Art In Your Face -- Chuck Close's Astonishing Portraits Are A Touchstone Of Contemporary American Art

A SHORT, AWKWARD BOY with sandy bangs and thick glasses sat in a bathtub, staring at a schoolbook propped on a board above steaming water. Outside was Everett, just after World War II, a grid of clapboard rentals and factory shifts. Inside, the bathroom was completely dark except for a single gooseneck lamp the boy shone on the book. The beam illuminated little black symbols he struggled to detangle and decode, line by loop, and then rebuild into letters, words, and finally, sounds he could speak into the quiet darkness, reading each page out loud five times late into the night, long after his skin had become wrinkled and the water cold.

P-L-A-N-K-T-O-N. P. Pink shapes. Yeah, OK. Pigs . . .

Leaping . . .

Across . . .

This is a very early self-portrait of artist Chuck Close.

It is etched deeply in the 58-year-old's mind, a memory created long before Close left the misty Northwest for New York's once-gritty, now-chic art scene, before more than 100 solo exhibitions, before his paintings purportedly began selling for more than Seattle view homes, before the 791 newspaper and magazine articles chronicling the artist's career as "Twentieth-Century Master" and "Reigning Portraitist for the Information Age."

The boy in the bathtub was plagued by learning disabilities in an era when educators didn't know what those were. Close coped by zooming in, tight focus, and by breaking down complex tasks (such as reading) into chunks he could manipulate and reassemble in a way that made sense.

Close continues to use this process in his art, freezing faces on 20-by-24-inch Polaroid photographs, mapping the heads onto a grid and then rebuilding them, block by block, into the astonishing portraits for which he is famous. He calls the process liberating because it allows him to segment overwhelmingly large questions, such as how to paint a nose, into bite-sized decisions about shapes, colors and marks.

"If I had been able to learn the way everybody learned, spit back facts the way other people did, I probably would not be driven to do what I do," Close says. "You know, having problems, if you're gonna survive them, you often become stronger and in many ways a more interesting person than somebody for whom it all came a lot easier. I did things my own way, the only way I could do them."

What Close has done, over three decades, is a startling series of portraits of himself, his family and artist friends. They have recently come together in a much heralded retrospective now touring the nation: New York's Museum of Modern Art, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and Seattle Art Museum (Feb. 18 through May 9).

Critics call Close's work a home base for postwar American art because it sits exactly between representation and abstraction, spontaneity and mechanics, emotional charge and cerebral chill. It contains elements of formal portraiture, psychedelic Pop, wrung-out minimalism, cool realism and romantic abstract expressionism.

"This is a messy time when people have an unclear sense of how different schools of art relate to each other," says curator Robert Storr of the Museum of Modern Art, who organized the Close exhibit. "Chuck illuminates the situation but stands independently between the camps."

Close's style is so distinctive that it has begun to haunt others, including William Wegman, an artist friend popularly known for his photographs of Weimaraner dogs. Toward the end of the life of dog Fay, Wegman made an intimate frontal head shot of her and realized:

"Whenever you make something that fills the frame, up close, shallow depth-of-field, then you start stepping back to see the gestalt, you say: Chuck Close."

The Close retrospective consists primarily of human heads, most of them huge, all arresting. They are confrontational rather than beautiful; more detailed than real; in-your-face, yet aloof. You stare at them. They stare back. You flinch. And then you look again.

Maybe you are overwhelmed by their jumbo size, many of the canvases bigger than garage doors. Maybe you marvel at how eyelashes are spun from tiny poofs of paint, or the way candy confetti coagulates into a cleft chin. Probably you are haunted by the subjects' uneasy intensity. The faces are flash-fried and wary; you can't tell whether they're numb from traffic, Web surfing, caffeine overdose or existential angst.

You sneak close, as if examining bacteria under a microscope. You step back, as if scanning monuments through a telescope. You suddenly realize the heads are late 20th-century masks. You wonder about who made them.

FACE TO FACE, Chuck Close is not what you'd expect from his portraits.

In his first famous self-portrait, a giant acrylic created 30 years ago with an airbrush and a tablespoon of black paint, the artist sneers down at you, unwashed and near enough to smell, a smoldering cigarette thrust between his lips, wild chest hair taunting you at eye level. He seems arrogant and dangerously intriguing, the kind of guy who'd get close and then flick ashes on your skin.

Over time, in the self-portraits, the artist's clothing, glasses and degree of baldness have evolved. Airbrushed hyper-realism congeals into abstract cells and circuits that seem vaguely cerebral. In later works, Close comes off as smart and powerful. His portraits of himself as a middle-aged artist are less defiant than when he was young, but much more imposing.

In real life, Chuck Close is warm and witty and intellectual, a handsome, husky man dressed in all black. He is in a wheelchair because a blood clot lodged in his spinal artery 10 years ago, leaving him mostly quadriplegic. Lecturing on stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Close is a dramatic study in angle and curve: bald skull, round wheels and circular spectacles versus taut torso, long leg and straight talk about what he likes and doesn't in Rembrandt, Vermeer, de Kooning and Velazquez. His voice rumbles deep and dark, like rye bread and the subway. Unlike his self-portraits, he smiles.

On a warm afternoon in late autumn, Close jokes about "jay-rolling" as we cross Lafayette Street against the light on the way to lunch at a mediocre SoHo bistro close to his studio. He orders a glass of pinot noir and a filet mignon sandwich, hold the bread. His delight at losing 20 pounds on a high-protein Sugar-Busters diet makes him seem human and approachable. He's remarkably quick at figuring out who you are and how best to engage you. This is a skill he developed while growing up in Monroe, Tacoma and Everett, trying to charm teachers and other kids who thought he was a stupid, lazy, fumbling slob.

"On occasion I'd have a teacher I couldn't convince and then it was hell. I would fail and that's all I'd see. I didn't feel very good about myself on many levels. In a working-class mill town, athletics are big. Often with learning-disabled kids, there's a clumsiness that goes along with it. I was a klutz; couldn't catch or throw a ball. Luckily I had art. That made me feel good about myself, something you can excel at, something you can do that other people can't."

Born in Monroe in 1940, Close was the only child of Mildred Close, a classically trained pianist and sales clerk, and Leslie Close, a tinkerer-inventor who punched a time clock in sheet-metal shops at Paine Field in Everett and McChord Air Force base in Tacoma. Both parents encouraged their son to pursue his passion for art, perhaps because their own creative impulses were stymied by the war economy and a need to have health insurance. (Close's father was chronically ill with rheumatic fever and heart disease.)

"My father was supposed to die many times, so there was this sense that life was short and you better fill the time you have with things that are meaningful."

When Close was 5, his father built him an easel for Christmas. Shortly after, his parents gave him a much-coveted set of artists' linseed-oil paints ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog. At 8, Close began studying privately with a local professional who trained the boy in academic art: anatomy, still lifes, landscapes, drawing from nude models. He made hand puppets from sawdust and glue and donned a top-hat to perform magic shows for other neighborhood children.

When Close was 11, his father died.

"The strange gift in that experience was that I knew I could survive tragedy. I was forced to deal with it at a tender young age, and as awful and painful as it was, I found you can get beyond it and you will be happy again.

"Had he lived, I might not try to do much. I would sit back watching him do it because he was so skilled," Close says, recalling how his father built him, from scratch, a homemade bicycle, toy jeep, miniature theater and mountains for his toy trains. "When he died, all of a sudden, I had his tools and his tool shop. I would go in there and try to make something. I'd fix things and build things the way I had watched him do it."

Close describes growing up in the Northwest as a chapter out of David Guterson's novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars": picking strawberries on island farms in the summer, Sea Scouts, Scandinavian reserve, post-Pearl Harbor hysteria, the narrowness of fearing people you knew all your life because of their race.

His mother's legacy to her son was a sense of morality and a certain boldness. Mildred Close climbed mountains, skied, sailed, flew, drove a sporty Austin Healey, took art classes. She grew up in Auburn during the 1930s and attended school with the sons and daughters of Japanese-American truck farmers. When her friends were sent to internment camps during World War II, Mildred Close was radicalized. She picketed at the state Capitol and taught her son that the darkest day in human history was the atomic bombing of women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Brashness, creativity and pacifism converged in 1961, during the heart of the Cold War, in Close's first famous - or rather, infamous - painting, fashioned from a discarded American flag. Close had rescued the flag from the rag bin at St. Vincent de Paul near Lake Union while scrounging for large, cheap cloths on which to paint. He used the flag as a bedspread until his cat tore holes in it, then he cut and sewed the flag into a mushroom-cloud shape on which he painted E Pluribus Unum, 1776 and the date of the Pearl Harbor bombing. The artist now laughs at his early flag painting as sophomoric, fittingly, since he was in college when he made it.

Even so, it won awards at regional juried art competitions. The prizes were revoked - a controversy in itself - after the flag was displayed at the Puyallup Fair and so angered members of the American Legion that they literally chopped down a door to get at it. At one point, Close stashed the flag under the Montlake Bridge after wind swept the painting off his car roof. Then it wandered through various people's basements before finally coming to rest in Close's warehouse in New York.

It wouldn't be the last time Close's art caused a stir, and he didn't mind a bit. "I always wanted to be engaged with the viewer," Close says. "I didn't care whether they loved or hated the work, but I wanted them to notice me. . . . In most artists, there is the plaintive cry of a small child saying: Look! Down here! I am somebody! Won't you look at what I made?"

AN ART TEACHER can never tell, in any given classroom, which student is going to be an international star, who will get rave reviews in Oklahoma, whose artistic promise will be doused by an unfortunate marriage.

"He was a darn good student, but you wouldn't have figured out he was going to be what he is now," recalls Russell Day, now 86, who taught design at Everett Junior College (now Everett Community College), where Close had enrolled because he didn't have the grades or prerequisites for a university.

Attending Everett was a stroke of luck. The college was brand new, designed around a grand foyer that was an art gallery and ruled by a triumvirate of art instructors who poured everything into teaching. Close was swept away. In the evenings, he hid on top of the lockers while janitors cleaned and locked the building so he could climb back down and work in the studio all night. He unabashedly mimicked other people's art: Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, de Kooning. He did stuff with grids, squares with circles in the middle, not unlike what he's doing now. He got embroiled in long-running bull sessions about whether a photograph could be art and the role of abstraction in realism. His teachers describe him as aggressive, lanky, consumed by art, '60s music and fascinating women, but primarily art.

"I'm sure I drove them all crazy," Close says. "I was picking their brains. I wanted their feedback. Now someone shows up on my doorstep, I want to kill them. If I didn't watch it, I'd never be able to get anything done." (Actually, Close is regarded as an extremely generous supporter of young artists and the arts community.)

By the time he got to the University of Washington and met professor Alden Mason, Close was charged. "I wanted to be just like Alden. I'd hang out with him, steal ideas and learn what it was like to be a real artist. I would drag my painting for him to see, practically after every stroke, to see if I was on the right track."

Mason says he urged his students to make "big, confrontational spontaneous paintings, like ritual altars . . . The spaces between are as important as the object . . . Like a flower grows, a painting grows. If it becomes too literal, it's boring. If too strange, it's cartoonish or forced."

Abstract expressionism was the rage. Mason and Close bought buckets of cheap paint from the Bay City Paint Co. in San Francisco and slathered it onto canvases with squeeze bottles, a la Pollock and de Kooning. Close's soul was in sync with contemporary Western art, but back then good examples of it were so scarce in Seattle his main exposure was through a magnifying glass, squinting at tiny black-and-white reproductions in art magazines. (This was before the advent of inexpensive color art posters and postcards.) Mason, eager to describe the works he had seen during world travels, was Close's link to the real thing.

"If you weren't interested in Mark Tobey or Morris Graves or the art of Asian or native cultures, which I wasn't, Seattle had the wagons drawn in a circle," Close says. "That's why Alden and (other teachers) were so important. They represented a real alternative."

Close inscribed the flyleaf of one of his many art biographies:

For Alden, without whom this book would certainly contain very different work - if it existed at all. Many thanks for your help, influence and encouragement. You were my biggest inspiration and influence. With sincere affection, CHUCK

Mason, now 79, modestly says his only influence on Close's art was the glowing letter of commendation he wrote that got the student accepted to Yale's summer art school, and subsequently, Yale University's prestigious graduate school, from which Close graduated with highest honors and a Fulbright grant to study in Vienna.

"I wrote in the recommendation letter," Mason says, "about the fact that the Northwest is isolated and we don't get a chance to go to New York and it's not fair and all that sort of stuff. And it worked!"

CHUCK CLOSE'S STUDIO hides behind a peeling brown storefront marked by graffiti and rusty fire escapes. It's just north of SoHo, on a cobblestone street crowded with pricey furniture boutiques and sidewalk salvage shops peddling sheet metal and used electrical switches. The No. 4, 5 and 6 subway trains rumble below, and car alarms and taxi horns punctuate the constant street blare. It's a brazen, vibrant, pungent place, a long way from Seattle.

Enough time has passed for Close to say, in so many words, that he was ready to move on from the repressed gray Northwest and the abstract expressionism he had championed at the UW, and find his own voice and personality in his art.

"New York was a bigger richer province, so complex and interesting. When I first came East and I saw people reacting strongly and registering how they felt, a very different attitude toward expressing pain and anguish, sorrow and happiness, I thought: This is real. This is not social niceties. This is not talking about the weather. I realized there was another way to deal with things and I wanted that. I wanted to be engaged. I wanted to be there."

At Yale, Close fell in with cutting-edge artists: Jack Tworkov, Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, Janet Fish, Alex Katz. They would later became his "artist family" and the subjects of his portraits. They teased Close about his virtuoso painterly technique, predicting he'd be the next John Singer Sargent - an insult at a time when figurative work was out of vogue. Thus motivated to exorcise cliches from his paintbrush, Close experimented with an airbrush and grid, using a photo template to create a 21-foot reclining nude complete with stretch marks and Caesarean scar. Then he went on to three decades of heads.

Unlike most portraitists in art history, Close is not a paid flatterer. He doesn't accept commissions. Oddly, the portraitist has trouble recognizing people when he sees them. So he focuses on family and friends to memorize their faces during the many months it takes to finish a painting.

And there they all are, on the cement floor of his tall, bright studio, assembled as if for a family reunion: Mark Greenwold with a look of stunned naivete; Roy Lichtenstein in profile, his ponytail cascading down the grid like water splashing over rocks; Janet Fish's bangs hanging like a beaded curtain; a tender fingerprint portrait of Close's mother-in-law, Fanny; Kiki Smith with hippie flower-power eyes. Most subjects say they love Close's art but don't particularly care for their own portraits, except for Smith, who calls Close's depiction of her, "My fantasy of myself."

Close is arranging the card-sized copies of the portraits on miniature gallery walls in a foam model of the Seattle Art Museum, preparing for the February show. Peering at the little heads, you can see the development of Close's art - how he stuck with the subject but played with the process: oil paints, finger paints, pencil, acrylics, charcoal, gouache, pastels, watercolors, air brush, bristle brush, thumbprint, pulp paper, linoleum cuts, photographic collage, crayon, mezzotints, woodcuts, linoleum blocks, daguerreotypes, silk screens and holograms.

"It's very important to get yourself into trouble," Close says, explaining why he changes his technique whenever the art begins to flow too easily. "If it doesn't feel like it has the right degree of resistance, I better start screwing around again and toss something into the mix that will keep me off balance and keep me from relaxing too much."

In early works, individual marks are repetitive and characterless. "Robert," for example, is composed of 104,072 handmade marks resembling computer pixels. In later paintings, every brush stroke has personality and verve, each square a miniature abstract painting: pastel ellipse, olive sausage, blue bagel, peach line. How can Close possibly know, when he's a brush-length from the canvas, how the colors will land on a viewer across the room? The artist says it's just a matter of experience, but you wonder if it isn't more a Mozartian gift, like the ability to compose music without hearing instruments or the orchestra.

Close scoffs at the idea of inspiration, instead comparing his incremental process to quilting or other "women's work . . . that they could put down and then keep on knitting after they fed the baby or went out to weed the garden."

The style works for Close, he says, because it's "something going today that I was doing yesterday that I'll be doing tomorrow. I don't have to sit in the studio and figure out what was going on and why I was there."

Close says his learning disabilities and his personality can leave him overwhelmed by the whole, plagued with indecision, a slob, impatient and lazy. "You can either go with that or you can say: I don't want that to drive the kind of art I can make. I set up a series of limitations that would guarantee I couldn't wallow in my nature. If you want to separate your work from everyone else's, every time you come to a Y in the route, take the most difficult fork, because everyone else will take the easiest route, and if you continue, pretty soon you'll find yourself all alone."

At work, Close is a solo figure in black, a brush strapped to his arm with a Velcro brace. He paints under a huge skylight at the far end of his studio, flanked by jars of horse-hair bristles and tubes of cadmium yellow, phthalo green, Chinese red. There's an odor of solvent; the tunes of Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Aretha. The huge canvas he's working on is mechanically raised and lowered through a slot in the floor. It's Maggie, his daughter, or rather, her left eye and ear, emerging from squares of forest green, mustard, sienna.

Referring to a Polaroid photo of her, Close lays down colors, block by block, and then responds with more color, shapes, circles, a dog leg, squares running together to become two or three - a stream-of-consciousness dance.

"The thing so enjoyable is I get to complete each piece as I go and leave that piece feeling I have gotten closer to resolving a little celebration in my mind."

The retrospective is a sort of homecoming for Close, who hasn't seen some of his originals for decades, and never all together in a visual conversation. "It surprised me to see how it feels," he says. The early works, initially labeled cold, mechanical photorealism, now look, to his eye, more "lyric and beautiful," like paintings. "And the late work isn't as free and expressionist as people see it."

Some critics claim Close's spinal injury completely transformed his art. But actually, if you look at the portraits he painted the year before the paralysis - "Lucas," "Lucas II" and "Francesco II" - you can see the grid already evolving into a pointillist patchwork, shimmering stitches of color when you're near; a radiating quilt of psychedelic hair as you step back.

In his latest paintings, the artist's brush strokes are so intimate and human, you can almost feel the oily slip of bristles against your cheek. His palette tingles with fiesta pink, mango, chocolate, turquoise and sweet yellow - a celebration, the artist says, because after all these years and everything that's happened, he is still making art.

Paula Bock is a staff writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Harley Soltes is the magazine's staff photographer. ------------------------------- The Close restrospective

THE CHUCK CLOSE retrospective will exhibit at Seattle Art Museum Feb. 18 through May 9, 1999. Organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it will include "Big Self-Portrait" along with 80 other paintings, drawings, prints and photographs from all phases of the artist's career.

Events in connection with the exhibition:

Chuck Close on Chuck Close

Close will speak at Kane Hall, University of Washington, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. $3 students, $5 Henry Art Gallery and Seattle Art Museum members, $7 general public. Tickets: 654-3121.

Opening Gallery Talk

Robert Storr, a Museum of Modern Art curator and organizer of the Close retrospective, will talk about the evolution of Close's work. Feb. 18 at 7 p.m., 4th floor, Seattle Art Museum exhibition gallery. Free with museum admission.

Mason Exhibition

Concurrent with the Close retrospective, Woodside/Braseth Gallery will exhibit paintings of big heads by artist Alden Mason, who taught Close at the University of Washington. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, at 1533 Ninth Avenue at Pine St. 622-7243.