Chuck Close Prints

by Terrie Sultan



Each time Close approaches a print, the making is different, and so is the visual experience. His interpretation of his iconography over time results not so much in similarities as in differences, as if each image were the artist's first take or initial perception. Close recycles images. His subjects repeat over and over. We become familiar with Phil (Glass), Keith (Hollingworth), Leslie (Close), Alex (Katz), and of course the artist's own visage. But in many ways Close's familiarity with the portrait subject is beside the point. Beyond the physical resemblance inherent in any portrait representation, his print images fascinate because they reveal how they were constructed. The lithograph Phil/Fingerprint (plate 1), the pulp-paper Phil III (plate 36), and Phil Spitbite (plate 66) are all based on the same photograph, yet each time Close addresses the image of Phil, he blurs the certainty of achieving a definitive depiction. What we become enmeshed in is the freedom with which Close manipulates the convention of representation, maneuvering tonal valuations to suit the enforced order of grid-based seriality. The extremes of this approach can be seen in two prints of Alex Katz made within two years of each other. The shimmering ninety-five-color Japanese-style ukiyo-e woodcut Alex (plate 94) is a hallucinatory composite of abstract gestures assembled from forty-seven woodblocks that culminate into a recognizable image. Alex/Reduction Block (plate 72), on the other hand, establishes a nearly corporeal verisimilitude. The oppositional stance of these two pieces -- each deriving radically different solutions from the same image -- embodies how Close is "always looking for how one piece can kick open the door for another possibility."

All of Close's art presents an abundance of information in a dislocating scale that alters the terms of engagement between viewers and his art. Our role as viewers is to determine the relationship between the parts and the whole and to discern between the surfaces of his representational inventions -- brush strokes, fingerprints, dots, dashes, pulp-paper particles -- and the host of competing metaphors for legibility or illegibility that they suggest. In some ways portraiture is a honey trap for Close, an alluring veneer that attracts viewers only to bring them face-to-face with reality unmade into a host of competing compositional marks. In this sense, Close's portraiture is not so much psychological as perceptual. Whether the surface of his images must be visually pierced, as in his early works, or pieced together, as in his most recent art, the recognition that the sitter is Phil or Keith gets us no further than the basic act of categorizing, of separating A from B. To understand these images, we must return to the artist's notations, to the means he has used. His individual marks can be read as diaristic entries in his daily effort to express an image. Taken together, they create a portrait of Close's sensibility, vision, and intellect that is more revealing than any of his self-portraits.

This book is entitled Process and Collaboration because those two words are essential to any conversation with Close about his prints. The creative process is as important to him as the finished product, and these works strive to reveal the routes taken to get to them. Showing the progressive and state proofs here along with the editioned work demystifies the artist's decision-making process, allowing us to visualize how these complex images are made, how he was thinking when he made the mark. "My images are like variations on a composition originally written for violin and piano that can be rescored for different instruments. It will have the same melody line, but it will become a different experience."


1 Traditional printmaking is defined as those works made by means of a separate printing surface, called a "matrix" -- etching plate, lithography stone, woodblock, or stencil -- that is interposed between the artist's hand and the final image. This distinguishes hand-drawn printing techniques from photographic reproduction.

2 All quotes by the artist, unless otherwise noted, are from a series of interviews conducted by the author between May and August 2002.


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