Celebrated as one of the most influential artists of our time, Chuck Close has remained a vital presence by continuously reinventing portraiture, a genre often under-recognized in contemporary art. Since the 1960s, Close has used his inimitable style of representational painting to portray a wide range of subjects, including friends, family, fellow artists, and himself.
Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967–2005
, premieres at the Walker Art Center July 24–October 16. Co-organized by the Walker and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the presentation focuses exclusively on Close’s self-portraits and provides a fascinating glimpse of an artist’s self-examination over time. Among the more than 80 works on view will be 14 major paintings, including the artist’s first self-portrait painted in 1967–1968, as well as drawings, Polaroid photographs, prints, paper pulp works, and daguerreotypes. A number of the self-portraits have never before been on public view. The first single-artist exhibition to be presented in the Walker’s newly expanded facility, Chuck Close: Self-Portraits: 1967–2005 is co-curated by Siri Engberg, Curator of Visual Arts at the Walker, and Madeleine Grynsztejn, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA. National sponsorship is made possible by the global financial services firm UBS.
Opening-weekend events feature a Preview Party on Saturday, July 23, with music by The New Standards, and a sold-out Opening-Day Artist Talk on Sunday, July 24. (A listing of related events follows.)
Through more than 35 years of “isms” and art movements, Close has remained committed to rigorous experimentation within his own carefully defined practice, and has regularly returned to his own image as a touchstone for his work at large. In examining this focused body of his work, Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967–2005 highlights how an artist can create a remarkable pictorial language that continues to become richer and expand through time. “In almost every medium Close has explored—painting, drawing, photography, paper pulp, and printmaking—he has made self-portraits,” says Engberg. “These form a complex and compelling body of work, in which one not only witnesses a face changing over time, but sees the startling visual possibilities a familiar image can engender.”
The exhibition progresses in loosely chronological order and is framed by two major paintings: the monumental black-and-white Big Self-Portrait (1967-1968)—the artist’s first—which the Walker purchased out of his studio in 1969, and which was the first of Close’s paintings to enter a museum collection; and SFMOMA’s Self-Portrait (2000-2001), a contemporary image painted as a mosaic of dazzling color, and one of only a few self-portraits painted at the scale of the 1968 canvas. The Walker presented Close’s first major retrospective in 1980. Both institutions have a long history of collecting and exhibiting the artist’s work.
Born in Monroe, Washington, in 1940, Close graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1962. He graduated from the Yale University School of Art and Architecture in 1964 where he studied alongside a talented group of fellow artists, including Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, and Robert Mangold. His paintings at the time were influenced by the work of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, but he remained dissatisfied with abstraction’s open-endedness, and the nagging feeling that he was painting what art should look like. While in school, he traveled regularly to New York, became enthusiastic about Pop art, and began to feel an urgency about pushing his work in a new direction.
By 1967, Close had moved to New York City and abandoned the abstract work of his school years to begin painting from photographs. “I wanted something very specific to do, where there were rights and wrongs,” he has remarked, “and so I decided to just use whatever happened in the photograph. Whatever shapes were there I would have to use . . . I was constructing a series of self-imposed limitations that would guarantee that I could no longer make what I had been making.”
In 1968, Close completed the watershed painting Big Self-Portrait, his first self-portrait and the first of a group of eight black and white “heads,” as he refers to them, which included portraits of fellow artists Nancy Graves, Richard Serra, Joe Zucker, and the composer Philip Glass. At the monumental scale of nine by seven feet, Big Self-Portrait is made from only a few tablespoons of water-based pigment, applied thinly so as to imitate the slick surface of its photographic source. It was this series of paintings that brought Close instant recognition as an artist, and set the course for a working method the artist has continued to the present.
Always working from photographs as the basis for his imagery, Close first produces a maquette, comprising a photograph overlaid with a grid template. He then proceeds to systematically transpose the image to another surface—be it canvas, drawing paper, a printing plate, or a paper pulp collage—square by square. Though his practice is well-defined, it is far from rigid. Within each square, Close has chosen, as he has remarked, to consistently “alter the variables” in his work. Whether he fills each square with delicately airbrushed pigment, dots of pastel, inked fingerprints, etched lines, or organic brushstrokes in vibrant color, he continues “to find things in the rectangle and slowly sneak up on what I want . . . to make it all happen in the rectangle instead of on the palette and in context.” Within the broad array of self-portraits featured in this exhibition, Close has used this method to produce works ranging from large-scale paintings to intimate drawings to elaborate paper pulp constructions. He is also a master printmaker, and has created self-portraits using techniques including etching, woodcut, linoleum block printing, and screenprinting.
Close has also been an innovator in the arena of photography, and the exhibition will contain numerous examples of his photographic self-portraits. One of the first artists to experiment with the large-format Polaroid camera, he has created many portraits in the medium, including large-scale collages of multiple photographs. In recent years, he has also embraced the 19th-century daguerreotype technique, which he has used to create a broad range of portraits—many of his own image—that feel exceptionally contemporary.
Beginning in 1988, Close faced new personal and artistic challenges after suffering a collapsed spinal artery that initially left him paralyzed from the neck down. With time and tenacity, his condition improved, and though dependent on a wheelchair, he was able to begin painting again with a customized brace. The self-portraits made following this event became more gestural than ever before, and continued Close’s explorations into the use of a bold, unexpected color palette. Close is a highly intuitive colorist, whose paintings have been connected to many art historical precedents, including Byzantine mosaics and the paintings of Gustav Klimt.
Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967–2005 is accompanied by a richly illustrated 144-page catalogue documenting this body of Close’s work in detail and across media, and includes essays by Madeleine Grynsztejn, Siri Engberg, and Douglas R. Nickel, Director of the Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, Tucson. ($34.95; $31.46 Walker members)
Preview Party: See the Big Picture
Saturday, July 23, 9 pm–12 midnight
$20 ($10 Walker members)
Save $1 per ticket when ordering online.
New members joining for the event receive one free ticket.
612.375.7600 or visit walkerart.org/tickets
At this larger-than-life party celebrating the exhibition get a close look at the big picture, hear reimagined classics by The New Standards, take in a screening of Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress by Marion Cajori, and enjoy cash bars and complimentary appetizers by Wolfgang Puck Catering throughout the evening.
Music: The New Standards
10:15–11:45 pm, Gallery 8 Café
From Blur to Bowie, Peggy Lee to Kurt Weill, The New Standards illuminate new and cherished classics of the 20th-century songbook with the intimate instrumentation of piano, vibes, and bass. Chan Poling of the Suburbs, John Munson of Semisonic, and Steve Roehm of Electropolis.
Screening: Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress
Directed by Marion Cajori
9:30 and 11 pm, Cinema
Cajori interviews Chuck Close while he’s in the process of creating new work. 1998, U.S., color, video, 57 minutes.
Opening-Day Artist Talk: Chuck Close
Sunday, July 24, 2 pm, $20 ($10 Walker members)
William and Nadine McGuire Theater
Chuck Close talks with exhibition curators Siri Engberg and Madeleine Grynsztejn about working with photographs, painting from the grid, and collaborating with master printers and papermakers.
This event will be webcast live from the Walker’s site at channel.walkerart.org.
This talk is made possible by generous support from Aaron and Carol Mack.
Questioning Biography: Personal History, Content, and Aesthetics in Art
Wednesday, September 7, 7 pm, Free
Gallery 8 Café
Is knowing an artist’s biography pivotal to understanding her or his work? Tom di Maria, executive director of Creative Growth, leads a discussion on the role of biography, culture, and disability in art-making. As head of the first independent visual art center for adults with developmental, physical, mental, and emotional disabilities, he questions the labels used for trained vs. “outsider” artists, and recognizes that artists with disabilities often straddle both worlds while making artwork that is increasingly recognized and appreciated.
Target Free Thursday Nights
Free Verse: Harry Mathews
Thursday, September 15, 7 pm, Free
In a startling riff on the theme of self-portraiture, legendary expatriate writer Harry Mathews—reputed to be a CIA agent due to a series of improbable coincidences in the early 1970s—decided to act the part. In his latest novel, My Life in CIA, Mathews documents the year 1973 as seen through his would-be agent’s eyes, using his inimitable, experimental style to make the journey both fascinating and fun.
Mathews is the only American member of the Oulipo, France’s famed “Workshop for Potential Literature.” This group of writers and mathematicians, which included Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, used writing techniques often based on mathematical problems. Mathews is the author of numerous works of prose and poetry, including the acclaimed novels Cigarettes and The Journalist, and the constricted journal 20 Lines A Day.
Free Verse is co-sponsored by Rain Taxi Review of Books.
Thursday, September 22, 6 pm, Free
Meet in the Bazinet Garden Lobby
Join exhibition co-curator Siri Engberg for a walk through more than 80 works of self-portraiture by Chuck Close. Spanning over 30 years of his artistic career, this exhibition of paintings, drawings, photographs, collages, and prints provides a fascinating glimpse of an artist’s self-examination over time.
Art Lab: Drawing on the Grid
Thursdays, September 15, 22, 29, 6–9 pm, Free
Star Tribune Foundation Art Lab
To create his portraits of roughly 8 x 7 feet in scale, Chuck Close overlays a smaller photograph with a numbered and lettered grid. This technique, devised by Renaissance masters, allows the artist to reproduce the image block by block with resounding clarity of detail. Paint a collective, large-scale portrait in the style of Chuck Close or draw your own enlarged image using digital photography and the grid.
Target Free Thursday Nights are sponsored by Target.
Free First Saturday
Inspired by Me
Saturday, August 6, 10 am–5 pm, Free
Powerful portraits abound as Free First Saturday takes its cue from the exhibition. The daylong event features performances by teen actors from the Youth Performance Company and hands-on art-making sessions led by artists from Highpoint Center for Printmaking to make self-portraits. Workshop participants will draw inspiration from portraits on view by children from Free Arts Minnesota, a nonprofit organization dedicated to healing at risk children through artistic expression. The event also includes a family tour of the exhibition, family portraits, and storytelling.
Free First Saturday is sponsored by Coldwell Banker Burnet. Programming is made possible by the Medtronic Foundation. Media partner WCCO TV Channel 4.
Art-making for the Whole Family: Portrait Power is made possible by generous support from the global financial services firm UBS.
Walker Art Center
July 24–October 16, 2005
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
November 19, 2005–February 28, 2006
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
March 25–June 18, 2006
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
July 22–October 22, 2006