No Cigar

The creation of Chuck Close, art-world hero.

“Chuck Close”
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Feb. 26-May 26

Click on any image to see an enlargement.

The austere installation of Chuck Close’s big portraits at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City begins where any artist wants the narrative of his career to begin: with fully achieved art. No juvenilia, no hesitant casting about, no “finding of the voice.” You walk into the first white room, and bam! There’s the Big Self-Portrait of 1967-68 staring right at you. This unforgiving image glories in its sheer seediness. A trickle of cigarette smoke takes a detour around the caterpillar mustache before negotiating some nose hairs. The stubble on Close’s close-up cheeks and neck is so magnified that the hairs are an unshavable inch long. The whole portrait is a celebration of hair–facial, nasal, chest, eyebrow, head–the freak flag, as David Crosby called it, of the late ‘60s.

But Charles Thomas Close took a while to turn into “Chuck Close,” the disheveled, unmade bed of a man with the black glasses. Born in Monroe, Wash., in 1940, he was the only child of a failed inventor and plumber who died when Charles was 11; Charles’ mother taught piano and encouraged his interest in painting. He attended the University of Washington and did graduate work at Yale from 1962 to ‘64. (His Yale classmates included such current art-world stars as the painters Brice Marden and Jennifer Bartlett and the sculptor Richard Serra.) After teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for a couple of years, he returned to New York, where–with a brief interruption in 1988, when a paralyzing seizure left him in a wheelchair–he has worked ever since.

During his early 20s, Close experimented with a variety of provocative styles. In 1961, obviously inspired by Jasper Johns, he cut up American flags, sewed them up in new shapes–a mushroom cloud, for example–and painted over them. At Yale, he learned to paint de Kooning rip-offs with such facility that he once told de Kooning that he’d painted more de Koonings than de Kooning had. By the mid-1960s, like others of his generation, he’d left the gestural art of Pollock and de Kooning behind (though Pollock could have painted the swirling chest hair in Big Self-Portrait) and begun using photographic images as the basis for his cooler, less openly expressive work.

In 1967, the campus police at U. Mass dismantled Close’s first solo exhibition, which included drawings loosely based on photographs of album covers. One showed Bob Dylan exposing himself. Close left for New York that summer, where he painted his 21-foot-long Big Nude, an impressive black-and-white image of a reclining woman with a bikini suntan, based on photographs he’d taken in Amherst. In November he started his Big Self-Portrait. Three years later, an Artforum interview referred to Close by his nickname, “Chuck”–which an assistant had scrawled on some photographs for the piece–and the name stuck as his professional moniker.

None of Close’s in-your-face ‘60s shockers–the desecrated flags, the oversize nudes, the rock stars’ genitalia–is included in the MoMA show (though Big Nude is reproduced in the exhibition catalog); nor, for that matter, are some large-scale photographic nudes he made during the mid-1980s. Close’s career of deliberate provocation is airbrushed out. What this means is that the Big Self-Portrait of 1967-68 seems to come out of nowhere. One is left with the somewhat misleading impression of an establishment figure: the artist who plays an artist in Six Degrees of Separation (as Close did), who paints pictures of his celebrity friends, who takes a formal photographic portrait of Bill Clinton (1996, in the catalog).

This interpretation of Close is reinforced by MoMA’s focus on his technical and formal innovations to the exclusion of his subject matter. The paintings and drawings are grouped in such a way that we follow Close’s progression from the black-and-white enlargements of the late ‘60s to his puzzling attempts during the ‘70s to reproduce in paint the chemical process by which Polaroid cameras make color images. Instead of mixing his colors on the palette, Close built up his images by applying thin layers of primary colors directly onto the canvas. Many of these color portraits have a faded pallor, like old snapshots, but the exuberant Linda (1975-76) has a dispersed energy, derived from the spidery network of Hendrix hair, crow’s-feet wrinkles, fissured lips, and eye capillaries. While moving into color, Close found ways to engage the crisscross grid that had always been part of his procedure for enlarging photographic images. First, he made the grid an explicit element of his compositions. Then, he experimented with different ways to fill that grid: pointillist colored dots, blobs of papier-mâché, fingerprints and, finally, the colorful Symbolist doodles he now favors.

All this focus on technique, while fascinating in itself, is a distraction from the emotional impact of the paintings. (And the most interesting and dramatic technical transition, from gestural de Kooningisms to Pop cool, is missing from the show.) MoMA’s coy refusal to identify the subjects of the portraits (wall panels give title, date, and medium) suggests that their identities don’t matter, even while first-name titles imply that they do–that intimacies are being explored and revealed. The result is that the show has an insiderly feel. Many will recognize that Phil (1969) is the composer Philip Glass; or that Roy II (1994), in a rare Closean profile to show off the ponytail, is the late Roy Lichtenstein. But how many will know, as I do, that Marge R. (1974) is a realtor in Amherst?

An example of this coyness is the pair of paintings hanging side by side in the first room. Nancy (1968) could be a still from a ‘50s film noir: She looks as if she has just caught sight of a stalker on the stairs. The sharp-focus treatment of certain details–light glinting on the uneven, Ali McGrawish front teeth; the asymmetrical eyes; the squashed nose that looks as if it’s been broken at least once–give a victimized, menaced quality to the composition. The thug with the fuck-you sneer depicted in Richard (1969), a magnified mug shot hanging to her right, could be the guy she’s just caught sight of. But–here’s where the in-group stuff kicks in–Nancy is the late artist Nancy Graves, and the thug is Richard Serra, whom she married in 1965. Is Close (with MoMA’s cooperation) suggesting there were violent tensions in this marriage, which ended in divorce?

Nor are Close’s experiments with filling his grids as merely “technical” as the MoMA show makes them seem. In several unsettling portraits, Close fills his grids with his own fingerprints inked on a stamp pad. These works have none of the finger-painting naiveté of kids’ art that you might expect (though two of them portray Close’s young daughters). Rather, with their clearly indicated whorls, they look like police fingerprints used for identification. Is it an accident that two of Close’s favorite media are mug shots and fingerprints? MoMA’s “new-ways-to-fill-the-grid” narrative discourages any such speculation about the buried themes of criminality and violence beneath Close’s cool images.

Close’s work from the ‘80s and the ‘90s loses something of his earlier provocativeness. Lucas II (1987, of the painter Lucas Samaras) has a wild-man intensity–part Ezra Pound, part Jerry Garcia–accentuated by Close’s one-time experimentation with a radiating circular grid. But most of the other recent paintings are jeweled, engaging, user-friendly. The colorful little symbols filling the grids remind me of Gustav Klimt (whom Close studied in Vienna in 1964), especially when Close is luxuriating in the dark tangle of the artist Kiki Smith’s hair (Kiki, 1993). If you take a closer look, though, you notice that instead of Klimt’s erotic glamour, which hints at dangerous passions unleashed by the unconscious, Close’s doodles depict doughnuts, hot dogs, and lozenges. The candy-store colors that Close reined in for decades return here with a vengeance, but they seem more frivolous than emotionally charged. These top-dollar portraits of art-world luminaries look good enough to eat.