Face-Painter: Chuck Close

By Hugh Lilly

Marion Cajori’s documentary film about the painter Chuck Close is one of two final projects she left the art world upon her death, of cancer, in 2006. (The other was Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine.) Her plan to document Close’s life and work began to take shape in the mid-nineties, after she had completed her award-winning film Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter, which, according to the New York Times, gives audiences “a complete emotional portrait of the toweringly acerbic artist.”

Her documentary on Close—a 55-minute, Emmy-nominated version of which was assembled for PBS in 1998—does something similar, but it also paints a wider picture of Close’s contemporaries and their work as it relates to his, which helps contextualise the standard, expected stuff of biography, and couches it in articulate, analytical responses instead of merely soft sentimentality. Over two hours, the incredibly informative film vacillates between two modes: a work-in-progress examination of Close painting his 2000 self-portrait (pictured below) and interview footage which sets the artist in relief against his contemporaries and the work from which he learned and borrowed. The first mode is, for obvious reasons, more stimulating than the second, as it explains the amazing mosaic effect Close achieves in his portraiture.

At Yale Art School in the late ’60s, Close set up a camera and took a large-format Polaroid of his face—“Because I was the only one in the room,” he recalls in the film—and laid a transparent grid over it, creating a marquette. He then began to paint a scaled-up copy of it, square by square, on a large canvas, eventually forming Big Self-Portrait (1967-1968). This grid technique, which he has used ever since, lends his work two qualities: up close, viewers can examine the pixel-like, mechanical breakdown of the image in flux, while looking at one of his paintings from further away—taking in the work as a single eyeful of information—gives the original image a vivacity and movement imperceptible in the source photograph.

The documentary tracks Close’s development as an artist from a young age—growing up in suburban Washington, his father, who died when Close was just 11, bought him an easel for his fifth Christmas—and examines the influence of other artists in forming his analytical, fascinatingly structure-oriented artistic mind, which the art historian Robert Storr at one point in the film labels Close’s “dermatological approach to art.”

From the formalism he borrowed from De Kooning, to the period he spent hanging out in and around the New York art scene—with Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, among others—Close’s artistic life is sketched in full, and filled in by interviews with other artists (most contemporaries of Close) as well as gallery owners, historians and so on. Since 1969, when Close had his first exhibition at the avant-garde Bikert gallery near his loft in SoHo, he has been at the forefront of portraiture, pushing the boundaries of the genre ever further—despite having been confined, since 1988, to a wheelchair due to a collapsed spinal artery and resultant neuromuscular damage.

While his early work aimed for a reproductive quality—large-scale painted duplicate enlargements of the original black-and-white photos, essentially—he soon became interested, in Cajori’s apt description of Close’s more controlled, conservative 1993 self-portrait, which “impelled” her to begin looking at Close in detail, in filling each grid square with “dots, squares and circles [whose] number and permutation evoke the rhythm of tantric graphics, of folkloric or mystical patterns of music, or even of indigenous forms of craft and decoration.”

“Improvisation and meditation,” she continues, “spring to mind: processes in which the blind, purely sensual repetition of elemental sounds, movements or marks leads the self to experience oneness, infinity and joy.” Recently, Close has returned to photography as a primary format, making gorgeous daguerreotype images of, among others, his friend, the composer Philip Glass (pictured below), and Brad Pitt—as well as, perhaps inevitably, a couple more self-portraits. Cajori’s description above could equally well apply to Glass’ minimalist compositions—he comes from the same era and school of thought as Close, and was an assistant to Richard Serra, a sculptor whom Close befriended during his time at Yale. His composition “Portrait of Chuck,” written in 2005, undulates beneath the interview and gallery-photography portions of the film.

Performed by pianist Bruce Levingston, the piece represents, to a degree, Glass returning a favour: it’s a portrait for a portrait, seeing as Close has used a 1968 photograph he took of Glass “about 150 times” in his work over the years. Evening-out the balance of popular to avant-garde music, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday play in the background of the ‘in-progress’ scenes in which Close is working on the portrait. Cajori interviews a number of friends and family members, who are for the most part very insightful—though a couple of interviews, especially those in which artists lead the discussion down rabbit-hole tangents by discussing their own work in a little too much depth, could have been edited down or discarded without detriment to the documentary as a whole.

Nevertheless, the film is enjoyable and informative precisely because it doesn’t curtail its interviewees’ comments. This leads to a number of brilliant quotes that might have otherwise been sidelined, like this one from the late Robert Rauschenberg: “[Chuck’s] early work had an uncontrolled rawness, and the later work [has] a mystery that one may never decipher. It’s like going into an Egyptian tomb [but being unable to] read hieroglyphics.”

A shorter documentary—even one that was cut by only 20 minutes—probably would not deliver such a treasure trove of insightful commentary, including this, another gem from Robert Storr (italics mine):

[With Chuck,] you get a big aggressive painting that pushes you away, but simultaneously draws you in… an ugly thing that draws your attention and becomes a more beautiful thing… These double-meanings [and] contradictory responses are what [his] paintings are about. The paintings are not about realism, they are realism in use. They’re not about psychology, but they provoke psychological responses and invite psychological guesswork on the part of the viewer—even if you don’t know who these people are.

The strength of Cajori’s documentary is its patience—a deliberate reticence and quiet tenor that allows interview subjects to talk about Close’s work, as well as their own art in relation to his—meaning the film expands to survey almost an entire school of artistic thought.

Chuck Close is out now on DVD.