ART BOOKS IN REVIEW: How We Talk About Chuck Close

Christopher Finch
Chuck Close: Life
(Prestel USA, 2010)

In Marion Cajori’s keenly attentive 2007 documentary Chuck Close, one of the artist’s most frequent subjects, Philip Glass, states, “There’s no such thing as a string quartet. A string quartet is what you happen to be listening to when a string quartet is playing.” In other words, a single work of art is singular only in the aggregate of its components. Glass adds, “It was only through reduction that the process itself could become evident.”

Through a cumulative, structured, and codified method of artistic production, Chuck Close both embodies and visualizes the essence of what Glass refers to as “the idea of process.”

Close’s understanding of and commitment to process has changed throughout his career, but it has always been essential to the theoretical foundations of his art. Furthermore, by making the picture plane the locus of his process, Close’s paintings aim to achieve an “allover”—that is, non-focusing and non-prescriptive—visual effect. Close’s heads are therefore more akin to the monochromes of Brice Marden or the geometry of Agnes Martin in aesthetic appeal than they are to traditional portraiture. Process in Close’s work serves less of a theoretical role than a methodical one—he states as much in Chuck Close: Life, a new biography by Christopher Finch: “I will stay with the process all the way only if it gives me the results I want. I’m not a purist. The quality of the end product is what I’m interested in.”

Finch’s biography is a sequel of sorts to Finch’s much better 2007 book, Chuck Close: Work, a magisterial and beautifully produced career-spanning monograph. Finch and Close are friends, and this ensures a generosity on the part of both biographer and subject. For Chuck Close: Work, this generosity benefits the reader as well: its thoroughness and care are the result of evident love and respect—in no small part because it reads as a collaboration of sorts between writer and artist. The problem with Chuck Close: Life is that generosity often runs counter to the critical rigor and curiosity demanded by biography; more often than not, Finch simply echoes Close’s stated artistic intentions and places them within their historical context, with little in the way of new or considered analysis to give the book a critical edge.

Finch’s ideological view of Close’s art—that of the artist’s stated theoretical premise—restricts any possible consideration of the work’s potentially wider significance. In Cajori’s film, Glass states that Close’s images are “a kind of carrier for an idea,” adding that, “If you think the work is about a portrait, then I think you’ve missed the work.” There is a surety and finiteness to this appraisal that I find bothersome: both the carrier and the idea are essential to a full appreciation of Close’s art, but neither holds hierarchical sway over the other: you are no more missing the work by seeing it as a portrait than Glass is by seeing it as a carrier for an idea.

Alex Katz, speaking in Cajori’s film, summarizes Close’s work best, precisely because he acknowledges the sublimity created by the combination of Close’s conceptual approach with its resultant imagery: “You have to think of trying to deal with what you’re looking at, rather than what you think about it,” he says. “I think it’s very difficult to grasp what you’re looking at.”

Finch reiterates what Close believes his paintings to be about and whom he counts as his artistic influences, but he never ventures beyond this. For example, he never questions why Close’s paintings should be understood as first-and-foremost conceptually based, or why Close considers painters as stylistically dissimilar as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock to be important influences. He only goes so far as to place the aesthetic and conceptual bases of Close’s art within a continuum forged by the Abstract Expressionists and the early Minimal and Conceptual artists:

[Close’s] aim more than ever was to achieve—within the parameters of representational art (and that part was the challenge)—an allover, frontal, two-dimensional effect such as he found in Pollock’s drip paintings, but also in certain very different, less overtly emotional works, such as Ad Reinhardt’s monochrome canvases of the late fifties and early sixties, and the early sixties work of Frank Stella.

By situating his assessment of Close’s work within its art historical zeitgeist, Finch implicitly promotes a critical assessment of the artist that he does not actually support: namely, that Close’s work is purely of his time. Close’s emphasis on process is necessary to a historically accurate understanding of his motivations, but the artistic sovereignty of the resulting work does not rely upon any such understanding. While I am attracted to Close’s use of process, I am more interested in his aesthetics; to use Glass’s terminology, I find the carrier more compelling than the idea. The tenets of Process Art—the carriers of the carrier—are distinctly of their post-Abstract Expressionist moment, which is not to diminish their intellectual interest or artistic significance. But Close’s work cannot be so similarly defined by the zeitgeist; to align Close’s work with the canonization of Process Art as an Abstract Expressionist-derived theory, as Finch does, is to undermine the uniqueness of Close’s application of process.

Furthermore, when Finch asserts that Close “became one of the handful of art world figures who—in the footsteps of people like Pollock and Warhol—had achieved a kind of public recognition that meant they were known to people who had never seen their work in the original,” he is implying something the significance of which also goes unexplored: namely, that Close’s work has achieved a universality that makes its reduction to artistic intent simplistic and elitist. Once his work is admired on postcard reproductions, Close is no longer just the scrappy, process-based, pure-idea-carrying artist we may otherwise want him to be; we have to capitulate, so to speak, to more popular opinions.

This means—and this pains and irritates a great many Close admirers—that we have to accept that it is not incorrect to understand and appreciate his work on aesthetics alone; were it otherwise, the vast majority of Close’s admirers would be misguided, according to Glass’s definition of correct Close appreciation. They may not understand his art in a way that aligns with the viewpoint expressed by Finch, Close, or Glass—but they are still affected by it, and often very deeply. Their disconnection from Close’s intentions does not diminish the reality of their connection to the work that was thereby created.

Such over-reliance on the artist’s intent is what stunts so much critical discourse of contemporary art, and what makes it so exclusive—it has become a matter of knowing, not of interpreting. This offers no productive response to the unfortunate chasm between the art theory-informed and the art theory-uninformed. The uniqueness of Chuck Close’s art satisfies many demands made on art—whether they are of the carrier or the idea, by the informed or the uninformed—without being defined by them.

The hope for criticism of contemporary art lies in its refusal to define a body of work strictly by either its ideas or its carriers, to acknowledge that context without interpretation is as insufficient as interpretation without context, and to understand that what is sufficient is, like Close’s work, altogether more difficult to grasp.

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