Chuck Close: Paintings and Tapestries from 2005-2009 at PaceWildenstein
May 1 – June 20, 2009
534 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York, 212 929 7000
At the young old age of 69, Chuck Close has become as much an icon as one of his signature portraits. Along with numerous awards he has, according to the very helpful biography given out by the gallery, received no less than 10 Honorary Doctorates. An insightful catalogue essay by Lilly Wei that accompanies the exhibition reminds readers that Close achieved his icon status by grabbing our attention in 1967 with his Big Nude and Big Self Portrait and then holding it with nary a letup for the next four decades. Put another way, in very short order Close moved beyond being a painter representing a movement, or of his time, and in that singular way achieved by so few artists, became an artist whose work is primarily referential to him alone. Individual specifics aside, Chuck Close, we all know, makes Chuck Close paintings. Not a bad trick, as they say.
Herein lies a potential problem, however, for once we all know something, we all have a tendency to stop looking. How easy to walk briskly through this current exhibition and dismiss it with a blasé “more of the same”. And yes, it’s true, another show of large portraits including more self portraits, more of his long term artist/celebrity subjects (Phillip Glass, Cindy Sherman, Andres Serrano), and one or two newer faces including, somewhat unexpectedly, Bill Clinton. The main room has 7 of the familiar large scale paintings, while the side room displays 9 equally large jacquard tapestries. A couple of artist’s 24” x 20” Polaroid “maquettes” hang in the entryway to round things out.
The impulse to take Close for granted is perhaps all the greater because the work has an effortless assurance to it – the irony of the artist’s being a nearly complete quadriplegic notwithstanding. We must slow down, look past the facility, past the celebrity, to find the real investigation still taking place. Take, for instance, Georgia, a painting dated 2006-2007, which is 108 ½ inches high by 84 inches wide. It is subdivided with a grid of squares 43 high and 34 across, making each square roughly 2 ¾ inches high and wide. Each square, in turn, has about 6 colors comprising a miniature target. Add it up: 34 x 43 x 6 = 8,772 individual decisions about color in this one painting. Now, the point here is not that that is an exceptional number of decisions to make in a painting. In fact it is likely to be fewer than would be found in any number of paintings, especially figurative works. No, the point is that Close lays every single color choice out right in front of the viewer. He breaks it all down for us; nothing is hidden, everything is revealed.
Which leads to another question: if the artist wishes to show all, why is it that his painted subjects are obfuscated behind an undulating grid of fluid concentric circles? Perhaps the answer is because for Close the real subject is not the people, as fascinating as they might be, or the paint, as luscious as it is, or any aspect at all from the legion of technical processes he seems to master with ease. Close’s true subject is to de-construct, and re-construct, the act of seeing. A difficult task as we are hardwired to believe that seeing is a simple act and not, as Close points out, mutable, porous, and extremely elastic.
So Close attacks from different flanks: the mystery of the focal plane in his photographs and daguerreotypes; how a myriad of colors can underlie a black and white image in the jacquard tapestries; and the nature of recognition in the paintings. Each an object lesson on the true nature of visual understanding. And what about those paintings, have the portraits really disappeared behind the paint? Actually not, for if the viewer will squint, just a bit, at the image they will see all the circles and dots merge together into a striking likeness; another sublime slight of hand courtesy of Chuck Close.