Any keen observer of Chuck Close’s work is surely aware of his evolution from the uniformed tightness of the 1970s black-and-white paintings to the increased freedom of the later work in color, which increased in vibrancy following the artist’s heroic return to painting after the rupture of a weak blood vessel in his spinal column left him paralyzed from the neck down in 1988. Never before this current show, however, have we seen the deep pleasure of his colors infused with such a profound sense of uncertainty.
Close knows the face the way Cézanne knew apples. Despite the mathematical approach he takes to “likeness,” employing a grid system and an even distribution of color that fluctuates between light and dark within each unit, over the years the tension between facturing (making) and fracturing (unmaking) has become gradually more pronounced. In his recent work, Close has managed to reinvent a pictorial language famously based on photography by breaking down the narrowness of photographic restrictions (this is most evident in his tapestries—two self-portraits and seven of friends, including Ellen Gallagher, Philip Glass, Lyle Ashton Harris, Brad Pitt, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, and Lorna Simpson—that are based on daguerreotypes or Polaroids and woven by the legendary Jacquard loom in Belgium.)
Still, where does the issue of facture and fracture lead us? And what if one outweighs the other? Close’s propensity for translating physical appearance into objectivity recalls the case of Cézanne, who disapproved of the Impressionists’ disintegration of form through light and atmosphere; yet the greater his desire to restore form to its utmost stability and dignity, the more unstable his volumes and the intervals between them became.
Similarly, if one feels in Close an element of the so-called built-in modes of perception, in which the two-dimensional plane determines the three-dimensional aspect of the image, the apparent spontaneity at work here feels maddeningly irrational. For the life of me, I can never equate such matter-of-fact, alla prima brushstokes with the image as a whole. It is necessary to spend considerable time with this new group of paintings to assemble their fleeting visual elements into a readable icon, whether it’s the three-quarter profile of “Maggie,” with her affectionate glance, the self-assured “President Bill Clinton” or the assertive “James Siena II,” or the most benevolent self-portrait of the painter we have seen to date. The touches of the brush concretize the visual process of the emergence of the image, forcing the viewer into a renewed awareness of the problem of three-dimensional content represented on a surface plane.
In other words, look too closely at the paintings, and one sees nothing but sumptuously painted abstract equations within each modular square; moving away, the image becomes more shimmering and ungraspable, lost in a vaporous atmosphere and iridescences of light. It’s as if Close has translated into painting the elements that we now understand constitute the sense of vision—color, sound, temperature, pressure, space, and time coinciding with mind, feeling, and volition. Close has the ability to achieve the most conclusive abstractions by burrowing into the minutest of particulars. Perhaps something else is emerging from beneath the surface, breaking down the two-dimensional surface like an enzyme while leaping off the picture plane in ways that question what is stable and what is not. One comes away with the sense that the painter’s deep appetite for life is as much an openness to the vulnerability of uncertainty as it is an immersion in sensual pleasure; it’s something that might be called optimal optimism, which persists as Close’s most enduring gift.