Chuck Close Prints

by Terrie Sultan



Close has described himself as "an artist looking for trouble" because pushing the limits of a technique gets him in trouble, and extricating himself from a technical corner becomes an essential. catalyst to his creativity. Prints often provide the arena in which he can work out solutions to the aesthetic problems his restless imagination poses. "Prints have moved me in my unique work more than anything else has," he asserts. "Prints change the way I think about things." Often he will experiment with a new approach and then set it aside, letting it rest before returning to the problem with a new point of view. "I have said for many years that problem solving is greatly overvalued in our society. Problem creation is much more interesting. The questions you ask yourself are the most interesting, because they put you in a jam. Then your solutions are going to be personal solutions, not art-world solutions. If you can ask yourself the right kind of questions, the solutions become self-generating."

Close credits Jasper Johns as one of the primary inspirations of the printmaking renaissance that began in the 1960s: "Jasper elevated the print from ugly stepsister status to princess of the ball. It was clear in his prints that he was serious about creating a physicality and quality of visual experience that was different from, but equal to, his paintings." Johns and many other artists of his generation made some of their first prints at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), founded by Tatyana Grosman in 1957. It was at ULAE and at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop (founded by June Wayne in 1960) that the notion of a collaborative printer was established as a professional category. Ironically, Close has never worked with ULAE, perhaps because the primary focus there has been on lithographs. Although Close did make several early lithographs, including Phil/Fingerprint (plate 1) and Keith/Four Times (plate 2), he never felt entirely comfortable with this medium. "I don't like litho because it is all chemistry. You must work within the difficult-to-control tendency of the stone to attract or repel ink. You might get an image that you like in proof, but in edition, one chemical reaction can change everything. I like tooths -- something I can dig my fingernail into. I want to carve, I want to etch, I want to play around with pulp. I want to squish things with my fingers. I want to lay on color so you can see one layer on top of another. I don't want ephemeral, chemical change. I want that physical experience."

Close's long engagement with prints began in the early 1960s, when he was completing a double major in painting and printmaking at Yale University. He studied technique with the renowned printmaker Gabor Peterdi and the history of prints with Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, the noted scholar and curator, who was then teaching at Yale. Close also took care to study Yale's fine print collection. "We were allowed to see and touch remarkable prints by Rembrandt and Dürer, among others. I could study state proofs of Rembrandt's Descent from the Cross, and I was able to clearly see the choices and decisions that Rembrandt had made. I could hold them a few inches from my nose, I could touch them and feel the tooth of the etching. Most important, I could see the process evolve through the progressive states. I really understood printmaking for the first time then." Another important aspect Close gleaned from Yale's print collection was an understanding of the essentially collaborative nature of printmaking. "In those Dürer prints I saw that the artist had done what was easiest for him. He glued a sheet of paper on a block of wood and drew with a pen. The easiest way to draw tonal gradations with a pen is to make a crosshatch stroke. The hardest thing for the printer who must follow the artist's drawing to do is cut a crosshatch, because you have to go in and cut out the little spaces between. If Dürer had to cut his own block, he would have made only one crosshatch drawing and then said, 'Hey, wait a minute, what am I doing? I have made something so difficult.' He would have immediately abandoned cross-hatching. But because other people cut the block, he could go ahead and draw whatever he wanted, and it became their problem."


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