What can be seen as a beautiful work of art by one person may not appear that way to someone else. So much in the art world is subjective, yet when artists are able to come up with something revolutionary while showing technical prowess it tends to garner attention. Nancy by Chuck Close is one of those paintings that forces people to take notice. Creating portraits at a time when they were considered dead by many; Close was able to achieve success while overcoming diversity with his larger than life portraits. Nancy not only helped to vault Close’s career into the mainstream, but also assisted in the rebirth of realism into American art. Close took the fame that came with his early portraits and later on adapted the style around his needs and feelings at the time. All of these reasons are part of why Chuck Close is one of America’s most influential artists today.
Painted in 1968, Nancy was Chuck Close’s second portrait belonging to his “heads” series. Measuring in at 108 3/8 x 82 1/4 in, Nancy is a black and white portrait painted using acrylic on canvas (Milwaukee Art Museum). It shows a woman from the neck up looking at the viewer with an empty almost emotionless stare. It is rather bland in the fact that there is no real focal point that stands out in the portrait. Instead he centers Nancy on the canvas with no background behind her. Close portrays Nancy with a lot of details. When first looking at it she seems unwelcoming. She has straw-like hair, which is shown unkempt; she has a bit of a cross to her eyes, and a slight snaggletooth. Close shows all of her wrinkles and age lines along with all of her freckles. Nancy does not appear to have any hidden symbols seeing as how it follows the photorealism style.
Nancy is a portrait that does not hold anything back. Everything about her face is there for everyone to see. It is incredibly detailed having even the hair follicles on her face being visible. When you look closely it looks like a whole different picture than when you view it from afar. Up close one can become confused as to what they are looking at because of its enormous size. Since all the physical features of the face are so grossly enlarged it is difficult to determine exactly what everything is. Even though Close used a grid system to paint Nancy, just like all of his “heads” portraits, it is not as if the grid is actually visible to the naked eye (Dantos). He does a good job of smoothing everything out to look fluid. From further away Nancy has all the details seem to take shape together and it is possible to tell it is a portrait of a person. Again because of its colossal size, even when standing afar it is possible to see Nancy is an exceedingly detailed portrait.
Chuck Close has done a lot of different types of work in his career but none are as famous as his “heads” portfolio which stems from his notorious self-portrait (O’Hagan). Nancy belongs to this famed portfolio and has an interesting background on how it came to be. Close started painting these close up portraits almost by accident when one of his previous projects seemed to be on the verge of failure. It started when Close decided to paint a giant scale 11 by 22 foot nude portrait of a woman rendered from a photograph. As he started to work on it he realized that while it certainly was big in size, it lacked certain flair. In the midst of this he decided to take a picture of himself and start experiment painting that on the same grand scale. His photo was of him from the neck up in a disheveled type of manner. The photo is taken in such a real manner that it seems very uncongenial and unexpressive. He took the photo and divided it up into a grid and from this grid he took the small sections of the photograph and one at a time transferred them over to the larger canvas (Gomez). This allowed him to concentrate on depicting all the little details in a large, almost photograph like fashion while still maintaining the big picture effect. The result as previously discussed is a very powerful portrait with a looming presence.
From the success of this self portrait, Close then started on a whole collection of these close up portraits. The subjects were himself, his family, and his friends. One of these people was the artist Nancy Graves. One of the things that make Nancy different from some of Close’s portraits is that most of Close’s subjects were not known before the portraits and gained notoriety after; Nancy Graves however was already in the midst of making a name for herself with her own artwork at the time. He took the photo of her that the portrait was based off in much the same manner as the one he took for his original self-portrait. This means she was sitting there showing almost no expression, seemingly void of all emotions. Taking these kinds of photos requires a certain comfort level with the subject seeing as how they are essentially being shown with all their faults exposed. Robert Storr, an organizing curator for one of his exhibitions, describes the dynamic between Close and his subjects well when he says Close has an, “extreme intimacy with his subjects which Close, as a portraitist, presumes would be impossible to sustain if the artist were genuinely indifferent to them” (Johnson, “Learning from Exhibitions: Chuck Close.” 34). This might be the reason Close used friends and family with whom he had a strong relationship with, and therefore people who he cared for. Storr goes on to say “the corresponding intimacy he establishes between a given sitter, locked in photographic permanence, and the view, who is at liberty to examine his or her every crease and follicle, as if he or she were a laboratory specimen, is predicated on a subdued yet powerful sense of mutuality.” (Johnson, “Learning from Exhibitions: Chuck Close.” 34). Here he reaffirms the notion that his portrait subjects had to feel a sense of connection and trust with Close in order to be viewed by everyone in a kind of vulnerable state.
Close has always had certain affection for photography, daguerreotypes in particular, and therefore loved working in this manner of portraits from photographs. Daguerreotypes are early photographs created by using the developing process of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (Craven 238). The daguerreotype had a huge impact on the world in the 1800’s because they brought photography within the reach of the common population. People praised them for the accuracy in which they could represent things. While a very old technique, Close appreciated daguerreotypes and showed this by choosing them to be the things from which he painted from. Close has said “It’s like holding a book in your lap. When you look at something with a bunch of other people it is a different experience. I just love the object status of a daguerreotype” (Beem). This is a viewpoint that visibly carries over into his work.
He uses the photographs over actual models because he says the photographs give him “something very specific to do that wasn’t going to change” (Beem). Another major driving force behind using photographs compared to the actual person is that Close suffers from a disease called prosopagnosia. This condition makes him unable to recognize people’s faces. According to him from an interview with Jeffrey Brown, taking the photograph and working from that makes things “flatten out” for him which allows him to establish it to memory. Close goes on to say that one of the reasons he does portraits of people who are close to him, such as family and friends, is because that is who matters and how he helps himself create their faces in his memory. This fact also goes back to relate to the previously discussed comfort level with his friends and family members as subjects. Close says this is the only way he has found to work around his condition with such detail and prowess. Working in photographs helps him recognize things as they are and create the images as well as portrays the message he wants to pass along. This methodology was common in a lot of his portraits and even underwent some evolution as his career went along.
Nancy belongs in his early portraits from photographs in that it is in black and white and still uses the grid system of representing each grid square as an individual portrait that come together as a whole creating a very real almost photo like quality. He later took this method and expanded upon it to include the use of colors, as well as taking the grid system and making each square their own abstract in which they blend together to create a general portrait, almost having a mosaic quality. This has made his later works lose their photographic quality but they still take on a style of their own. This evolution has occurred due to a couple of different reasons but the biggest is due to the fact that he has been partially paralyzed from a spinal artery collapse in 1988, an occurrence in which Close calls “The Event” (Brown). He now paints using brushes strapped to his wrists but still maintains the same portrait from photograph style with the grid system.
While Close himself does not like to classify his works as part of art movements (Brown), a lot of his works, including Nancy, fit into the pop art movement; more specifically the New Realism or photorealism style in the 1960’s. The term photorealism was created by Louis K. Meisel in 1969 and became to be known by other names including super-realism, hyper-realism, new realism, and neo-realism. (Meisel 12) While it may have all these different names, the art works are very similar in format. They usually take a photograph of something to capture all of the little details and then recreate a painting of it on a grander scale. The end result is a painting that mimics a photograph but the viewer still views it as a painting.
The attraction that brings people to view these paintings has a lot to do with the technical detail and in the way it is painted more than the subject matter itself (Genocchio). This can also lead to the paintings seeming a bit stale and seemingly devoid of life however. Due to the high levels of details in these works, the artist needs a high level of technical prowess to depict everything as it is. Genocchio goes on to compare photorealism to Trompe l’oeil in that it elicits the same response from people in the way that the painting may not be of the most important or beautiful subject manner, yet the viewer’s attention is grasped by the technical prowess and tricks it plays on your eyes. Nancy definitely falls into this category seeing as how the painting itself cannot be claimed as beautiful, but it still garners interest due to its realism and bluntness of detail.
Another interesting aspect of Nancy, and all of his “heads” portraits, is the timing of their painting and release to the public. At the time Close, along with many others, thought portraiture was “viewed as a bankrupt form, dead in the water” (O’Hagan). Close called them “heads” for this reason so as not to attach a negative stigma to them. Tim Marlow, a British art historian, has said of Close that he was a main driving force in reinventing portraiture in America (O’Hagan). These portraits were so different from other things at the time that there was not a correct term in describing them. In this way one could say that Close did succeed in creating a movement by himself which transcends a traditional label such as photorealism.
The reason I picked this particular work to write this paper on was because it had a shock value on me when I first saw it. It was interesting how such an unattractive portrait could capture my interest and force me to do a double take. At first glance I thought it was quite grotesque and did not recognize that it was actually a portrait of a real person; I thought it was some distorted idea of an ugly person. In fact as I was standing there more than a couple of people came along and commented on how hideous it seemed, further adding to the mystique.
It also got my attention because the incredible detail levels make it seem as if it actually is a photograph instead of just a portrait. As I looked at it more it seemed to emit a sort of aura or presence due to its enormous size. I thought it was one of those painting that you can look at for a long time and still find small little nuances you did not notice before. It also has the ability to play tricks with one’s eyes depending on how far away one views it. Up close it does not seem to be much of anything and it is possible to see all the intricacy that went into the portrait as it seems to come together all smooth. When gazed upon from further away one is able to see that it comes into focus and look like a detailed photograph. I went back home and researched Chuck Close, became engrossed by his style and story and therefore determined Nancy was the work I decided to write about.
The feeling it gives me is almost unsettling in some regard. It is in such large scale that it almost takes a life of its own. Nancy also amazes me because it makes me think how confident Nancy Graves must have been to have her portrayed in such an unsightly manner with every flaw on showcase for people to see. It is almost as if she is making a statement with Close of that even though the human body is not perfect and can be ugly at times, that it still can be used as an art form. This seems to add an almost mystical quality that is hard to describe. The fact that Close can make something like this portrait and still make it a beautiful because of its detail is absolutely astounding to me. Typically when asked to think of famous portraits it is human nature to think of such greats as DaVinci’s the Mona Lisa or Gilbert Stuarts Portrait of George Washington. These are portraits which are much more aesthetically pleasing and follow closer to the thought of form that makes up portrait painting. While it seems as if no one thinks of Close’s portraits in this same “beautiful” manner, I enjoy how Close makes them well revered and well heralded among art critics and general viewers alike.
It makes me think when one takes anything and zooms in enough to expose all the little flaws and it becomes grotesque just as Nancy looks, how even grotesque things can still be subjects of great works of art. The fact that Close works with faces even though he cannot recognize them because of his condition also interests me. Coupling this with his paralysis suffered from “the Event”, along with him being wheelchair bound makes him a remarkable topic of study. From reading some interviews with him and looking at some of his quotes he seems very driven and passionate about his work which adds to the mystique of not only Nancy, but also his artistic career as a whole. He also seems to be quite the eclectic character and likes to do things his own way.
Chuck Close accomplished setting himself apart while painting his “heads” series, including Nancy. By painting Nancy he created an awe striking portrait that captures the viewer’s attention. Nancy showcases Close’s technical proficiency with all of its details, yet also manages to congeal all the details into one smooth image. Close not only started to set himself apart, but also helped bring photorealism into the mainstream in America with his larger than life portraits. These portraits exude a sort of mystique that is not easily ignored and it is one of the many reasons Close remains one of the most influential painters in the history of American art.