Arts Desk

The Corporation of Chuck: An Interview with Chuck Close

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Since 1967, Chuck Close has been painting the portraits of his family, friends, and fellow artists; some of the work measures nearly 10 feet tall. Before 2003, some might have overlooked the fact that Chuck Close is also a printmaker. Typically when painters make a print, their aim is to reproduce the painting. Due to the nature of his disability, prosopagnosia, Chuck Close paints from photographs. As a result, like his paintings, the product of his prints is dictated by the medium or working process.

For the exhibition of Close prints running through Sept. 12, the Corcoran invited press to meet with Close in small groups of two and three reporters. For some, Mr. Close lead tours through the galleries. I was partnered with Janet Anderson (not related), writing for the Washington Print Club Quarterly. Some of her questions have been included for the sake of interest and to preserve the integrity and flow of the interview. It should also be noted that the nature of her piece for the Washington Print Club Quarterly will be on how process replaces narrative; it's not a Q&A. Additionally, I spoke with Terrie Sultan, author of the book Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration, and curator of the exhibition. Check back here next week for that interview.

Washington City Paper: Reading about your prosopagnosia, I was curious how severe it is for you. Do you have trouble recognizing people you have known for thirty or forty years?

Chuck Close: If I haven't seen them a lot lately, yeah. Actually, I just did a thing in the World Science Festival in New York with Oliver Sacks. Oliver wrote the book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. And, he's a brilliant neuropsychologist and writer, and he has really severe prosopagnosia; he doesn't recognize his own image in a mirror. He doesn't know the people who live in his building—he recognizes them by their dogs. So if he sees them without their dogs he doesn't know who they are. He has a story: He was sitting at an outdoor restaurant, and he is straightening his tie in the window and fluffing his beard. He realizes that his image is not doing the same thing! It was some other guy with a beard looking out the window. [Oliver Sacks] also has place blindness, and he only knows one way from his apartment to his office. If he gets waylaid he can't find his way home. Sometimes he will walk by his own apartment three or four times, not recognizing it, and the doorman will come out and bring him in.

WCP: But these are not problems that you have had with your disability.

CC: No. I have a really good sense of place, and I see everything from plain view, almost like I am floating over it. But, we are all on a sliding scale of how well we recognize faces. There is a certain part of the brain that is, in my case and his case, damaged. It's just his is more severe than mine. But, I will sit and have dinner with someone and stare in their face the whole evening. I will know where they went to school, where their children went to school, what their parents did for a living. The next day, if I see them on the street, I have no memory of ever having seen them before. So, it would take many, many repetitions. When people come into my studio, if I didn't write it down, I don't know who they are. I have to interview them to figure out why they are there.

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WCP: Since your work is indirectly a record of aging, I was curious what your response to aging is, how faces age over time.

CC: Well, my paintings are a record of changing eye-wear and a record of losing my hair. But I am always looking forward to more and more wrinkles and more and more stuff to paint. The stuff that I love is the stuff that other people hate. And, I think that the face is a road map to the sort of life you have led and embedded in it is the evidence of your life. So, if you have laughed your whole life you have laugh lines. If you frowned your whole life you have furrows in your brow. There is lots of evidence of who you are and what your life has been like.

WCP: There are artists who make work about process—process artists—and there are artists who have work that heavily rely on process. How do you define yourself?

CC: Well, no work is made without a process. Every single thing has some [process]… On a sliding scale of process, I think someone like Sol Lewitt is on one end, and someone who paints plein air paintings their whole life is on the other end, and I am somewhere in the middle, maybe closer to the process end. But, the process, rigorous as it is, and as limiting as it seems like it might be, actually frees up intuition. When I was free to make any shapes I wanted to make (referencing his days when he painted like an Abstract Expressionist), I made the same shapes over and over. Free to use any colors I wanted to use, I'd use the same color combinations over and over. Now, in the service of building an image, the colors have to be the colors that are going to make this thing that I want to make… So, I have to find a way to do it, and to sneak up on it. That requires a great deal of intuition and it requires you to be a different artist every day of your life, which is one reason why I can spend 40 some years making portraits and still not be bored.

WCP: When we first met, you mentioned a childhood fascination with magic, and that you like to unmask the illusion. Why do you feel it necessary to show the audience the process of how these prints are made?

CC: Well, I don't think it is necessary. But, I was a student, at Yale, of the great printmaking curator, critic, and writer Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, who was the world's greatest authority on prints, and we worked with original proofs. They would give us a box of Rembrandt's etchings and there would be all the progressive proofs. I remember just poring over those and saying, "wow, what a gift it is to have a chance to see what he was thinking," as he modified the image and moved closer to something he wanted. So, I started keeping the detritus—the evidence of the process reflected in the stones, the plates, the progressive proofs – in hopes that at some point I would have a chance to show people and share with them how I did it… I mean, the whole notion of making art is that you feel like you want to share it with other people. It's also narcissistic in that you think, “other people should be interested in what I am doing.” But, I do think it comes from a generosity of spirit. What do you want? You want people to be engaged in the work. How are they going to be engaged in the work? What levels of engagement can they have? Will they just be dealing with the surface of the final image, or will they know the steps in between?

Janet Anderson Chuck, I taught for 40 years. John is currently teaching. If you were given the opportunity to make recommendations about curriculum in art education, any thoughts, either small or big, of things you would want to share.

CC: Where do you teach?

JA: I taught at a community college in Baltimore County.

CC: Well, I went to a junior college my first two years, and am a product of open enrollment. I would not have gotten into college if they didn't have open enrollment because I'd never taken algebra, geometry, physics or chemistry. I still don't know the multiplication tables and I can't add or subtract—I can't memorize anything. I am a big believer in community colleges and junior colleges and other ways to get your foot in the door. There you have a chance to prove yourself. I was able to transfer to the University of Washington, and I did graduate school at Yale.

I really think the most important thing is primary and secondary education. I grew up in a poor white trash mill town in the state of Washington. It was almost Appalachian in its poverty. And yet, we had as a guaranteed right, art and music every day of the week, from kindergarten through high school. Everyone needs to feel special. Everyone needs to excel at something. And, if you can't do it in the three Rs, there should be something else that you have a chance to feel good about yourself doing.

In New York City, every time they have a budget cut, the first thing to go is art. Teaching for testing is ruining education, and it is certainly ruining alternative ways of learning because they are so intent on having you know the right facts and things to spit back that it has taken the creativity out of the hands of the teacher. It is terrible! I can't imagine how depressing it is to get these people out of high school going into the college system who have had such a limited notion of what success can be.

I am an advisor to Mayor Bloomberg and [New York City Schools] Chancellor [Joel] Klein, and I argue with them all the time. "You have a high drop out rate. Why do you think you have a high drop out rate? Because you have such a narrow notion of what success can be!"

WCP: Would there be ways to bring art into the classroom to support, or make more accessible, the sciences, history, math, and so forth?

CC: Well, I am also an advisor to President Obama, an advisor on the arts and humanities, and he is interested in a double PA [Platonic Academy] style, putting artists into the school system, which I think would be great. We already do it in New York. There is a program that I have been involved with for 25, 30 years, called Studio in a School, formed by Agnes Gund, the legendary former head of the board of the Modern [MoMA], and what it does is hires artists who do not have degrees in art education or teacher certification and cannot be hired by the school system. Since they are paid, not by the school, but by an outside source, they can teach, and we have dropped them into the schools. It is an amazing program. In two years, you can really change a school and then the regular teachers can keep it going. Then the artists move on to another school.

WCP: Within the book, you make mentions where you resist craft, specifically with the pulp paper pieces, but also you were resisting the screen prints because you thought they were too graphic. Since you have worked with those processes, I was curious if you have become more open to working with media that are "traditionally craft."

CC: I don't have a problem with the C word; it's everyone else who doesn't want it. I mean, I grew up in the West Coast where crafts were thought to be as equally important. I took jewelry making. I had ceramics. I had all kinds of stuff. But, I guess what people think of is artsy-craftsy. But, I am also a big fan of what used to be called "women's work," and that's craft: quilting, crocheting, knitting. My processes have a lot to do with those, and I was actually influenced by my grandmother who made all that stuff.

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Photos by Darrow Montgomery. "Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration" opens tomorrow and runs through Sept. 12 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17 Street NW. (202) 639-1700. Gallery hours are Wednesday, Friday-Sunday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. $10 Adults, $8 Seniors (62+) & Students (with valid ID), Free: Children under 12. Free Summer Saturdays through September 4.

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