FINDING THE COLOR WORLD
An interview with Chuck Close
conducted by John Clay
This interview was commissioned by ARTZAR.com and is reprinted here with permission. Many thanks to ARTZAR's editor, Mark Katzman, for acting as teacher, mentor, and chief editor in the process of bringing this interview to fruition.
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i n t r o d u c t i o n
Chuck Close's huge portraits - paintings or collages or prints of the face, usually close-cropped like a driver's license photo - hang in museums and galleries around the world. Close started painting at age 6 and has never stopped. His childhood art studies, growing up in Washington State, led to graduate studies at Yale, where he emulated the brash, colorful work of de Kooning. In 1967 Close found his own style in Big Self-Portrait, a large, black and white photorealistic painting, followed by like portraits of other people who were part of Close's own world: friends, like composer Philip Glass and artist Richard Serra, and family members. The portrait painting has never stopped, and neither has Close's search for new techniques. In the late 1970s, Close found color again and over the decades has put the spectrum through one transformation after another - color dots, large and small, small dots within large, three colors combined to make all colors (the red-blue-yellow used in color printing), and countless colors combined to make countless others. Color isn't just there in the tube for Close; you make it on the canvas. And color isn't something you plan in your head and then try to copy; you find color, through the painting process itself. Form and line, too, are discovered. Close starts with a photo, covers it with a grid, transfers the grid, enlarged to scale, onto the big blank canvas, and then starts in one corner, applying paint to the squares, repeating the process in pass after pass from different angles. He makes no underlying sketch to guide him; just the grid. The ears and eyes and locks of hair appear only as the regions of hue and dark and light incrementally coalesce into shapes. Now 61, Close continues finding new color and new form through portraits of the people he knows and loves.
I spoke with Chuck Close on January 14th, 2002 in his downtown Manhattan art studio, a place with a nondescript exterior that I had passed by many times before. What amazing things can be going on, behind the brick walls and shiny glass facades we see every day! The entry room was long and deep but open, with a high ceiling and frosted windows which allowed bountiful light. Along the left ran a long desktop area and above that, a wall filled with books. From the right wall smiled a big portrait of artist Robert Rauschenberg, composed of 4 large Iris prints pieced together. Straight ahead through a large double doorway was the studio itself: deep, spacious, and bright. At the back wall and beneath a long skylight, an easel held a portrait in progress, tilted at a 45 degree angle. Two tall windows yielded light from the left wall, and a series of daguerreotypes adorned the right wall. Works and supplies lined the floorboards. Nearer the front was a long rectangular metal & formica type table with 6 metal chairs seated around it. With a friendly greeting, Close offered me a seat and then pulled up across from me at the table. He uses a wheelchair ever since a collapsed spinal artery in 1988. The table was covered with papers and telephones and the whole space had the good feel of being very much worked in. Before we began, he took off a long denim work apron from over his trousers and long sleeves.
i n t e r v i e w
CLAY: Who is the painting in progress on the easel?
CLOSE: My wife. I'm going to try it one more time to make one she likes. She's my toughest subject.
CLAY: How many times have you painted her?
CLOSE: I think maybe this is the fifth time, over the years.
CLAY: Isn't there a photo from the 70s of you pouring plaster over her?
CLOSE: I was making a dress mould so she could make her own clothes. Not a George Siegel. [laughter]
CLAY: How close to completion is the painting?
CLOSE: Well...from the tape up it's getting there. It's on the second pass through from the tape up. And after I complete the second pass, I'll turn it the other way so that the point that's in the left-hand corner will go up. I'll be looking at each square adjacent to different squares, as I'm going through the other diagonal.
CLAY: So with each pass you can....
CLOSE: Revise. The first pass is like the first draft. Then you go back and you toss this word out, you put another word in and see if it works better, you know. So, it's that kind of process.
CLAY: As you rework, do you actually remove paint?
CLOSE: Not really remove...I just put more on.
CLAY: Do you still start with only magenta on the first pass, as you did in the 70s?
CLOSE: No, this has, you see, all the different colors. No, that was when I was making paintings with only three colors - red, blue, and yellow. This way there are a lot of different colors on there. I have to move the colors from what's on there to what I want, which is, you know, a series of 4, 5 or 6 corrections - correcting moves. It's sort of the color equivalent of a musical chord. If you think about the way a composer would go in a room and score, let's say, the oboe's gonna play this note, the bassoon's gonna play that note, the french horn will play that note, the resultant sound, the combination of those notes makes kind of a chord, and I'm doing the same thing with color. The 4, 5, or 6 colors when seen together will make kind of a color chord, in a sense.
CLAY: So the colors you start with will change?
CLOSE: They're wrong on purpose. One time there will be blue underneath and the next one will have pink underneath and the next one will have orange underneath or green underneath. That's so that the correction moves will be different. I'll have to move from green to what I want, the next time from pink to what I want. I respond to what's already there, and all the decisions are made in context in the rectangle instead of being made solely on the palette. So I'm always bringing each square along by, relatively intuitively - what does it need now? I need some of this color. I try to arrive at it in 4 or 5 colors. It's the way they work together. Also, at the same time that I'm putting the colors on, by putting English on the stroke, by having the shapes swell or shrink or have a dark center or a light center, or a diagonal axis or whatever, or connect with other shapes, that becomes a sort of drawing. Because there's no drawing other than the grid. So at the same time that I'm finding the color world I want, I'm also trying to make the imagery, you know, by the nature of the strokes themselves.
CLAY: You've said that you feel a relationship between your work and the stone floor mosaics of southern Italy.
CLOSE: I was living in Rome for a couple of months, a few years ago. In fact, I had sort of made a pilgrimage to Ravenna to see the Byzantine mosaics, and I was disappointed. It was so far away, so high up in the air that you couldn't see the individual tesserae. It was dark and sort of dramatic, and the glistening gold and all of that stuff, and I didn't find them very interesting. But from Rome south you see a lot of floor mosaics, and the viewing distance, instead of being like 40 feet in the air, is your height, and so it never stops being chunks of stone even when it warps into an image. I liked that; the physicality of it. And it also is a record of the decisions the artisan made and it is almost as if I were looking over his shoulder, even though several hundreds of years had passed, because I can see how he chipped the corner off of one and nudged it in and, you know, how a cluster of these marks ended up making an eyeball or making a nose or something. And I thought that it had a lot of affinity to what I do, but it was nothing that I was aware of until after I was there. I think most paintings are a record of the decisions that the artist made. I just perhaps make them a little clearer than some people have, and clearer than I did with my earlier paintings where it was all smushed together to make a continuous surface, even though it was built out of units.
CLAY: As your career has gone on you've pushed that mosaic quality further.
CLOSE: In between those early ones and what I'm doing now, there were all kinds of pieces in which I tried to build works incrementally and let the increments show, so I sprayed dots or I used my finger prints or used chunks of pulp paper, or any one of a number of ways to build an image out of discrete individual units.
CLAY: Was "Robert I - IV", 1974, a stepping stone to those more discrete units? The largest one in the series looks like your photographic style works, while the smallest has so few squares that there's only room for just a few dots.
CLOSE: Well, I had done a print...the world's largest mezzotint: "Keith". That was the first piece in which I literally scratched into the plate the lines of the grid, and let it be shown that a continuous tone image was in fact made out of blocks, and after I did that I started drawing a pencil grid on the canvas and spraying dots, and that "Robert" series leads up to a 9 foot high piece that has 104,060 some dots. I discovered about 150 dots is the minimum number of dots to make a specific recognizable person. You can make something that looks like a head, with fewer dots, but you won't be able to give much information about who it is. And then the next one [in the series] had 4 times as many dots and 4 times as many dots and 4 times as many dots. There are thresholds below which you cannot comment on things and above which you can, and finally with the largest one, which is 9 feet high, I was actually making beard hairs, or a string of them would become an eyelash. After "Robert" I did some pastels and I did other pieces in which there was just basically one color per square, and then they would get bigger and I could get 2 or 3 colors into the square and ultimately I just started making oil paintings.
© 2002 ARTZAR