Arts Desk

“Everyone He Photographed That Day Became Famous”: Philip Glass Talks About His Friend Chuck Close

Philip Glass, reproduced in thumbprints by Chuck Close.

Philip Glass, reproduced in thumbprints by Chuck Close.

Philip Glass has spent the last four decades as one of the most versatile, prolific, and adventurous composers in the world. His body of work includes more than 20 operas (Einstein on the Beach and The Voyage among them), and film scores ranging from The Hours to the Qatsi trilogy (unimaginable without his music) to popcorn flicks like the Angelina Jolie psychological thriller Taking Lives. He's also contributed to Sesame Street and even been dissed in rhyme by Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. That's a cultural footprint.

He's also been drawn, painted, and printed by his friend Chuck Close many, many times. Tomorrow night, he visits the Corcoran Gallery of Art to share stories from his life and career, and his long friendship with Close. A $25 ticket to the lecture ($20 for museum members, $12.50 for students) includes admission to the long-running traveling exhibition Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration. (Arts Desk's John Anderson spoke at length with Close when the exhibit arrived at the Corcoran back in July.)

We called up Mr. Glass yesterday to get a heads up on what he'll talk about tomorrow night.

The Chuck Close prints show includes several pieces that incorporate the famous photo Mr. Close took of you in 1969. He's said he admires your “curly dendritic locks” in that photo; that they remind him of Medusa. Do you have any thoughts about having that one image of you from so long ago persist as the basis of so many of his prints and paintings and so on?

I’ve long since separated the image Chuck uses from myself as a person. The image is the image, it’s not me. Monet painted haystacks over and over and over again. It didn’t make any difference to the haystack.

That he found my hair interesting is a painterly response, not a personal one. The day he took that picture, he probably took photos of 15 or 20 friends. In that group, there might be seven or eight that he’s used quite a bit. But it didn’t have anything to do with who we were. It had to do with his painterly approach to the subject.

Do you remember anything specific about the day he took that photo?

Yes, I remember it fairly well. I was working with [sculptor] Richard Serra. He and Chuck had been at Yale at the same time, and [Serra] and I were old friends from Paris — we had lived in Paris at the same time, in the mid-60s. So if he needed a hand, I would come down and help him move things around. I later became his assistant professionally for about three years, but at this time, I was just helping him out.

I remember Richard saying, “This painter next door, Chuck. He wants to take your picture. Is that okay?” I said, “Yeah, sure. What’s the idea?” He said, “Well, he’s doing portraits. I think he wants to do take portraits of fairly anonymous people, people no one knows.”

So I went next door to Chuck's studio, and it was set up very much the way you would set up for a passport photo. It took ten seconds. I sat down, he took the picture, and that was it. In retrospect, the funny thing was that everyone he photographed that day — Richard, myself, some other painters like Jill Shapiro, Nancy Graves — everyone he photographed that day became famous [laughs].

So he took that picture the day you met for the first time?

Well, we’d met before. There was a cafeteria where we would go in the mornings. It later became a very fancy, upscale restaurant called the Odeon, but in those days it was a completely ordinary place. A lot of painters had lofts around [Tribeca, NYC], and we would meet and have coffee in the morning. I’m sure I met Chuck there. I met all kinds of people there. Susan Rothenberg was also someone who was there a lot. We would meet around 9 o’ clock, have our coffee and talk about this and that, then go off to our studios. So I knew Chuck from those kinds of things. Sometimes we would meet after hours for a beer, but I wasn’t much for that. I liked to go home and work on my music after a day of moving art around.

I was very interested in the work Richard did, and what everyone did. I found a strong alignment between my musical concerns and the things that occupied the painters and the sculptors. We were all the same age, we’d been in school at the same time, so we came out of the same milieu, really. It was in that context that I met Chuck. I got to know him over the years, and we became quite good friends.

Philip Glass discusses his 2005 portrait in music of Chuck Close in tomorrow’s continuation of this interview. His Corcoran talk is tomorrow evening at 6:30.

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