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 findthat of the camera
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 syntaxwhich, 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 workseight 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.
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 colorsred, blue, and yellowand 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
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.
Bob No.II / 616
Bob No.III / 2464
Bob No.IV / 9856
ink & pencil on paper
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 imageand 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 grida 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 dotswhich could easily lead
to confusionsand 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
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 wirephotosanother
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?
Copyright © 1974, 1999 by William Dyckes.