“ We walked up three flights of steep stairs, and there, at the far end of the narrow loft, was a huge black-and-white portrait of an unshaven, bar-shouldered young man. Standing next to it, greeting me apprehensively, was its towering, slightly glowering, six-foot-three painter, no less formidable-looking than his scraggly-locked image on the canvas.” These words describe the first seconds of what would become a four-decade friendship between Chuck Close and Martin Friedman, Walker director from 1961 to 1990. The year was 1968. The painting was Big Self-Portrait, the first of Close’s paintings using his trademark style and the first painting he ever sold. And Friedman ended up buying it for the Walker.
The recollection appears in his new book Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait (Harry N. Abrams, 2005), available in the Walker Shop. Coincidentally released just as the Walker-organized exhibition Chuck Close: Self-Portraits, 1968–2005 begins its national tour, the full-color volume is remarkable for both the intimacy and authoritativeness that comes from its author being an art historian and personal friend of Close. It includes a comprehensive biography of Close’s life and work, from the 1988 illness that left Close paralyzed, and his recovery, to how he perfected the technique behind his epic-scale portraits, and includes interviews with many of his subjects, including Kiki Smith, Lucas Samaras, Cindy Sherman, William Wegman, and others. Looking back at that first encounter, Friedman recounts, “ To this day, if I happen to be in the audience during a public occasion when he is being honored, Close never fails to mention the price the museum paid for his first self-portrait and, to his delight, my face never fails to turn bright red.” The price: $1,300.
Having just closed at the Walker, Chuck Close: Self-Portraits, 1968–2005 makes its next appearance at SFMOMA, where it opens November 19. Click here to read an interview between exhibition curators Siri Engberg of the Walker and SFMOMA’s Madeleine Grynsztejn on the “topography of the face.”