Chuck Closes life as an artist was divided into three different phases – two successful, one not. From 1967 to late 1988, he was an acclaimed painter, a one-of-a-kind photorealist known for huge grisaille portraits of intimate friends and family (and himself, perhaps his favorite subject) drawn on a pencil grid with watered-down paint and an airbrush. His work was inherently desirable. Museums and private collectors began to compete for it even before he had his first solo exhibition in a gallery in New York in 1970. It had the immediate impact of Pop Art – in fact, the artist had expressed a desire to knock people off their feet. But it also had the more haughty, conceptual imprimatur of post-minimalism, arguably the last avant-garde art movement of classical modernism. He was admired by connoisseurs and the public alike.
The artist himself projected an impressive writing personality. At 6’3 “with a deep voice, a quick wit and a kind of goofy face, he was so widespread and so ubiquitous that he was once dubbed the” Mayor of SoHo. “At times he appeared like the top representative of the downtown art world , attended dinners and fundraisers, and served on the boards of museums (including the Whitney Museum of American Art) and foundations.
While doing a civil duty at the Gracie Mansion – presenting an award – on the night of December 7, 1988, Close felt so sick that he went to the nearby doctors hospital. In the morning he was paralyzed from the neck down after collapsing a spinal artery. Finally he was able to put his arms back in and paint with a brush strapped to his hand and forearm.
This was the beginning of the second phase of Close’s career as an even more successful painter. His condition forced him to develop a new way of working that actually rejuvenates and enhances his art. I remember the thrill of his 1991 exhibition when he revealed his latest great minds, as always based on photos he had taken – Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl, Lucas Samaras and Roy Lichtenstein, one of the few pictures of Close in profile . Not only was he repainting, but it was his best endeavor since his black and white portraits from the late 1960s. Precise rendering was now beyond its capabilities: the grids were enlarged and filled with rich, bright lines of color. Up close, they read like tiny abstract paintings. From a distance, they had a pixelated, hallucinatory hum that also revealed their photographic roots.
Close was already widely liked and respected, and seemed to become even more valued and heroic for a while. He often appeared at gallery openings – especially at Pace, who had represented him since 1977 – surrounded by well-wishers as he drove around in his state-of-the-art wheelchair. It was hard not to be impressed by the sheer willpower that enabled him to continue his life as an artist. Fortunately, Close – got rich from his work – was able to pull off in style.
And then, in late 2017, Close suddenly became a persona non grata in many parts of the art world after several young women accused him of sexual harassment. Two museums canceled exhibitions of his work and others removed them from the exhibition. While the work of artists often disappears from view for some time after their death, Close survived the greatest visibility of his art.
It was a sad end for the artist himself, an increasingly strange-seeming career that was plagued by the repetition of his work almost from the start. By the time the allegations surfaced, Close had already stayed out of the art world, relinquishing his home and studio in East Hampton for new mid-island accommodation in Long Beach, and establishing a second base of operations in Florida.
His obituary in the New York Times revealed that Close had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013, and was moved to “frontotemporal dementia” in 2015. It quoted its neurologist as saying that the disease may have contributed to its inappropriate behavior. I suspect this is true, although it is likely that Close’s fame fueled a sense of entitlement that is not uncommon.
I think Close was a particularly great one-hit wonder twice. His idea of the head, rendered colossal and detailed enough to displace anyone’s socks, drove portraiture into the 21st century. It translated well into a variety of media – prints, drawings, polaroids, paper-pulp collages, stamped with ink Fingerprints, daguerreotypes, and even tapestries. Every time the medium changed, the work changed physically, but it wasn’t enough.
This lateral growth gave only the semblance of development, but it was actually very little in Close’s work. Only his paralysis had pushed his idea of scale and process into new territory – perhaps beyond his boldest imagination – and brought about a change that he had tentatively toured with for almost a decade: of lighter colors, applied more freely, which distorted the picture and with it messed up visual perception in a new way. Part of the problem was probably the popularity of his art: Due to its ubiquity and homogeneity, it became a kind of corporate brand that stood for contemporary museum art and also for the Pace Gallery. She was different from other artists, such as Josef Albers or Mark Rothko, who only switched to motifs that seemed unchangeable after decades of research.
Now it will be interesting to see when and how Closes career is rehabilitated and if it earns an “asterisk,” a label that warns viewers of the less palatable aspects of his life. Because rehabilitation seems inevitable. Even when the scandal peaked, the museum directors defended his work – pointing out other artists who had been guilty of abusive behavior over the centuries but who were making worthy – or at least museum-worthy – art.
And Closes work can be seen in many, many museums – a staple of any self-respecting public collection. His large faces even frighten and inspire without offending. They are extremely accessible and a little sensational at a time when museums are careful to downplay their elitism and promote public relations. I suspect his pictures won’t be out of sight for long. And who knows, maybe asterisks aren’t that bad after all. There are dozens of male artists who qualify, maybe some female ones as well. It’s healthier to see you – and your work – without those rose-tinted glasses.