For nearly four decades, Chuck Close has painted dozens of large-scale faces of family members, friends, and fellow artists, including Philip Glass, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, and Kiki Smith. But, more than any other subject, he’s painted himself. The first such self-portrait, begun in 1967 and purchased in 1969 by the Walker Art Center, was followed by nearly 100 more, each exploring different media, vantage points, and artistic techniques but unified by the consistent image of the artist’s face. Exhibition curators Siri Engberg of the Walker Art Center and Madeleine Grynsztejn of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art met with the artist in his studio recently to discuss his self-portraits—the human history, democratic philosophy, and personal meaning they embody.
Maybe we should begin by talking about Big Self-Portrait (1967–1968). Could you walk us through the making of that painting?
The day I photographed myself, I was actually photographing a nude and I had film left over so I shot myself. There wasn’t anyone to look through the viewfinder, so I focused on the wall and got the distance from the lens to the wall that was in focus. . . . I put a strip of cardboard between the lens and me so that I knew I would be in focus. I didn’t realize I was tilting so much in all these photographs, or that I was going to get so much out of focus. Then I realized the minute I started to make the painting that it was far more interesting because there was a range of focus. The tip of the nose blurred, the ears and everything else went out of focus. . . . It was totally by accident the first time, but I began to engineer that into the work.
You’ve returned to the self-portrait fairly regularly from that very first image.
Nostalgia for when I used to have hair!
When do you feel the need to make a new self-portrait? Does it move your work forward to continue to go back to your own image?
I think at a certain point I decided to have at least one self-portrait per show. That became the time line of the work. Besides the changes in the history of eyewear and my gradual loss of hair, I guess it was a sort of—I guess touchstone is a good term. My wife would say it’s just rampant narcissism!
Tell us about your work’s affiliation with the police mug-shot tradition.
From the very beginning, what I wanted to do was mitigate against the standard hierarchy of the portrait. It goes back to the Walker’s self-portrait. . . . If you think about the late 1960s, painting was dead, sculpture ruled. Painting seemed like a senseless activity. If you were dumb enough to make a painting, it had better be abstract. It was even dumber to make a representational image. Then the dumbest, most moribund, out-of-date, and shopworn of all possible things you could do was make a portrait. I remember Clement Greenberg said to [Willem] de Kooning that the only thing you can’t do in art anymore is make a portrait. I thought, well, if Greenberg thinks he can’t do it, then I am going to have a lot of operating room all to myself. But of course, he didn’t consider Warhol a painter. [He] had been making portraits and was essentially a portrait painter, if you think about it. He made his in one quick squeegee stroke and I made mine piece by piece over a long period of time, so the approach and the attitude and everything was very different. And I didn’t want to do celebrities; he owned movie stars and all that stuff. I wanted Everyman and Everywoman, just regular folks, most of whom went ahead and got famous on me. I thought absolutely about the mug shot as a way around commissioned portraiture.
I thought the most important thing about postwar American painting—the overriding issue—was a sense of “alloverness.” Whether it was Pollock’s skeinlike ribbons of paint in which there really was no difference from the left edge to the right edge . . . [or] Stella’s black stripe paintings that just kept going. If you were an ant crawling across it, there were no areas that were thicker, thinner, whatever—this commitment to the whole rectangle. Now, I wanted to overlay on top of the portrait that commitment to the whole, to the rectangle, and make every piece as important as every other piece. Then I thought, well, the police have a reason they make a mug shot. It gives you the most information about that subject that you can have. They want to find them and arrest them. And they get them straight on, and they get a profile. All of my early portraits are dead-straight on.
Tell us about your working process—about the psychology of it. When you are picturing yourself . . .
You know, I never refer to me as me, I refer to me as him.
OK, when you are picturing him, are you picturing him as an artist, as a topic, as a person?
As visual information. . . . It’s interesting how many critics and art writers over the years have used Gulliver as a way to describe the work. They are landscapelike in the fact that they are traversed. It’s like all of Gulliver’s Lilliputians crawling over the face of a giant, stumbling over beard hair and falling into a nostril. There’s a physical, experiential aspect to it—almost like traversing a landscape. If you were walking across a real landscape, you would come to a creek and you’d have to get across it, and then you’d have to walk around stones. Your eye sort of does that. . . . I think of it as acreage—acreage that happens to be a face.
Then there’s our common humanity, which I think is really important: the fact that we know so much about faces and the inference into the work through the shared life experience that we all have of looking at each other and looking at ourselves in the mirror and looking at photographs of our loved ones and even deceased ones. Everybody has an entrance into the work. The most sophisticated art-world insider and the layperson share an entrance into the work irrespective of the art-historical baggage they bring with them to the painting. At least part of the time, they are relating as a person to an image of just another person.
Is that important to you, a sort of democratic aspect of the work?
Absolutely. I think the great thing about art is that it is equal-opportunity. . . . You’re not consigned to understanding it or not by position of birth and status and wealth. I am a poor kid from a mill town in the state of Washington, and all the art in the world is available to me as a vast smorgasbord of experiences that is the same as if I were a billionaire. There is the democratization of this life experience that I think is very important to me.
Do you look at the self-portraits as a way of thinking about your own history?
Yes. If somebody has laughed their whole life, they have laugh lines. If they frown their whole life, they have a furrow in the brow. I sort of have a combination of both because I squint a lot. I have lots of lines that would suggest I am brooding. And then I laugh a lot, so I also have crow’s feet and things like that from smiling. The theatrical smiling face/frowning face they hang over the arch? I have always thought, as I got older, I have embodied both of those. . . . I think if I had been one of those smooth-faced pretty boys, I would not have done a lot of self-portraits. I don’t think it would have been very interesting.