When he left the UW for Yale in 1962, Close changed his style completely, dumping abstract paintings based on de Kooning in favor or “photorealist” portraits. He turned his back on abstraction in favor of photorealism because he wanted to “find his own voice” and not continue to do work similar to that of his UW mentor, Art Professor Alden Mason. It was a dramatic break: Photorealism is a painting style resembling photography in its close attention to detail, the opposite of abstract expressionism. He achieved his international reputation by demonstrating that a very traditional art form, portrait painting, could be resurrected as a challenging form of contemporary expression. His work has been superficially described as photo realist, “but is more revealingly positioned with the development of minimalism and process art of the 1960s and 1970s,” says Christopher Ozubko, director of the UW School of Art.
Close’s large, iconic portraits are generated from a system of marking which involves painstaking replication of the dot system of the mechanical printing process. The portraits he produces–utterly frontal, mural-size, and centered in shallow space–replicate the veracity of a photograph and undermine the objectivity of photography at the same time, critics say.
In the early days, though, his work was the complete opposite of realism. Upon his arrival at the UW from Everett Community College–which back in the 1950s was a feeder for the UW art program–he was influenced heavily by the now-retired Mason. They used to get thick paint by the gallon from a special dealer in Oakland, and churned out lots of abstract works. “It was the opposite of the precise work he is best known for,” says Mason. “We just glopped on tons of paint and followed the influence of de Kooning and other New York painters of the time. The brushwork then took a lot of energy, was emotional, hard work, full of anxiety and trauma because it was all improvisational. You had no idea what was going to turn out.
The Marxist Analysis enables a piece of illustration or artwork to be put in its historical, social and cultural context. This can be done by analysing the production, consumption and status of the image. The work of Chuck Close can be analysed in this way to discover its purpose and context. I am particularly interested in the dramatic shift in the work of Chuck Close and the way he completely changed his style and way of working.
Close began by producing very large photorealistic portraits and had a unique and very well liked style. Photorealism was very popular at the time culture
However, he was not able to continue working in this way after suffering from a spinal cord injury in 1988, which caused him to lose mobility in all parts of his body except a small amount of movement in his neck. His accident left him feeling helpless and many believed this was the end of his career as an artist. However, he did not give up and continued producing artwork by holding a paintbrush between his teeth and painting small pixel-like sections to make up a larger image.
This image shows Close’s new way of working
Although his later paintings differ in method from his earlier canvases, the preliminary process remains the same. To create his grid work copies of photos, Close puts a grid on the photo and on the canvas and copies cell by cell. Typically, each square within the grid is filled with roughly executed regions of color (usually consisting of painted rings on a contrasting background) which give the cell a perceived ‘average’ hue which makes sense from a distance. His first tools for this included an airbrush, rags, razor blade, and an eraser mounted on a power drill. His first picture with this method was Big Self Portrait, a black and white enlargement of his face to a 107.5 in by 83.5 in (2.73 m by 2.12 m) canvas, made in over four months in 1968, and acquired by the Walker Art Center in 1969. He made seven more black and white portraits during this period. He has been quoted as saying that he used such diluted paint in the airbrush that all eight of the paintings were made with a single tube of mars black acrylic.
However, Close continued to paint with a brush strapped onto his wrist with tape, creating large portraits in low-resolution grid squares created by an assistant. Viewed from afar, these squares appear as a single, unified image which attempt photo-reality, albeit in pixelated form. Although the paralysis restricted his ability to paint as meticulously as before, Close had, in a sense, placed artificial restrictions upon his hyperrealist approach well before the injury. That is, he adopted materials and techniques that did not lend themselves well to achieving a photorealistic effect. Small bits of irregular paper or inked fingerprints were used as media to achieve astoundingly realistic and interesting results. Close proved able to create his desired effects even with the most difficult of materials to control.
He soon regained some movement in his upper arm and was able to produce artwork even more freely.
He then found he was not completely powerless and developed a new style of working which was even more amazing than before his accident. By losing something valuable, he found something he never would have even imagined and realised he was stronger than anyone ever thought.
The cultural context of Close’s work contributes a lot to its meaning. At a time of Abstract Expressionism he went against the mainstream with his photorealistic portraits and redefined portraiture. He has always worked strictly from photographs, producing canvases usually about three meters high. Chuck Close uses grids to transfer the images to the canvas producing lifelike images with intricate detail.
His earlier work had a very strong photographic feel- he even blurred out things further away from the face, as a real camera lens blurs the background of a photo. Chuck
Close did not work in the same way as anyone else at the time. His portraits focused on the hair, skin and details such as wrinkles, rather than on the eyes, as many other artists at the time did. Such realism was created as Close captured every pore and wrinkle.
This technique started out with a series of portraits in black and white, and the artist began using more colours in the 1970’s.
In the 1980’s, he started towards abstraction. His best known technique is the fingerprint paintings in which he used an inkpad and his own fingerprints to fill in the grid of his canvas. The canvases got bigger, but the realism was still there, in fact, if a person were to stand at a distance where he/she could see the entire image, it would be very difficult for that person to tell that the piece was created with fingerprints. Once the person gets close enough to see the fingerprints, it is very unlikely that he/she can get a good view of the piece as a whole.
His most current stage of abstraction is one developed after he became partially paralyzed. He fills each of his grids with an oval composed of a few rings of bright colors. The style is still realistic, but not to the degree of Superrealism. Average paintings done with this technique is typically smaller than his earlier work.
Close usually works in stages but in this piece the rounded or hard-edged scribble shapes are not determined by a grid, unlike his other work. Close’s actual hand drawn pencil lines on the softground plate seem physical. To make this piece he had to alter his approach to the image but had wanted to make a face using colour separations for a long time. Colour separations are made through variations on the primary colours red, yellow and blue so rather than creating the image one square at a time, he needed to think in terms of the whole face at once even though the whole face could not come together until the final colour was layered on. Each individual state is scribbled echo of the entire face. The print is relatively small compared to the rest of his work, being only 18 1/4 x 15 1/4”, zooming in on Close’s face, cropping it off on all four sides. The extreme close up may symbolise the mature artist looking back on his career, confronting both the viewer and himself in a portfolio of intimate-sized etchings with a hand-drawn feel. Close’s own explanation for why he made this piece is practical and unpretentious “I wanted to demystify the process so that people understand how things happen.” This piece would have been very time-consuming and labour intensive for Close as each stage had to be planned expertly.
How does it communicate with the audience
This Marxist approach can lead on to Semicotic analysis which studies the use of a set of signs which enables the intended audience to understand the artwork’s meaning.