Chuck Close - Photo Maquettes; ZIP´s interview with curator Kristy Bryce
Chuck Close - The Portraitist
For several decades, he has been among the most famous artists of our time: the American painter Chuck Close. His latest exhibition, “Chuck Close: Photo Maquettes,” being shown at Eykyn Maclean New York from 16 April – 24 May 2013, is an utter surprise. It is the first exhibition focusing on the connection between the photographed portraits, the photo maquettes, and Chuck Close’s large-scale painted portraits. In our interview, curator Kristy Bryce talks about weaknesses turned strengths and about the symbiosis of craftsmanship and humanity.
Any old-school photographer would probably be aghast at the sight of the photographs serving as models, the photo maquettes, scribbled over with names, numbers, fingerprints, smudged by water, Scotch-taped, and patterned with pencil-drawn grids. All of these – by professional standards – “no-gos” are either strewn all over the photos or left in the margins for good, as if that were the most natural thing. The maquettes are an unusual sight at first. Their singularity, however, transforms them from working studies needed for the completion of Chuck Close’s large-scale paintings to independent pieces of art, works in their own rights. Raw and not idealized.
During long days of work, Chuck Close copies the portrait from the gridded photo onto the canvas cell by cell. Each cell is filled with circles and ovals in different color variations, bringing the picture a little closer to the future portrait with every row. At a closer look, these small mosaics with their round shapes almost remind me of Gustav Klimt’s paintings. Considering that in younger years, Chuck Close spent some time studying in Vienna at the Academy of Fine Arts, this association may not be far off the mark.
Part of the fascination emanating from Close’s work lies in his sole concentration on portraits, defying a condition called face blindness, the inability to recognize faces. Even though he has suffered from hemiplegia since the 1980s, the strong-willed, exceptionally gifted artist has not let himself be stopped from painting. On the contrary, his new, refined working techniques produce ever more enthralling pieces of art.
Interview by Katja Schmolka
Katja Schmolka: How did the idea come up to make a solo exhibition of Chuck Close’s photo maquettes in New York?
Kristy Bryce: I asked him to! I brought the idea to him. I wanted to curate a show on his works which have never been exhibited before. For a curator, nothing could be more exciting, especially since these photo maquettes have never been the subject of an exhibition. Also, they have never before been the focus in a book, only in our catalog that accompanies our show. I thought that they really deserved special attention.
K.S.: Did you have the freedom to choose the works you wanted?
K.B.: I was able to go to Chuck’s studio and choose the works. He let me pick the ones that I liked; he even gave us some from his private collection. This was actually very emotional for me, especially also knowing we would be able to present these works to the public for the very first time.
K.S.: How did the portrait theme become Chuck Close’s main interest?
K.B.: Portrait has always been Chuck’s subject, from the very beginning of his career. Photo maquettes are working studies for his final paintings. He has had a very long career and there is great consistency in his work. We are fortunate that photo maquettes have always been present in his work, since the early 1970s, showing this really fascinating process. Thus our show is able to be a career retrospective, as seen through his photo maquettes.
K.S.: Who are the people he portrays?
K.B.: His subjects are mostly his friends, and most of them happen to be fellow artists, like composer Philip Glass, artists Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl, Cecily Brown and the philanthropist Agnes Gund. There are also several key self-portraits from the early 1970s.
K.S.: Why do you think artists are so obsessed with doing self-portraits?
K.B.: The self portrait has been a challenge for artists from the very beginning. We think of artists such as Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Picasso all responding to the challenge of painting their own image. One important fact for any artist who does self-portraits is that his own face is always available. It’s interesting to see how Chuck Close’s face has changed over the many years. For painters, it has always been a challenge to do a portrait, especially in former times, when no technical support through a photo camera was available. Their technique involved holding a mirror for hours. Chuck Close treats his self-portraits as he treats all the other subjects. That’s very interesting to me. I think for a painter it has always been a challenge to do a self-portrait.
K.S.: What is most fascinating for you about Chuck Close’s body of work?
K.B.: The thing that fascinates me most about Chuck’s work is that the process is very deliberate, but its not mechanical. It’s all about looking. He is looking at the photographs. It is all about that vision and essentially about translating what he sees in the photograph. He translates this vision into the painting. The vitality and energy in his work really come from human presence. That makes his work really speak to us. Chuck is also one of the great colorists of our time. He has a very strong sense of color combination. This is one of my favorite pairings in the show – a screen print from 2012 which is based on the maquette. The grid is not invariable, it serves as an underlying structure. Here it joins three squares to create the lips. Here, instead, the focal point, the bridge of Chuck’s eyeglasses, lends volume to his images – the shapes within the squares are very organic – circles and ovals, very natural-looking forms. Objects become multi-layered, which reveals his studio practice. In this picture, for example, we can see that the maquette’s corners are cut off allowing him to place the maquette at just the right angle to the painting that he needs to have the full view of it while he paints from it. In the right corner of his canvas, we see paint strokes; maybe he wanted to clean off his brush between painting on the canvas and looking at the maquette.
K.S.: Would you describe his work as spontaneous, even though his approach seems very logical at first sight?
K.B.: His work and approach are definitely spontaneous, and also intuitive, that’s why it has this tremendous energy!
K.S.: Thank you for the interview
Chuck Close Photo Maquettes, through 24 May, 2013 Eykyn Maclean, 23 East 67th Street, 2nd Floor, Tuesday to Friday, 10am - 5pm and Saturday, 11am - 4pm