The modern photorealist painter Chuck Close is renowned for his massive portraits of celebrities and of friends from the downtown New York arts crowd: Brad Pitt, Laurie Anderson, Roy Lichtenstein, Kate Moss, Barack Obama, Philip Glass.
Close, who suffers from pinal paralysis and “face blindness,” often draws his subjects so near it’s as though the audience is locked in an embrace with the subject. For extra intimacy, he often titles his works on a first-name-only basis: Brad, Kate, Phil.
The hyperrealist paintings that have made him famous start with a Polaroid photograph onto which he draws grids — each of which he then magnifies and paints onto canvas in bright whorls of color. But Close works as a photographic portraitist, too. The exhibition “Chuck Close Photographs,” which focuses entirely on his photos, opens Friday at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In a phone interview last week, Close talked about his process, his subjects, and why he doesn’t particularly care about his sitters’ looks — or their personalities, for that matter.
You photograph all subjects for your paintings. Was that something you purposely decided to move toward?
I think all the photographs are art. That doesn’t mean that they will all become paintings. If I don’t make a painting, the photographic image stands on its own as a work of art in and of itself.
I can never predict which photographic image will be something I want to paint. Many are called, few are chosen. I usually leave a portfolio of photographs alone for a while, then look at all the images from a shoot at a later date.
Sometimes, I won’t find a good match for a painting, or maybe several will look interesting. If so, the next step is to place a gridded sheet of Mylar over the images and move it around to see what individual areas might be like. There have to be compelling compositional elements that suggest that next step.
Before I started working with the Polaroid camera, I essentially took the same image 10 times bracketed with different exposures. But I wouldn’t know what I had until the film was processed and I could review a contact sheet. With the Polaroid camera, I could see each print as it was made, and so could the sitter. We could work together to select an image that we both thought worked.
You started when abstract expressionism was the rage and took a stance against that movement by painting realistic portraits 8 feet high or larger. What do you recall about the initial rush?
I remember feeling my heroes of abstract expressionism had already done it better than I was going to do it. I couldn’t figure out a way to own that way of working. Big Nude was the first painting I made to break away from an expressionistic style. The big black-and-white heads followed.
I didn’t want to show in a gallery that only showed figurative art. I showed with Bykert Gallery because they had never shown representational work. I thought: “People will see the work fresh. They won’t be coming predisposed to what I’m doing.” That was the exciting part, getting fresh eyes on something seemingly traditional.
I wanted to change the way viewers might regard a representational image. It’s not really representational — it is further away from the source. First, there is the person. Then I take a photograph, and that’s not the person, and it’s not the painting. Everything is pushing toward abstraction.
I always thought these paintings were as abstract as they were naturalistic. The works I’m making right now are so abstract that you can’t even find the face in there.
The process of the grid is an ancient form. How do you turn each square into something alive?
Artists have used the grid as a tool for centuries. For me, it is a standard way to enlarge the one-inch square of the photograph to a six-inch square on the painting.
I don’t have to think about the whole head. I don’t have to think about how to make the nose, for example. I just see a little shape with a funny edge and I paint that, and then the next shape, and if I do it well, all the shapes come together to make the nose.
Beyond friendship, why revisit subjects such as Roy Lichtenstein and Philip Glass? Is there a line you are looking to follow – like a palm reader?
Some images continue to engage me. I’m still using the 1969 photograph of Phil because it is a very compelling image full of formal possibilities. The Medusalike hair, for example, makes for a very interesting translation into integers such as dots, fingerprints, diagonal lines, or chunks of pulp paper. It’s about finding elements that I really like working with.
How is it that you, as an artist, use a camera to record? And what do you look for in your subjects: classic beauty? Dramatic appeal?
I used to make a box with strings in a grid, and if I looked through the grid, everything was sharp. But if I stared at the grid itself, I could see blurry, out-of-focus areas. So I tried to mechanically accomplish that same experience with the camera.
Once you have seen an image flattened out rather than in real life, you never look at painting the same way again. I can tell how blurry something will be in a photograph, and that’s what I’m interested in — sharp areas and blurry areas. Different focuses.
It doesn’t matter to me if the viewer knows my subject. It’s about the composition of the face. That’s much more important than the looks or personalities. Looks do play a role but don’t rule the decision.
Chuck Close Photographs
On display Oct. 6 through April 8 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Hamilton Building, 118-128 N. Broad St.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday- Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, closed Mondays.
Admission: $15, adults; $12, students with ID and seniors; $8 ages 13-18; free for children under 13.