THE PHOTO    
AS SUBJECT    
PART TWO      

Ironically, Close became a Photo Realist not because he was interested in the photographic image but simply because he wished to impose more discipline on his work. Like every artist who has been to art school, he discovered that his first need was to escape his education. He had acquired a great facility for producing paintings under the rules of abstraction that held sway in the more advanced schools of the late fifties and early sixties (in his case, the University of Washington in Seattle and the graduate school at Yale). "Had the schools I went to been teaching figure painting," he observes, "then I'm quite sure that I wouldn't be doing what I am. I didn't think of this consciously at the time, but if I'd had to look around and find something about which I knew absolutely nothing, it was figuration."

His West Coast background may also have been influential, for figuration had continued to be an issue there long after it had been rejected in the East. However, the painterly style that prevailed was too much like the form of Abstract Expressionism he had learned in school to offer any real change. He did not wish to interpret forms any longer but to start over again in very controlled circumstances. So he elected the most precise model and syntax he could find—that of the camera (7)


Close with his painting Big Nude

Close with Big Nude    
1967-68, acrylic on canvas,    
117 x 254",    
collection of the artist.    

His first attempt at photographically realistic painting was a nude of Cinemascopic proportions, which he began in 1966. The first version was never completed because it soon became obvious that the problems involved were far greater than he had anticipated. On the second try, he discarded brushes altogether and limited himself to black paint alone, using the white of the canvas as a photograph uses paper. Still not entirely sure of how to go about it, he tacked a twenty-six-foot-long canvas to the wall and began to experiment.

I started at one end of the painting and by the time I got to the other, I had used it as a testing ground for a lot of different systems of getting stuff on. I used sponges, rags, spray guns, razor blades, even erasers. I stuck a pencil eraser in an electric drill and started to use that to take off the paint I didn't want. When I began, the only thing I knew for sure was that I didn't want to use white paint.


Painting with an airbrush.

The painting ended up as an erratic anthology of techniques, but it was an extremely efficient learning device. Among other things, it led him to adopt the airbrush for its precision and absence of brushmarks, and it impressed upon him the need to concentrate on the problems of syntax—which, in a sense, is what his painting has been about ever since.

Before attempting any further works, he made a number of large pencil drawings in which he sought a relationship between the way a drawing is made and the way a painting might be, using only the white surface of the paper and the black graphite. Then, settling upon the portrait as his subject, he began the first series of works—eight large black-and-white heads that occupied him from November 1967 through April 1970.

By the end of this series Close had refined his technique to a high degree. And, not having any more problems to resolve, he began to look around for new ones.

I didn't get bored with the image but with the process, with not having anything new to think about in the studio. I wanted a real change, one that would affect the way I thought, the tools I used, and all that, and that's when I decided to get color back into my paintings. I'd originally gotten it out because I'd always been too dependent on it, too dependent on certain "learned" color relationships. But this time I tried to find ways where I didn't need a palette and where the color literally mixed on the canvas.

COLOR      





Stages of John, 1972,
acrylic on canvas, 100 x 90"

The initial problems required about a year to work out, this time with colored pencils and watercolor paints. He turned to another photographic process, the dye transfer, to break down the image into the component colors—red, blue, and yellow—and their intermediate combinations. Setting these up alongside the painting, he proceeded to duplicate each step in order (an extraordinarily difficult feat of matching, simple as it may sound). He began at the top, in order to avoid paint-spill accidents, and worked his way down, area by area, staying within boundaries defined by wrinkles, scars, shadows, or edges. He completed the full set of colors before moving on, a system that helped him to maintain constant values throughout the work. He applied exactly the same system to the background, reproducing it with all three colors even though it happens to be a fairly uniform and anonymous gray.

The acrylic color series, begun in January 1971, was completed in only four works, largely because of difficulties posed by the material.

The opacity of the pigment was such that I was never able to have the system work completely to my satisfaction. Although it was possible to make paintings I liked, the system still seemed too bogged down in things that were qualities of the pigment. It was too coarse and not transparent enough, so I decided to make a change in my way of thinking about it. First I changed the scale, because that would change the way my hand moved and also the surface. And then I changed the paint and the base to watercolor and paper.

So far he has painted only two of these, between the summers of 1972 and 1973, both on a scale slightly larger than half of what he had used before. He hopes to try at least one more, this time working in an even larger scale than the acrylics.

Color is another parameter of Close's art that, if not as important as focus and scale, nevertheless offers major opportunities for the development of a new syntax. Photographs, and especially printed reproductions, have a very weak claim to verisimilitude. Magazine color in particular is hopelessly artificial, being subjected first to an impossible division into three basic tints plus black. It is then reconstructed largely by guesswork in a printshop where great numbers of copies are run off on a press with ink that constantly changes in amounts and intensity. Compare the reproductions in your favorite thirty-five-dollar art book with the original and you may find reality slightly disappointing. Not even those conservative Swiss printers with their seven-color processes seem to be able to resist tarting things up a little.

ANOTHER LOOK    







Bob No.II / 616
Bob No.III / 2464
Bob No.IV / 9856


ink & pencil on paper
1973
Not to scale.
All three use the same
grid, in which each
square is about 3/16
of an inch. The top
image is the smallest.

What Close sees and brings out in the color of his paintings is much the same thing that the Pop artists saw, but it is far more subtly stated. Their obsession with vulgarity as a national characteristic led them to the more blatant manifestations that occur in advertising. Close's coloring, like the rest of his painting, is not super colossal but simply larger than life.

"When I was doing the black-and-white paintings," he recalls, "I got along perfectly well with a black-and-white TV. But when I started the ones in color I had to go out and buy a color set. It's funny, but I didn't really see color for many years. But when I started to work with it again I kept bumping into colors I really liked." He is fascinated, for example, with the way that television deals with a tone as traditionally pedestrian as gray, making it "the most incredible color in the world because it is actually red, green, and blue. It has a kind of subliminal, full-saturate quality to it. Maybe it'll be a bluish gray or a reddish gray, but it's the richest damn gray I've ever seen.”

Close's most recent experiments, a series of "drawings" done with an airbrush, constitute his most radical departure. Unlike the other works, these make no use of the instrument's capacity for blending but only for controlling density. He has broken his image down into tiny dots of gray set in grids that range from as few as eleven squares across to more than two hundred squares. These experiments test the degree of detail necessary to convey the essential information about the face and the original photograph. They are a product of his desire to maintain a maximum neutrality toward every part of the image—and another step toward the ideal of economy.

Looking at the eye is one thing and looking at the cheek another, but I have always tried to have the same attitude toward both of them. But because of the nature of things I had to function differently. The act of making an eyelash with one long stroke is not the same as making a cheek. So, as much as I was interested in sameness, there was still a need to function differently, depending on what I was doing. But by breaking it down this way I can make the act of painting exactly the same all the way through.

Close calls these works drawings because the issues involved seem to him to be drawing issues. They, too, are about artificiality, but in a more obvious way than the paintings. No attempt has been made to erase or otherwise conceal the grid—a fact that automatically establishes the picture plane. And even though the fuzzy focus of the individual dots promotes a strong sensation of depth behind it, the grid constantly brings the viewer back to an awareness of the flat surface.

He constructs these complex images with a surprisingly simple module of four dots in a square. This is to prevent him from referring to the surrounding dots—which could easily lead to confusions—and to force him to keep as closely as possible to the values in the photograph. He is reusing the same images that served him for the black-and-white paintings. New images are unnecessary because he is dealing with them in entirely different ways.

The next step is color, of course, and he has already begun to make smaller studies for the first works. Among his other immediate plans is a three-color lithograph, a project that will take at least six months and requires a special press that will take eight-by-six-foot paper. (8)

It is an interesting coincidence that these works also correspond to a form of photo syntax in spite of their practical origin. It is, of course, that of television and wirephotos—another syntax that has been little explored. Once again, the more he takes away, the more he finds to deal with.

Chuck Close: What can't he do next?




FOOTNOTES    

7  The term syntax as employed here is borrowed from William M. Ivins, Jr.'s seminal study of the evolution of prints. He applied it to "a convention of drawing" developed in any period to fit the needs of the craftsmen who cut and printed wood blocks or engravings. It seems a particularly apt term in describing Close's work because of his decision to adapt a mechanical reproduction system. Prints and Visual Communications (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1969).

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8  He experimented with mezzotint in the spring of 1972. A short account of this print.

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Copyright © 1974, 1999 by William Dyckes.