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For Chuck Close, an Evolving Journey Through the Faces of Others

July 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: a portrait of artist Chuck Close, in work and life.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chuck Close is best known for his large-scale portrait paintings, some strikingly realistic, others a kaleidoscope of colors.

He’s also known for overcoming serious odds, growing up in working-class Washington State with learning and physical disabilities, before graduating from Yale’s Graduate School of Art and becoming an art world star, and then, at age 48, suffering a collapsed final artery that left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound.

An exhibition of Close’s printmaking work is opening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. And a new biography, “Chuck Close: Life,” has just come out, a companion to an earlier volume on Close’s artwork.

Joining me is author Christopher Finch, a writer and former curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and artist Chuck Close.

Welcome to both of you.

There has been a lot written about this man, a lot said about him. What were you after in writing a book?

CHRISTOPHER FINCH, author, “Chuck Close: Life”: I had known Chuck a long time. I felt I knew a lot about Chuck. But the — what I learned as I was writing this book was astonishing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us what — a little bit of that. Before we get to the art, there is a lot of human drama here.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Well, yes.

Most living artists are not suitable subjects of biographies. The moment they die, you can write a biography about them.

CHUCK CLOSE, artist: I’m hanging by a thread.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Chuck is hanging by a thread.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: But Chuck is very different.

Even when I wrote the monograph, I wouldn’t write the monograph without a lot of biographical material, because — partly because of his childhood and the many problems that he had to go through with learning disabilities and so on in his childhood, which he has in common with a lot of other artists, like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg and so on.

But, then, of course, there’s the central event in his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which you call the event.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Which Chuck calls the event. I take that from him.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was a life-changing event where you had to kind of relearn a lot of things, including how to paint.

CHUCK CLOSE: Yes.

The interesting thing about having a life-changing event is, it was familiar. I had lifelong neuromuscular problems, lifelong learning disabilities. I have had a life with rocks in my shoes.

And now, all of a sudden, it’s just some other rocks being inserted in my shoes. And my coping mechanisms and the fact that I had these experiences trying to deal with, you know, really severe learning disabilities, including face blindness and other problems, that I think stood me in good stead to cope with the problems that came from my spinal artery collapsing and finding out that I was paralyzed from here down, and spending eight months in the hospital, and — and trying to get back to work.

JEFFREY BROWN: You just mentioned the face blindness. The name is pros — pros — how do you say it?

CHUCK CLOSE: Prosopagnosia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Now, that means that you can’t recognize faces, or you have trouble?

CHUCK CLOSE: It’s a sliding scale.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

CHUCK CLOSE: Yes. I have a great deal of difficulty recognizing faces, especially if I haven’t — if I have just met somebody, I — I — it’s hopeless. I will never remember them again, unless it’s reinforced over and over and over.

And even people that I know very well, if I haven’t seen them for a while, it’s like a bucket with a hole in it. Information is coming in, but it’s pouring out the bottom just as fast. And I’m often losing information.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re — OK, but you are known for portraits of faces.

CHUCK CLOSE: I was driven to make them. I’m absolutely positive.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what did it?

CHUCK CLOSE: Because, in real life, if you move your head a half-an-inch, to me, it’s a whole new face I have never seen before.

But if we flatten it out, I have — and I take photographs — I work from photographs, and I make flat things called paintings and prints. I have virtual photographic memory for anything that is flat. And I want to commit them to memory. And the only way I can really do that is to flatten them out, scan them, make these — make these drawings and paintings and prints. And then they enter the — my memory bank in a different sort of way.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know you don’t like the term, the photorealism idea. What is it that you are doing when you paint a portrait of a face?

CHUCK CLOSE: Well, the — the reason I don’t like realist, photorealist, neo-realist, or whatever, is that I’m as interested in the artificial as I am in the real.

And they’re made by hand slowly, piece by piece, not the way a photograph is made or an image on an computer screen. And I love that ripping back and forth. And when viewers confront an image that’s nine foot high, hard to see the thing as a whole, and they’re scanning it, what they’re doing is, they’re doing much the same thing that I do when I paint it, which is seeing the journey that I took to build this image. And I build them, rather than paint them, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, when you write a biography of an artist like this, inevitably, you’re writing about an era of him in his world of other artists.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where — what is his role in this world?

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: At first, it was very much a pioneering role in the days when SoHo was coming to the fore, and people living down in SoHo, basically, they were the — they were pioneers down there. And Chuck was very central to that.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: And he became more of a mainstream figure.

But I think the interesting thing with me with Chuck is that he has remained very relevant for over 40 years now. He — he is so unique, nobody can copy him. And, yet, his resonance, the resonance of his work reaches into all kinds of areas. So, it’s very hard to pin down exactly what that influence is. But that’s what makes him so rich and complex.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you one last thing.

I talk to a lot of writers and artists about the state of the arts today, a world where people might not read as much as they once did. Maybe our children in schools don’t learn that much about art. Where are we in the — what is the state of arts in America today? It’s a big question.

CHUCK CLOSE: Well, I think the problem with the arts in America is how unimportant it seems to be in our educational system.

I went — I grew up in a town that was a mill town, very poor, Appalachian-like, except it was in the state of Washington. And we had, as a guarantee right from kindergarten through high school, art and music every day of the week.

Today, that is considered to be far less important than the three R’s. And there’s teaching for testing. And, for those of us who are — especially for those of us who are learning-disabled or for those of us who learn differently, there was never — we had a chance to feel special. Every child should have a chance to feel special.

I’m a product of open enrollment. I went to a junior college that took every taxpayer’s son and daughter. And if I hadn’t had that, and hadn’t had exposure to art and music and something that I could excel at, and something I could feel good about — I always said, if I hadn’t gone to Yale, I could have gone to jail.

CHUCK CLOSE: And it was a tossup. It could have gone either way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Glad it went the way it did.

The new book is “Chuck Close: Life.”

Christopher Finch and Chuck Close, thanks for talking to us.

CHRISTOPHER FINCH: Thank you.