Chuck Close at 81
By: Martin Mugar - Aug 21, 2021
Part of the urban legend surrounding Chuck Close is the rationale he gave for his stylistic move to figuration upon his arrival in NYC from Yale: Since everyone in New York was doing abstraction he thought it would be a good career move to paint realistically. Whether he said this or not the fact remains that he became identified with the resurgence of figuration in the late sixties with his oversized, in your face portraits and benefited from a good deal of the interest focused by critics on “Realism” at that time. In sum a good career move. The writing about figuration was as strong as that about the avant-garde and it was successful in establishing figuration as a viable movement in the eyes of the public. It was seen as an art that could address all the issues that abstraction didn’t: the particular, the moment, and empathy for the human presence. Writers and advocates like Linda Nochlin cast the roles of abstraction and realism in a kind of Platonic/Aristotelian split with abstraction being the art of concepts and realism the art of the unmanageable particular that can't be fit into the concept.
Much of the figurative movement drew its inspiration and source material from photography, which would provide the kind of detail of either light or texture that the artist could use to create specificity. Close followed in the mode known as Photo-Realism and applied a grid to transfer without distortion the photographic image to the canvas. The affect of his photo-generated work was ultimately cool and the use of the grid distanciating and although one might try to attribute empathy to Close’s decision to depict the human face it seemed that there was nothing there to be empathetic about no matter how close one looked. So close but so far.
What took Close beyond the figurative movement was his interest in pixilation. Probably generated by the realization that as you look closer beyond the detail of the texture of each hair follicle you enter into the world of visual cognition beyond detail where the image of the face is in fact a myriad of impulses created out of the rods and cones of the eye. It is a strange reversal that as we try to pin the “real” down by moving into the more particular details the less real the image becomes. Take a photograph that seems seamless and increase the magnification on a copier and then take each subsequent image and magnify it again and again. You end up with dots that no longer ad up to the image in which they have their origin. Instead of getting closer to the subject you are thrown solipsistically back into the creator’s head.
The ability to recognize faces is considered by cognitive scientists to be a higher cognitive event; the recognition of patterns of dots is lower on the cognitive scale. The lower order impulses allow us to see color and contrast, the higher ones shape the color and pattern into a recognizable whole. In fact there is a part of the brain that is dedicated to facial recognition, which is obviously a necessary ability from an evolutionary point of view in order to distinguish friend and family from enemy or stranger.
The inquiry of the Impressionists into the raw material of perception was disconcerting to the average art viewers of the Nineteenth century since it dissolved the higher cognitive faculties of recognition. It didn’t add up and took a detour away from the traditional painting technique of the Baroque, which started from the general and ended in the particular. The impressionist marks freed from any goal lend themselves to new configurations and in the case of Cezanne begin to express a world shaped by gravity as a visual field, and with the Expressionists a world shaped by the emotions. Historically it is easy to trace the evolution of this liberated mark from Impressionism to Post Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and its apotheosis or possible dead-end in the pure abstract panels of Ellsworth Kelly.
In comparison to this dynamic deconstructive process Close is very reactionary. The pre-impressionist goal of realism remains dominant. Moreover, he has us look at the image head-on which has been the mode of portraiture from time immemorial. But this does not stop certain critics from seeing him as avant-garde. His dispassionate use of the grid and the mechanical precision and the removal of the hand in the act of painting put him in the camp of those who claim the death of the author. The serial repetition of head after head puts him in league with Warhol: the preplanning in the camp of Sol Lewitt. The more recent work sets him up to be a proponent of chaos theory. Mark C Taylor in his “Moment of Complexity, Emerging Network Culture” sees the pixels as “fore grounded” in respect to the face and compares their interactive dynamic, as moving toward a tipping point between order and chaos. He sees his work as akin to the architectural drawings of Gehry with their “dynamic interactive processes”. So Close categorized in every avant garde movement of the last 30 years is now the avatar of network culture. I see more of a connection between Gehry and the strange space of Cézanne's late landscapes than with Close. There exists of course an ambiguity in Close’s work since each pixel has taken on a new identity filled with swirling images of varying color but the tyranny of the face survives easily this attempt to give weight to each pixel Moreover, the grid keeps his work from being dynamic as Taylor claims, ultimately stultifying Close’s work, even when he places it diagonally; the individual pixels could ideally fight more aggressively the cognitive event of the face as in cubism. In light of those earlier radical attempts of Cezanne and the Cubists to move art beyond figuration, Close’s claim to fame is suspect. The only answer is that there is no one else out there in the contemporary scene that reflects back on perception as the base of the world we see. This aspect has not gone unnoticed. He picks up fans in the scientific community such as Mary Livingstone, a neurobiologist at Harvard who sees Close’s work embodying the visual process itself, which starts in local processes and moves on to global processes (read from local value and color contrast to face recognition), cutting out a space where the viewer can move back and forth between the two.
According to certain polling data Close along with Warhol are the artists the most easily recognizable by the public. Is it in part because they use the photographic image, the lingua franca of the masses? Despite all the manipulations Close applies to the photograph, he remains a photo-realist. I think the general public found in him what they need: raw data that can be observed as unprocessed to challenge their naïveté, but the photorealism lurking not far behind to pick them up lest they suffer vertigo. The more cerebral of the critics force his images to support their own agenda but they cant be totally faulted for this since the potential for a truly subversive disruption of the visual field is there in the work of Close albeit weighted down by the grid and the dominance of facial recognition. More than anyone else painting today Close understood the dead end of abstraction as it was being done by the minimalists and sought to reground himself in its origins in the Impressionist’s conceptual breakthrough. Maybe we should leave his work there as a kind of hermeneutic movement back that doesn’t quite come full circle to define the future.