Painter at Workby Josh Morgenthau
In Chuck Close, the late film-maker Marion Cajori’s documentary, Close explains how he originally became an artist: as a young boy, he could not physically keep up with his friends, and was forced to entertain them by performing magic tricks or drawing—two activities he still considers related. When he was five, after much pleading, his father bought him a set of oil paints from a Sears catalogue. Sitting in his studio many years later, Close still loses himself to the process of painting. He clenches the brush in his teeth, then slips it into a mound of bright color and diligently applies it to the canvas; whistling a few notes to the music, a child-like enthusiasm in Close emerges, as if he is painting for the first time.
Cajori’s camera takes us into Close’s work station where to his right are brushes, cans of paint-thinner, and rows of oil paint all neatly laid out; to his left is suspended a large Polaroid of his own bearded face, ponderously emerging from the dark. Ensconced in this paraphernalia, wearing a cell-phone headset, he looks like a pilot in his cockpit. Close does not move around as he works—instead, the diverse regions of the painting come to him, borne on a robotic track which elevates and rotates the unwieldy canvas for the artist. Close suffered a paralyzing spinal blood clot in 1988 which left him with no leg movement and minimal use of his hands. He has, with the help of a specially-made hand-brace/brush-holder supported by both hands, been able to surmount his disability. Now, he gamely concludes, painting is “one of the only things I still do.”
The camera focuses closely on a small section from what seems to be an abstraction, bursting with concentric swirls of riotous pink, green, and other bright colors. But once it pulls out further, as if by an act of alchemy, a face appears in its totality. Such footage provides a marvelous glimpse of the artist at work, and an insight into his visceral involvement with every millimeter of the painting.
As a young painter, Close admired De Kooning, whose famous “Women” series reconfirmed his interest in the human figure. By 1967, he was painting from photographs as a way to mediate and respond to the emergence of Pop Art and Minimalism. In his seminal “Big Self-Portrait,” (1967-68), he stares out, disheveled, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, the focus so shallow that his ears and hair are a blur. Since then, the fundamental image of his work—heads of himself and his friends—has remained the same. The film chronicles the creation of one large-scale self-portrait made over several months in 1997, from its inception as a Polaroid to its completion as an 8’ oil painting, some 3 months later.
Marion Cajori, known for her experimental 1992 documentary Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter, began filming Chuck Close around 1994, and a one-hour version was released by Muse Television in 1998. Cajori had compiled this longer 2-hour version and was in the final stages of editing the film when she passed away in August of 2006. Her cinematographer and co-editor, Ken Kobland, was able to bring the film to its completion.
The daughter of two painters, Charles Cajori and Anne Child, Cajori knows how to elicit candid, spontaneous responses from those she interviewed including Close’s first and current dealers Klaus Kertess and Arne Glimcher, artists Alex Katz, Brice Marden, Lucas Samaras, Robert Rauschenberg and others, as well as the curators/art historians Robert Storr and Kirk Varnedoe, who have been keen observers of his work. Their conversations are often juxtaposed with Close’s portraits of them. In one memorable scene, Brice Marden speaks in Zen-like fragments as he searches out the complexities of his friend’s relationship to figuration: “I see Chuck’s paintings as a real struggle. I don’t see it as some formalistic, you know…I think he tries to present it that way but…the harder he presses to push the image away, the more the image comes up. To me that’s the whole thing…it’s this real struggle.”
In light of his injury, the nature of Close’s work is fortuitous, for placing limitations on himself has always been one of his conceptual strategies; in his early work, he made images by painstakingly overlaying the cyan, yellow, magenta and black components of an image onto a canvas with an airbrush. The result was an image of a photo, printed exactly as a photo would be, but fashioned entirely by hand. Close had reenacted the printing process to such a degree that he had completely subsumed his own ego in it, losing his authorship to the machine.
The multi-colored stippling of the pointillist has, in Close’s work, been transmuted it into the dots of the ink-jet printer or the pixels on the computer screen. Observing the artist shaping these unique cells layer by layer is like watching a computer image being rendered from a pixilated fuzz, each cell dividing and redividing, eventually resolving into the totality of the final image. However, using complex “optical mixing,” the artist lavishes an attention on each cell that is anything but mechanical, pairing wildly unexpected colors until each cell pulses with its own vibrant lyricism. According to Close: “There’s nothing about the brick that says anything about what kind of building’s going to be built out of it. You stack up the bricks one way and it makes a cathedral, you stack up the bricks another way and it makes a gas station…The mark is simply what it is: inarticulate, not very specific, yet clusters of them stack up to make something beyond just the marks themselves.”
When he was only 11, Close found his father (who had been chronically ill and in decline for some time) lying in a pool of blood; he had fallen out of bed and hit his head in his sleep. Close reveals what an impact this event had on his life and eventually his art: “One of the things you learn when you lose someone at such an early age is that you will be happy again, and that you can survive almost anything. In terms of that metaphor for a life falling apart, breaking into pieces and then the need to restructure it and put it back together, I suppose it’s a good analogy for the type of work that I do, deconstructing an image and then painstakingly putting it back together. I guess I would have to leave that to someone else to see whether or not that connection holds.” Cajori, who maintains an invisible presence throughout the film, follows this narrative with a poetic shot of raindrops bursting as they fall on the patio of Close’s Bridgehampton home.
This episode gives us a window into Close and what is perhaps his work’s most powerful aspect: its inherent mystery. Close’s heads are of a nature entirely different from the comfortable geniality of conventional portraiture; he eschews the life-size person-in-a-setting portrait in favor of giant heads, sealed in their own hermetic world, only occasionally penetrated by the collar of a shirt or the rim of a pair of glasses. In this strange focus, his faces, referred to in the documentary as “death masks,” are like modern day equivalents to ancient totems—though frozen in time, they have an uncanny presence. Robert Rauschenberg compares seeing Chuck’s work to “going into an Egyptian tomb and you don’t read hieroglyphics.”
Distilling her film from over 100 hours of raw footage, Cajori builds a powerful emotional and intellectual key with which we can begin reading the hieroglyphics of Close’s paintings. It adds dimensions to our understanding of contemporary art, specifically the group of artists around Close who turned to process in their struggle to find meaning in art after Abstract Expressionism. As such, this well-crafted and heartfelt documentary on Close is appealing, whether or not you love his work.
Information about the release of the DVD will be available soon on the Art Kaleidoscope website, http://artkaleidoscope.org.
Josh Morgenthau is an artist and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.