Artist never takes things easy Art: Chuck Close's approach may change, but the faces remain the same.

May 27, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Faces are Chuck Close's thing. He burst on the art world in the late 1960s with his huge black and white paintings of faces -- sometimes 9-by-7 feet -- showing every pore and every strand of hair.

In the three decades since, he has changed his manner a lot. He has made faces in color, he has made smaller faces, he has made faces composed of hundreds of fingerprint marks, and collage faces of pulp paper pieces that look like potato chips.

In recent years his faces have become more colorful and expressive. But the face has been the constant subject matter, and always the faces of those he knows: himself, his wife, friends and colleagues such as the composer Philip Glass and artists Alex Katz, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein.

This spring he was given a widely praised retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. And the Maryland Institute, College of Art, following its tradition of honoring eminent artists, awarded Close an honorary degree at its commencement ceremonies.

He arrived at the recent ceremonies in his customary mode of transport, a wheelchair. Nine years ago, when he was 48, an artery collapsed in his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. After eight months in the hospital he recovered enough to be able to paint with brushes strapped to his weakened hands, but the post-paralysis work was not compromised. Some, including MOMA curator of painting and sculpture Kirk Varnedoe, felt it was stronger.

He also arrived here unprepared, not knowing that he was supposed to address the crowd. "They neglected to tell me that I was the commencement speaker, so I'll just have to shoot from the lip," he said. (The institute says it sent him letters about giving a speach.)

Nonetheless, his remarks were graceful and to the point, welcoming the graduates into the world of art and calling it a much better occupation than a more remunerative but boring job. "Artists can live at poverty level better than regular folks live with much larger incomes," he said.

Referring to his paralysis, he said he had never wanted anything but to get back to art. "Not only because I have a family and children to support but because it has brought me so much pleasure," he said. "I hope that you will have as much fun doing what you will be doing as I have in the last 30-odd years."

After the ceremony, he had to go back to Pennsylvania Station and catch a train for New York in less than an hour. But he took time to discuss his work.

Some have emphasized the formal nature of Close's art, seeing its essence in how it is made rather than in any connection with portraiture. Varnedoe, on the other hand, writing in the retrospective's catalog, called Close's art "involved, by its very nature, in a protracted consideration of matters of individuality, and identity."

To Close it's both. "I tend to talk more about the formal issues, the process, the activities that build the image," he said. "But by no means would I want that to imply that I'm less than completely interested in the subject. I don't do commissioned portraits. I don't paint college presidents or chairmen of the board. These are people who matter a great deal to me.

"So I would say that it's probably the duality of the work which interests me. It's both naturalistic, something that you can relate to through a life experience, and it's also highly artificial marks distributed on a flat surface, and to concentrate on one and not the other is to miss the point."

The many changes in his working methods and media over the decades have been motivated by an effort to keep the work challenging. "Ease is the greatest enemy of the artist," he said.

As soon as he gets a sense of facility with one way of working he alters some variables -- the material, the scale, the tools he uses -- in order to give himself new hurdles. "I think unless you're fighting as hard to overcome your facility, as the klutz is fighting to overcome his lack of facility, in the tortoise and hare race the klutz will win."

Close does have constants, however. He works from a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid of the subject, creates a grid of squares -- on the photo, transfers the grid to the working surface and creates the portrait square by square. If anyone thinks that's zTC formulaic, he demurs.

"I think my early, supposedly open and abstract work was probably far more formulaic than what I'm doing now even though each painting looked different. Somebody said the difference between my work and Jackson Pollock was that Pollock didn't know what his next painting was going to look like, but he knew very much what he was going to do in the studio that day. And I know what my painting's going to look like -- it's going to look a lot like the photograph -- but I don't know what I'm going to do in the studio that day."

His work didn't change in any important way as a result of his paralysis, he said. "There might be a slightly more celebratory aspect to the work, because I'm so glad to get back to work."

In fact, he thinks of the paralysis as a kind of variation on the challenges he's deliberately put in his way. "I've always put rocks in my shoes," he said. "These were just rocks that were inserted by God, or some force of nature."

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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