Chuck Close Prints
by Terrie Sultan
Keith/Mezzotint (plate 28) was a defining experience for Close, establishing many of the practices that would propel him over the next thirty years: relentless self-education, ambitious innovation, and extremism in both scale and technique. Close was clear about what he wanted and didn't want in a print. "A lot of artists for a lot of years didn't know much about making prints, and what they got was a photomechanically derived offset reproduction on a good piece of paper. My generation of artists was the first to be educated through graduate school, and we all studied printmaking. We are not afraid of the medium, and we know what it is to put ink on paper in a variety of mediums." Keith/Mezzotint was the first print Close had undertaken since graduate school, and the first since abandoning his early abstract style. He deliberately selected a process that, though popular with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists, was little used by his contemporaries. In that sense, his decision was audacious: neither he nor printer Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press knew how to make a mezzotint, and they had to learn together. His determination to pursue this difficult medium was complicated by his decision to work on a scale -- 51 x 411/2 inches (129.5 x 105.4 cm) -- heretofore unheard of for mezzotint. Crown Point Press had to acquire a special press just to be able to print Keith. For several years Close had based his mammoth painted portraits on a grid system that disappeared with the completion of the painting. In Keith, Close purposefully revealed the grid that had been the invisible armature for his painting system. The minute details of Keith's face are conveyed square by square, so that the print reads like a topographic map. Conflating iconography and methodology, Keith foreshadows Close's later decision to reveal the grid matrix in his painted portraits.
By 1977 Close had become deeply engaged in all aspects of printmaking. As printmaking became a well-established part of his studio practice, many editions followed, using different techniques and a diverse range of publishers. These include the lithograph Keith/Four Times, created at Landfall Press in Chicago (plate 2); etchings for Graphicstudio, at the University of South Florida (1985); his first woodblock print, Leslie (plate 3), created in Kyoto, Japan, with Tadashi Toda for Crown Point Press; his first spitbite etching, Self-Portrait (plate 63), made with Aldo Crommelynck in New York; and -- in what signaled a major expansion of his printmaking repertoire -- pulp-paper multiples with Joe Wilfer in New York (1981). Wilfer was appointed publications director for Pace Editions in 1984, a position he held until his death in 1995. During this time, Wilfer worked with Close on many multiples and prints, serving as his quintessential problem solver. "Joe was a very creative guy. I remember when I was trying to make color prints, and we needed a way to make fingerprint drawings in yellow, red, and blue, and have them print in black. But the yellow didn't block light, so you couldn't use it to block out a plate. So he thought of using PABA, the stuff that is in sunblock, grinding that into the ink, so even though it was transparent yellow, it would not let the light through. This was the way he thought. There was never a mistake so big or an accident so great that he couldn't use it somehow." Wilfer encouraged, teased, and pestered Close into exploring the possibilities of pulp paper, a medium the artist had previously dismissed as being too craft-oriented. The resulting body of work consists of eighteen editioned paper multiples, as well as a number of unique works. Close recently returned to this medium with Self-Portrait/Pulp (plate 46). Developed and executed by Wilfer's colleagues Ruth Lingen and Paul Wong as a collaboration between Dieu Donné and Pace Editions, this extremely complex stencil pochoir pushes pulp paper to a new level of sophistication.
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