In Conversation

Chuck Close with Phong Bui

Portrait of the artist by Phong Bui. Pencil on paper.

The following conversation between Chuck Close and Rail Publisher Phong Bui was initially held at The Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation—The Space Program in its new location at 20 Jay Street, D.U.M.B.O., Brooklyn, of whom both are members of the Artists Advisory Committee—then carried further at the painter’s West Village home last Sunday.

Phong Bui (Rail): One of the things that has always concerned and fascinated me is when and how a young aspiring artist alters the direction of his or her life after seeing one particular work of art. Of course it depends on how open and receptive they are, and whether or not it challenges or goes against their natural talents. I know that as a kid you loved the illustrations of Norman Rockwell from The Saturday Evening Post, and also Boris Chaliapin’s portrait of president Harry Truman for the Time magazine cover of 1945 (Christopher Finch pointed this out in his monograph—you were only 5 years old). But at the age of 11 you were confronted by a Pollock painting that shocked you. Would you tell us what led up to that confrontation with the Pollock painting, and what that meant for you at the time?

Chuck Close: I grew up poor, in small towns and cities, (Monroe, Everett and Tacoma) in the state of Washington, where most folks of my generation are still continuing to work in the same mill that their parents worked in. I don’t know how the hell I managed to get out of there, but when I was 5 I asked my father for an easel and he made me an easel. Then I asked both of my parents, who were very poor, to buy me a set of genuine artist oil paints in a wooden box that I saw in a catalogue, which they did. And then when I was 8, long before I was physically disabled, I realized I had a learning disability. In the ’40s and ’50s nobody knew about dyslexia, they just assumed that you were dumb or lazy, so I had terrible academic problems. I couldn’t memorize anything. I still literally cannot add or subtract. I don’t know the multiplication tables. Despite all of that, since I was the only child, my parents thought I was the best thing that came along. They were supportive of my interest in the arts, so at the age of 8 my father found me private art instruction with a woman who had studied at the Art Student League. You can imagine that I was drawing from the nude model, which easily made me the envy of every kid in the neighborhood [laughter]. I was trained very academically and worked mostly from direct observation, whether from landscape or still life. Up to that point, I’d never seen paintings in the flesh, so I’d take my grandmother’s magnifying glass and I’d scan the covers of the magazines, which during that time were mostly hand-painted illustrations, to figure out how paintings got made; what different touch each of them had. I went to the Seattle Art Museum with my mother for the first time when I was 11. I saw this Jackson Pollock drip painting with aluminum paint, tar, gravel and all that stuff. I was absolutely outraged, disturbed. It was so far removed from what I thought art was. However, within 2 or 3 days, I was dripping paint all over my old paintings. In a way I’ve been chasing that experience ever since. That’s the reason why I’ve been going to see shows in different galleries, and trying to look at the work of emerging artists as much as I can, in an attempt to recreate or re-live that sensation of being shocked. That’s the greatest moment in an artist’s life. Whatever you hold as true to art is being challenged; you sort of recoil and it gets under your skin and just keeps bothering you until you understand what the issues are. After all, painting is just colored dirt smeared on flat surfaces, on wood panels, canvases. It makes space where it doesn’t exist, but you relate to it through life experience. Anyway, after Pollock it was Frank Stella’s black stripes paintings, and the first time I saw Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes at Stable gallery my reaction was the same. That kind of wonderful freshness that challenges one’s previous perception. I think that the art world at any given time is like a huge amoeba shape, and someone eventually comes along and operates outside of that shape. They make work that doesn’t fit anywhere and nobody’s quite sure whether it’s art or not. And very quickly the amoeba goes out and encapsulates that isolated island outside the mainstream and sort of moves it into the body of the art world. And as a result, the art world is modified because that artist was there; they digested and brought new insight and ways of seeing art. I love the fact that there’re no agreed upon standards of judgment, and no yardstick that applies to every work of art.

Rail: That’s definitely true. You know, one of my favorite British poets of the 18th century, Dr. Edward Young, once said, “Why is it that we’re all born originals but die as copies?” Similarly, de Kooning said, “The desire to create a style beforehand is only a mere apology of one’s own anxiety.” And you, at some point, put it not so differently: “Painters drop crumbs along the trail… for others to pick up if they want to.”

Close: Right. Like Hansel and Gretel, you glean from the work what the issues are, and you can follow the route they took and deconstruct the painting or sculpture and understand how it happened.

Rail: So how important was it for you—the process of emulating works by other artists you admire?

Close: While I was at Yale, de Kooning’s “Backdrop for Labyrinth…”

Rail: …which he made for a dance recital by Marie Marchowsky in 1946. Actually Milton Resnick assisted him in this project.

Close: Right. It was hanging in the lecture hall, and I thought it was the summation of his “Pink Angel” in a way.

Rail: That was because “Pink Angel” was painted a year before in 1945. It was a great painting but not quite measured in that huge scale. I mean it’s the biggest painting he ever made.

Close: Well, you can imagine I was making all kinds of drawings after it. And here’s why it was important to me: Once Guston came to give a critique at Yale. I was so eager that I brought one painting in a bit early, just leaned it against the wall, and went across the street for a beer. And when I came back, my painting was covered with other people’s paintings. Anyway, Guston was just brutal with everyone. I remember thinking, “Thank God my painting is covered up.” Then he said, “Get all of this stuff out of my sight,” and as everyone was taking his or her work out, my painting was uncovered. As soon as he saw it, he called everyone back in the room, and he said, “There’s something really happening here with this painting.” I was both flattered and embarrassed. I mean, he postponed his trip back to New York in order to go to my studio and look at more of my paintings. He really loved what I was doing and gave me so much attention that it took three years to repaint everything I was doing. But what I liked about our relationship was 10 years later, when I told him, “You know, you really messed me up.” He said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I know, I was always too critical but I didn’t really mean it.” And I said, “No, you messed me up because you liked the work so much.” Needless to say it took me a long time to get him out of my studio.

Rail: Nevertheless having painted abstractly up to that point must have informed your figurative concept.

Close: Absolutely. Though I must say that I was never totally abstract. I’d extract curves from a model or still life, just so it wasn’t a lazy line as in handwriting. But then the transitional work I did, while I was in Amherst teaching for two years between ’65 and ’67, was based on photography, which liberated me. But to follow up your question about how does one get over one’s own influences: before appropriation we were just stealing. (Although I think appropriation has produced many interesting works.) My generation was hell bent to make art that didn’t look like anyone else’s. When I was a young painter we struggled with the notion of how do you get your heroes out of your studio so they’re not looking over your shoulder. I think one of the biggest problems, not only in the art world but in our society in general, is that we’re much too hung up on problem solving. And once you’re solving the problem you have to know what the problem is, and at any given moment everyone knows what the problems of the moment are. Therefore everyone’s solutions tend to be similar. Far more interesting than problem solving is problem creation. How do you back yourself into a corner where you ask yourself a question that no one has ever thought of before? And I think in my generation we navigated the process through a series of self-imposed limitations. Even though I loved de Kooning the best, the artist who actually influenced the way I think most was Ad Reinhardt. In his writings, he would say you can’t do this, you can’t do that, no more this, no more that. The whole notion of constructing limitations that guarantee you can’t do what you did before will force you to do something else. And that’s how you change, move forward; not necessarily progress, but how you can program change into your work.

Rail: In addition to Reinhardt’s famous “25 Lines of Words on Art” statement in 1958, there were also Jasper John’s notes from his sketchbook between 1963–64, which was referenced by Richard Serra with his “Verb List,” 67–68…

Close: Richard was a classmate of mine at Yale, as were Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, Bob Mangold, Janet Fish, Rackstraw Downes, Newton Harrison, Jennifer Bartlett, Don Nice, Michael Craig Martin, and many, many more artists—an interesting group for sure. And when we all came to New York, Janet did something that was very compelling. She had each of us give her a slide of student work, which she then showed on a screen, and no one had the slightest idea which of us did what. We all were students and what we were making couldn’t possibly have been shown in a New York gallery at the time. The idea of dealers going to scout out works from graduate student’s studios at Columbia, Yale, Cal Arts, UCLA, and so on is beyond me. I can’t imagine the pressure on young people when they ought to be able to make fools of themselves. I think the pressure to arrive prematurely could be fatal to one’s growth.

Rail: What was it like those two years at Yale with your remarkable peers?

The painter in his studio (in the process of making a portrait of Zhang Huan). Courtesy of Chuck Close studio.

Close: We weren’t the most beloved students necessarily. Many of us were considered troublemakers. But the great thing was when we all moved to New York, we became our own audience. We constantly looked at each other’s work. I helped Richard Serra make all of these early lead pieces. He just needed muscle. Philip [Glass] was Richard’s only paid assistant. We also got involved with this music and dance scene, people like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown. There was this incredible mix of ideas. In addition rent was incredibly cheap. We lived near each other, so we saw a great deal of each other’s works. It really happened in a natural, organic way.

Rail: It seems to me that the reductive tendency or the desire for the economy of pictorial means, all of it was just in the air.

Close: I once said about our group that we were all nurtured in the same primordial ooze and whatever was in the air at the time, which was reductiveness, severe self-imposed limitations, belief in process, and all that stuff, and then we crawled ashore and went our own way.

Rail: As much as you had reduced your “Big Nude” to black and white while adapting the monumental scale of abstract expressionist painting, did you think you were going against the grain of what was happening at the time?

Close: Yes and no. I was trying to include both minimal issues and a maximum amount of information with the most minimal means, one tablespoon of black paint on a white canvas, trying to get rid of the artist’s hand and gesture. Once you got on board and followed your ideas, you had to keep up with wherever they went. I always say that inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work. Out of work comes ideas. If you sit around waiting to be struck on the head with the lightning bolt of a great art idea, you’ll never get anything done. On the contrary, if you’d just start doing something and if you don’t like the way it’s going, you find another way. That was really true of my whole generation.

Rail: Did you know Philip Pearlstein during that time?

Close: Philip was teaching at Yale while I was there. But in those days I was making abstract paintings, so I didn’t really want to study with him.

Rail: Have you read his essay “Why Figurative Paintings Today Are Not Made In Heaven?”

Close: No [laughs]. But I read his other long article “Why I Paint the Way I Do,” which was published in the New York Times, in 1971. There were such prejudices toward whoever was working from photographs at the time. I’ve actually been spit on, I’ve had cans of beer thrown at me for working from photographs, which is pretty inconceivable now. But in those days, working from life was considered a higher calling, closer to God, than working from photographs or out of your head. Well, out of your head you at least get credit for being imaginative, but if you worked from photographs you just cheated. [laughs]

Rail: Also, from the late ’60s to the early ’70s, there were many shows that were being organized as a collective attempt to advocate for representational and realist paintings. One was called Realism Now, curated by Linda Nochlin at Vassar College.

Close: I chose not to be in that show. I chose not to be in another one in Milwaukee.

Rail: You mean Aspects of Realism at Milwaukee Art Center?

Close: Yeah, I just didn’t want to be associated with some of that work.

Rail: But two of your paintings, “Phil” and “Frank,” were included in 22 Realists, a show at the Whitney!

Close: That’s because they owned the paintings and I couldn’t stop them. I just thought I had a better chance if my work were to be seen among abstract works, so they wouldn’t fall into that pre-conditioned prejudice toward figuration.

Rail: I’m interested in this fact of history, firstly because of Linda’s argument that while abstractions claimed to pare down visual phenomenon to their essentials, realism sought to come to terms with the relational complexity of things seen. Secondly, this concern for “Realism” goes back to Baudelaire’s initial problems with Courbet’s paintings, partly because of his strong attachment to Delacroix, whose paintings he felt were superior and probably more in accord with his idea of modernity than both neo-classical’s emphasis on ideal form and realism’s focus on the ordinary. Thirdly, since you’ve voiced your differences from realism endlessly, I thought you could elaborate on these past shows and then tell us whether you still feel the way you do today about the term “Realism” as you did years ago?

Close: See my problem was that I just didn’t like the term realism or photorealism; I was more interested in the tension between reality and artificiality. I was as interested in the distribution of marks on flat surface as I was in what they stacked up to represent. And the emphasis that realism made iconography too important and painting not important enough didn’t really appeal to me. In other words, I was always so much more interested in the process than the destination. That, I think, is where style, innovation, and personal vision is located. Like writing a novel, you can’t think about the narrative line the whole time or you’d never be able to do anything, because there’s never anything you’re doing more than shoving one word against another, and those clusters of words are what bring thoughts and sentences and paragraphs together to make up the novel.

Rail: Were you aware of Alfred Leslie’s sudden shift from his early colossal abstract paintings with broad colliding brush strokes of the late ’50s to what he called “iconfrontational portraiture” by the early ’60s?

Close: Absolutely. I love Alfred’s work. Alfred was a real hero for me because he also made black and white paintings, as did Richard Artschwager, another painter I admire. And then Alex [Katz] along with Andy [Warhol] for me more than anyone, they kicked the door open for a progressive, forward-looking, late 20th century figuration that wasn’t about shedding new light into the shop-worn 19th century notions of figuration, but a truly modernist figuration. You know there was always a big contingent of realist painters who really were against modernism, against where the art world had gone. They were all saying, “let’s go back to when art really mattered,” and I just rejected that idea. I thought the only interesting thing was to find a new form of figuration that would carry into post-modernism.

Rail: That brings to mind a painter whose work is quite close to yours—Gerhard Richter. Not because you both take your photograph resources as the subjects, but because you both paint with a highly selective reality of the photograph itself. But while you stack and add up your visual data incrementally, Richter blurs the whole image with his soft brushstrokes…so it makes sense that you and Richter were seen as definitive painters of post-modernism. Because you’re both deconstructing painting, while at the same time, most of the post-modernist critics acknowledge Richter’s work before they acknowledge your work. The only important difference is that while Richter utilizes various painterly range from monochrome, minimal color charts, hard edge to gestural abstraction, as well as his occasional use of croppings and other mechanical intervention of makings and unmakings, you have always stayed with one basic image and format. What are your insights on this matter?

Close: I didn’t know about Richter until the ’70s, when I got an early catalogue of his work. I remember carrying it around and showing it to friends, curators, collectors, dealers, critics, but I couldn’t interest any of them. The resistance to his work was strong. What I really like about Richter is that he’s built for himself a lot of elbow room, which allows him to do many different things at once. As for me, I’m not as protean. Actually, I’d like to think of myself as the figurative version of what Bob Ryman has accomplished. That is, within a narrow confinement of what I’ve set for myself, I could create many variations of one theme. As far as critics are concerned, you just can’t predict who’s going to like your work. All I know was that I got started without serious critics supporting my work. The main thing was pissing off the really bad critics. If you’re getting a good review from, for instance, Hilton Kramer, you just want to put your head in the oven [laughs]. It’s a career buster to get a good review from him. In fact, who doesn’t like your work is more important than who does like your work.

Rail: I agree. But how bad was Kramer’s review?

Close: He said I was a lunatic, and the work was the “trash that washed ashore when the tide of Pop Art went out.”

Rail: Wow. That’s intense, and you clearly remember it very well [laughs].

Close: Of course, you only remember the bad reviews. But John Canaday, the New York Times critic before Kramer also hated my work. He trashed my work like crazy. In the mid ’80s, just before he died, this weaseled old man came walking into a gallery, and he said (imitates) “Hey Mr. Close, I’m John Canaday” [laughter] “and I just wanna tell you how wrong I was.” So if you live long enough, conversion can happen. Anyway, you know Richter stormed the art world along with Polke and all the Germans following the wave of the Italians: Clemente, Chia, Cucchi. We’ve always embraced immigrants, so they come into the art world as a phenomenon, while I was a little neglected, perhaps, at least by some critics.

Rail: Were you friendly with Leon Golub, who also worked from photographs?

Close: Yeah. Anyone who doesn’t understand the cyclical nature of a career is going to be in big trouble. Because if you look from the mid ’50s to the early ’60s, Leon was on more magazine covers than any other artist in America. He had this tremendous following. But after the unfortunate episode of “The New Images of Man” at MoMA, then his career went off track for a while. But then he reemerged, as did Guston. In some ways I felt sorry for a lot of the artists from the ’80s because they had such instant superstar status, and it never occurred to them that it wasn’t going to keep going, full tilt, forever. They had raised expectations of what a career was supposed to be, whereas with our generation, we had very low expectations, which is why I think our generation is still doing some of its best work. Because we weren’t superstars, we all accepted that we were products of an era of the pluralistic. No one thing dominated; therefore we didn’t have to mature in the white-hot glare of the spotlight. The artists of the ’60s, they had to mature in the spotlight, and so did the artists of the ’80s. But we sort of sneaked in between, coming up in the late ’60s, and then everybody hated the ’70s. If you look at Brice, Richard, Elizabeth [Murray], Bob Mangold, and Bob Ryman—so many of them are making their best work right now.

Rail: The ’80s were strange. As much as Guston and Golub were important to the emergence of neo-expressionist paintings, their work benefited from it at the same time. How was your work seen in those years?

Close: Nobody would look at my work, really. If I didn’t have a powerful gallery that kept giving me shows, putting ads in magazines, which made it look like I had a career, I wouldn’t know how I could have survived in those lean years. In the art world you’re lucky if what you do crosses the path of what the art world wants. You don’t want to get there too early, you sure don’t want to get there late, but if it crosses, there is that moment when you’re golden and everybody thinks you’re brilliant. If you’re lucky you may cross paths again and your work can be reexamined and whatever. You know I never wanted to wet my finger and stick it up in the air and try to figure out which way the wind was blowing in order to modify what I was doing according to what was going on. Because I work so slowly—sometimes I only make 1 to 3 paintings a year so it might take me ten years to do a small series of work; I was protected from the buffeting winds of change in the art world. It didn’t matter. Not until ‘86 or ‘87 did things turn around for me. It makes you appreciate when you get attention again.

Rail: You’ve often credited Joe Zucker’s Cottonballs Paintings in relation to your incremental build up of an individual through the grid; Dorothea Rockburne for her interest in typology; and Mark Greenwold for his allegorical fantasy and his sense of humor. But the other night I read this wonderful line from Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” which was mentioned in Rob Storr’s catalogue essay of your retrospective at MoMA in 1998: “The artist’s will is secondary to the process that he initiates from idea to completion. His willingness may only be his ego.” Is that something that you can identify with?

Close: Similar to Reinhardt, Sol also had a tremendous influence on most artists of my generation. I love the fact that he could mail his art in, and have someone else do it for him whereas I sit in my studio and I put every stroke on my own. Anyway, when you have an influence it changes the way you think, not necessarily the way you work. When Joe [Zucker] and I were teaching at SVA (School of Visual Arts) in the late ’60s, we were both interested in building some big complicated thing out of incremental units, and our conversations with each other were extremely important. I think he’s one of the least appreciated artists.

Rail: Let’s move to the subject of technology versus art, which has a great deal to do with the notion of order and randomness. It is the latter that can never be duplicated through man-made products. I am referring to Leon Harmon, a biomedical engineer who published a cover article in Scientific American (1973) called “Recognition of Faces,” which I know got you a bit upset. Would you tell us why the content of that article was so contrary to your view on these differences?

Close: Partially it’s because I thought, everyone will think I make my paintings with a computer, which I’m absolutely uninterested in. But I realized that what they were asking the computer to do was in many ways very similar to what I was doing. You have to place that in the larger context of scientific experiments in art and technology that were happening at the same time. For instance, there was E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), which was founded by Rauschenberg, Bob Whitman, Billy Klurer, and Fred Waldhauer. I remember attending “Nine Evenings” at the old Armory, which was really exciting. But I realized that by the early ’70s, this fusion between art and technology wasn’t something in which I would invest too much of my time. Even when Billy Kluver did a nude with letters (this was after I was already doing dots), I thought: I am going to come down firmly on the side of the hand-made objects without intervention of technology. It wasn’t that I was against it, I just wasn’t interested in labor-saving devices; I simply like to look at how a painting is made materially. How the hand or the touch is revealed on the surface.

Rail: But as far as the relationship between photography and painting is concerned, particularly in the subject of portraiture, I wonder how you feel about the German photographers who’ve dominated contemporary photography in the last two decades? Beginning with Bernd and Hilla Becher, then Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth…

Close: I like their work a lot. We share some similarities. I think photography is maybe the hardest medium of all because it’s the easiest medium of all in which you can be competent. Anybody with a point and shoot camera can make a competent photograph. The whole idea of an accidental masterpiece can occur with photography. You’re not going to have an accidental masterpiece when you’re first trying to make paintings. You’re going to make a lot of really really bad paintings before you ever make a good one. I think photography is the easiest medium in which to be competent and the hardest medium in which to have a personal vision because there’s no touch, there’s no hand, there’s no physicality, there’s no interface.

Rail: This perhaps raises the question about how visceral your process is. You often say that when you begin to fill in all the squares with various combinations of red, yellow, blue, or other shades of color, you do it like a stream-of-consciousness.

Close: Yeah. The structure and the system frees up spontaneity, allows for innovation in a way you wouldn’t think it would.

Rail: Yet they’re painted according to the different values in respect to light and dark. In other words, if the square of red, in its tonality, is darker than the next square of blue, you’re going to put lighter marks on the red, and the blue will require a darker one. Is that how it works?

Close: Well, whether it’s green, red, yellow, orange, purple, whatever it is, the one thing that isn’t arbitrary is the relative value. It’s always going to be some other color than what is first painted in each square. For example, if one square is painted blue, it will end up with four or five or six correcting colors to be some sort of flesh-like color. But the value—that’s determined from the beginning. As you said, where the dark areas are, they’re going to become light, and likewise with the dark ones. Basically the value of the first coat is probably going to be very close to the finished value. Sometimes when I’m putting a blue down, I’m thinking, oh, I’m going to have to put an orange on top of that thing. So then I’ll make the next square orange. So I know the blue will go on top of the orange, so one is underneath and one is on top.

Rail: Not bad for a dyslexic [laughs]. You know that joke, what do you get when you cross an atheist with a dyslexic?

Close: What?

Rail: Somebody who doesn’t believe in dog [laughter]. Or, what do you get when you cross an atheist with a dyslexic and an insomniac?

Close: What?

Rail: Somebody who stays up all night long thinking: is there a dog?

Close: Ah [laughs]. I’ve got one. What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?

Rail: What?

Close: I don’t know and I don’t care [laughter].

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Phong Bui