look by everyone. It looks back at you.
CHUCK CLOSE: WORKS ON PAPER 1975-2012 is viewable 11am-5pm Wed-Sat and 1-4pm Sun. Monterey Museum of Art-La Mirada, 720 Via Mirada, Monterey. $10/adult; $5/student, military; free/child 12 and under and members. 372-3689, www.montereyart.org.