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Conversation: Chuck Close, Christopher Finch

Chuck Close is one of the most recognized artists of our era, best known for his large-scale portraits of friends, fellow artists and often himself.

An exhibition of Close's printmaking work is opening this weekend at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And a new biography, "Chuck Close: Life" was recently published.

I spoke to its author, Christopher Finch, a writer and former curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Chuck Close, earlier this week:

(A transcript is after the jump.)

Editor's note: Art Beat talked to Chuck Close earlier this year in New York at the FLAG Art Foundation, where his work was part of a show curated by Shaquille O'Neal. You can see that piece here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chuck Close is one of the most recognized artists of our era, best known for his large-scale portraits of friends, fellow artists and often himself. An exhibition of Close's printmaking work is opening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and a new biography, "Chuck Close: Life," was recently published. Joining me is author Christopher Finch, a writer and former curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and artist Chuck Close. Welcome to both of you. There has been a lot written about this man, a lot said about him. What were you after in writing the book?

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Well, it was Chuck who asked me to write the book. I was calling him one day — somebody had written something about him that he wasn't happy with. And I said jokingly, ask me next time. And he said, would you do a book, I really think it's time for the big book, and you've known me for 40 years, and you're the right person do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, in reading a lot of books about artists, there is the art and then there is the man. There is the kid, who now I learned grew up in industrial towns in Washington state, and then there is all the work that you are known for. What's the right mix? What did you hope for?

CHUCK CLOSE: Well, that's why he did two books. The first book is largely about the art. That's called "Chuck Close: Work," and it's a big coffee table book with massive amounts of illustrations. And then it was a two book deal. And Chris wrote the biography. I was a little bit about worried about the biography part, but anxious to get the —

JEFFREY BROWN: Worried in what way?

CHUCK CLOSE: Well, you know, because it's — I am very good at talking about the work, less good at exposing my life and —

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: I would say Chuck is actually pretty good about exposing his life. He's being modest there, because he was unsparing in exposing his life. He could not have been more generous about it. It was — I mean, I have known Chuck a long time. I felt I knew a lot about Chuck, but what I learned as I was writing this book was astonishing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us a little bit of that. I mean, before we get to the art there is a lot of human drama here.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Well, yes, most living artists are not suitable subjects of biographies. The moment they die you can write a biography.

CHUCK CLOSE: I'm hanging by a thread.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Chuck is hanging by a thread. But Chuck is very different. Even when I wrote the monograph, I couldn't write the monograph without a lot of biographical material, partly because of his childhood and the many problems that he had to go through with learning disabilities and so on in his childhood, which he has in common with a lot of other artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg and so on, but then of course there is the central event in his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which you called "the event."

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Which Chuck calls "the event." I take that from him. That's what hit him when he was 48 years old, and he can tell you more about that than me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us. I mean, this was a life changing event where you had to kind of relearn a lot of things, including how to paint.

CHUCK CLOSE: The interesting thing about having a life changing event is it was familiar. I had lifelong neuromuscular problems, lifelong learning disabilities. I have a life with rocks in my shoes. And now all the sudden it's just some other rocks being inserted in my shoes. And my coping mechanisms and the fact that I had these experiences trying to deal with really severe learning disabilities, including face blindness and other problems, that I think stood me in good stead to cope with the problems that came from my spinal artery collapsing and finding out that I was paralyzed from here down and spending eight months in the hospital and trying to get back to work.

JEFFREY BROWN: You just mentioned the face blindness. The name is — how do you say it?


JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah. Now that means that you can't recognize faces or you have trouble?

CHUCK CLOSE: It's a sliding scale. I have a great deal of difficulty recognizing faces, especially if I haven't — if I've just met somebody, it's hopeless. I will never remember them again unless it's reinforced over and over and over, and even people that I know very well, if I haven't seen them for a while. It's like a bucket with a hole in it — information is coming in, but it's pouring out the bottom just as fast, I'm often losing information.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you are — ok, but you're known for portraits of faces.

CHUCK CLOSE: I was driven to make them, I am absolutely positive.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's what did it?

CHUCK CLOSE: Because in real life if you move your head a half an inch, to me it's a whole new face I've never seen before. But if we flatten it out — I have and I take photographs — I work from photographs and make flat things called paintings and prints. I have virtual photographic memory for anything that is flat, so it's not an accident that I only do images of people who matter to me — family, friends, other artists. There are no commissioned portraits. These are images that really matter, and I want to commit them to memory and the only way I can really do that is to flatten them out, scan them, make these drawings and paintings and prints. And then they enter my memory bank in a different sort of way.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you connect the disabilities he's talking about — the face blindness, the spinal injury to the work?

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Well, I think that the work is very much rooted in these things. Not a simple thing, but the learning disabilities, Chuck's problem was trying to comprehend something as a whole, but he found that if he could break it down into little units. If he had a test he would stay up for hours in a bathtub with lukewarm water and a plank across with index cards with all the essential information on it, and it was a sort of sensory deprivation thing if he could hold out with this —

CHUCK CLOSE: I'd read them out loud so I could hear them in my ear, and I'd do it over and over and over all night long. Hurl my body out of the tub, a prune, and run to the class and I might be able to remember.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: But if the test was delayed then he'd have to do the whole thing over again.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this a way of also thinking about the paintings.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: This is a way of thinking about the paintings, especially the paintings that he has been doing since the late 1980s, well it really goes back further than that, but that dealt with tiny pieces of information.

CHUCK CLOSE: Well they always dealt, even from the '60s, they were all built in incremental units, even if that's not obvious because it was often disguised that they were built that way. But starting around 1970 the visible grid has been a feature of virtually everything that I have done.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I know you don't like the term, the photorealism idea, what is it that you are doing when you paint a portrait of a face?

CHUCK CLOSE: Well, the reason I don't like realist, photorealist, neorealist, or whatever is that I am as interested in the artificial as I am in the real. And it's really the tension between, a ripping back and forth between the distribution of flat marks on the surface of a painting I've made by rubbing colored dirt with a stick with hairs glued on the end of it all over some cloth wrapped around some sticks — it's a highly artificial activity making a painting. And they are made by hand, slowly piece by piece. Not the way a photograph is made or an image on a computer screen, and I love that ripping back and forth. And when viewers confront an image that's nine foot high, hard to see the thing as whole, and they are scanning it, what they are doing is they are doing much the same thing that I do when I paint it, which is seeing the journey that I took to build this image. And I build them rather than paint them I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, when you write a biography of an artist like this inevitably you are writing about an era of him in his world of other artists. What is his role in this world?

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Well, it's been a changing role. At first it was very much a pioneering role in the days when Soho was coming to the fore, and people living down in Soho basically they were pioneers down there. And Chuck was very central to that and he became more of a mainstream figure, but I think the interesting thing with me with Chuck is that he has remained very relevant for over 40 years now. He is so unique nobody can copy him, and yet the resonance of his work reaches into all kinds of areas. I mean, he was I think a big influence on the development of post modernism and yet in some ways he is one of the last modernists. So it's very hard to pin down exactly what that influence is, but that's what makes him so rich and complex.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you one last thing. I talk to a lot of writers and artists about the state of the arts today, a world where people might not read as much as they once did, or maybe our children in schools don't learn that much about art. Where are we, what is the state of arts in America today? That's a big question but —

CHUCK CLOSE: Well, I think the problem with the arts in America is how unimportant it seems to be in our educational system. I grew up in a town that was a mill town, very poor, Appalachian-like, except that it was in the state of Washington. And we had as a guaranteed right from kindergarten through high school art and music every day of the week. Today that is considered to be far less important than the three R's. There is teaching for testing, and for those of us who, especially for us who are learning disabled or for those of us who learn differently, we had a chance to feel special. Every child should have a chance to feel special. If they are not good at math or science — I can't memorize and I don't know the multiplication tables even today — I had something that I could excel at. And that I think, that is the most troubling thing that's happened, especially with teaching through testing, that we are trying to get people to know the same thing as a kind of a litmus test to allow them to go to college or whatever. I'm a product of open enrollment. I went to a junior college that took every taxpayers son or daughter. And if I hadn't had that and hadn't had that exposure to art and music and something that I could excel at and something I could feel good about — I've always said if I hadn't gone to Yale, I could've gone to jail. And it was a tossup. It could've gone either way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Glad it went the way it did. The new book is "Chuck Close: Life." Christopher Finch and Chuck Close, thanks for talking to us.

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