Up Close and Very Personal

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

The opening encounter in the Chuck Close retrospective currently at the Museum of Modern Art is with the monumental black-and-white portrait heads that the New Yorker painted between 1967 and 1970. These are paintings with the power to make you rock back slightly on your heels. It's the same destabilizing feeling I had the first time I saw one of the blunt, excruciatingly detailed, 9-foot-tall portraits 20-something years ago. The physical response isn't one of being stunned, exactly, but more like being mightily confronted, then mesmerized. It's a kind of "Put up or shut up" moment.

Which is to say, these are portraits that draw a psychological and emotional profile of the viewer, not the sitter, as portrait paintings have traditionally sought to do. Close doesn't give you much insight into the personalities of Phil or Nancy or Richard or Frank--or, for that matter, of Chuck himself, whose shaggy-haired, unshaven, bespectacled face stares out into the middle distance in the first looming portrait he painted. (It's the star of the show.) However, he does show you a lot about what went into making the picture.

In Close's photographically precise self-portrait, which shows him from the collarbone up, he's shirtless--ostensibly naked and exposed. A cigarette is loosely held between casually parted lips, smoke snaking up into his mustache. His head appears tilted ever so slightly back, as if he's leading with his chin, and the angle makes his nostrils into deep black caverns.

The tilt may just be a result of the angle of the camera that took the photograph on which the airbrushed acrylic painting is so obviously based. (A pair of white spots in Close's glasses also reflect a glaring studio light, set up for the original photo session.) The effect, though, is to give the sitter an inescapable look of focused concentration--that kindof daydreamy, lost-in-thought look of rigorously maintained attention to the business at hand. This is a monumental portrait of an artist hard at work, making the imposing painting you are looking at.

Somewhat like a contemporaneous civic portrait of Chairman Mao--minus the heroizing gloss of official Communist Chinese art--the portrait's giant size gives the picture a distinctly public, rather than private, scale. An all-important you is the object of address. And if the portrait shows the artist hard at work, deep in concentrated observation, then what, by implication, about you? What is your end of the deal that's been struck here, if not to bring every bit as much focused concentration and skill to the activity as Close did before you?

That, I suppose, is about as plain-spoken a demonstration as could be imagined of what is meant by art that is challenging or demanding. The artist does his job, the art is the go-between, now it's up to you.

Close's first group of big portraits dates from a period when painting was in a bind. Since the early 1950s, abstraction had been advanced as the highest, most exalted form of Modern art, but by the 1960s, abstract painting had long since come to seem limited in its options, at best, and at worst moribund. On one hand, the new Pop painting was under attack as a trivial pursuit; on the other, Andy Warhol had announced he would quit painting to make movies full time (it didn't happen).

Many things conspired to make painting seem a dubious proposition: the rise of Conceptual art, the fall of object-making in favor of the elucidation of artistic ideas, wariness of the potentially corrosive qualities of the new market for contemporary American art, the emergence of genres and technologies such as performance and video, even the general 1960s skepticism toward all things suggestive of the establishment. Painting heard the first of what has turned out to be a 30-year string of eulogies, praising its glorious past at the moment of its supposed death.

As they say, though, death has a way of focusing the mind. When I look at that booming self-portrait Close finished in 1968, that's exactly what I see pictured--painting's carcass focusing the mind.

There's more than one way to skin a cat, too, and after the initial wallop provided by its introduction of Close's first mature body of paintings, the MOMA retrospective slides quietly into a demonstration of just how many ways there are. For the next 16 or 17 years, theme segues into variation in Close's art.

The subject--portrait heads--never varied, but Close switched from black and white to color, applying to painting the color-separation process of photography, which meant that each labor-intensive portrait was actually painted three times: once in red, once in yellow, once in blue. He made watercolors, pencil drawings, pastels and prints. He used paper disks in shades of gray and clumps of wet paper pulp, fashioning illusionistically precise faces. For painting, he reintroduced the brush and oil paint, rather than the spray gun and acrylic that got him started.

He even tried finger painting. Using his fingertips, an ink stamp-pad and extraordinary control, he made everything from small portraits on paper to a 9-foot black-and-white head.

Close is a kind of Hans Holbein for the late 20th century--a portraitist of faultless technique, great sensitivity to color and impeccable subtlety--but living in an era when Holbein's job had been made obsolete by the ubiquitous camera. What distinguishes Close's achievement is his use of abstract principles, mostly associated with Minimalist art, to arrive at fully figurative images.

Like the Minimalists, Close plainly understood that the abstract art of the 1950s, which had been touted as a uniquely independent means for individualized expression, had by his day become a virtual system for making paintings. He had learned the system well at school, first at the University of Washington (1960-62) and then at Yale (1962-64), where, like lots of students, he turned out skillful versions of De Kooning-style Abstract Expressionism.

How does a young artist deal with the vice-like grip of a dominant system? There are two main ways: Buck it and most likely be indifferently crushed; or, acknowledge the system and find a way to turn its power to your own ends. Close took option No. 2.

The breakthrough came when he simply faced facts, took a deep breath and accepted what was real. First, he put the idea of a system for making paintings front and center in his work: every canvas divided into a grid, mechanical bursts of paint from a spray gun filling each square, one square following another back and forth across the canvas, exactly equal emphasis in every square inch of the picture regardless of what it meant to depict, and so on.

Then, having embraced the inherently anonymous idea of a system for painting, he applied it to something contradictory: portraiture, which has always been the most frankly individualized expression in art. Aesthetic sparks flew.

You can still see and feel them giving off wild bursts of heat and light today. Stand in front of a big Close head and the logical question automatically bubbles up: What do you represent? No! the painting booms back, void as it is of any suggestion of an expressive self lurking behind the eyes of its finely milled surface; what do you represent?

If De Kooning was Close's hero as a painter, just for the sheer brilliance with which the older artist could move paint around a canvas, Ad Reinhardt taught him what art was. Close, in a terrific interview in the exhibition catalog, tells MOMA curator (and organizer of the retrospective) Robert Storr that Reinhardt's flat, close-hued, geometric abstractions didn't influence the way the younger artist painted; they were critical, though, to shaping the way Close thought about art.

A recurring element in a number of the much-admired, widely circulated cartoons about Modern art that Reinhardt published is a drawing of a mocking businessman who laughs in the face of an abstract painting and demands to know what, exactly, it's supposed to represent. Beneath it a second abstract painting is shown sprouting arms, legs and a face to rebuke him, demanding to know what the businessman represents. In front of Close's paintings, you find yourself enacting Reinhardt's wise and witty scenario.

The final portion of the show features what could be called "the return of De Kooning" to Close's enterprise. Lush, juicy, colorful, abstract marks of paint made with a brush are reincorporated into his portrait system, tentatively in 1980, then more prominently as the decade progresses. Today, the organizing grids that underlie the pictures have mostly been turned on the diagonal, which gives the tactile lozenges, doughnuts and hot dog shapes with which he builds his faces an extra measure of freewheeling dynamism.

Close, now 57, has said that a legendary exchange between De Kooning and the critic Clement Greenberg had a powerful impact on his work. Greenberg, titanic champion of abstract painting, claimed that the one thing you can't do in art anymore is make a portrait; De Kooning replied that an artist couldn't help but make one. In his remarkable career, Close has put De Kooning's claim in italics.

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* Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, (212) 708-9400, through May 26. The show travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in June; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in October and the Seattle Art Museum in February 1999.

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