Proof is in the printing
“I don’t have to wait for inspiration,” says artist Chuck Close in his spacious studio in Lower Manhattan. “I always say that inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. Work kicks open doors. In the process of doing something, other things occur to you, and you end up where you didn’t plan to be.”
Close, 66, hadn’t planned to be a printmaker, but here he is surrounded by prints and proofs and plans for more prints. In fact, for a long time he avoided the medium, thinking it too technical, too craft-oriented. Then, in 1972, he tried his hand at mezzotint, a process in which the image is scraped or burnished onto a metal plate, and discovered the expressive power of medium. It was a way of working that was methodical and calming to a man who generally feels, in his own words, “a nervous wreck.”
And he didn’t stop there. Over the years, he has explored spitbite etching, reduction linoleum, silk screen, Japanese- and European-style woodcuts and scribble etching with many collaborators, pushing the boundaries of each medium along the way. He has also been known for pulp-paper work, which, while not a printmaking process, can be produced in multiples like prints. All are featured in a show dedicated to his three-decade immersion in making prints and multiples, “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration,” opening at the Orange County Museum of Art next Sunday.
The show features some 120 works, including proofs that show interim steps leading to a final print, plus tools of the trade. It’s one leg of a national tour, organized by Terrie Sultan, director of the Blaffer Gallery, the art museum of the University of Houston.
“One of the really fascinating things about printmaking is the process,” says Elizabeth Armstrong, chief curator and deputy director for programs at the Orange County Museum. “The grids, the stages of proofs can be very interesting to look at in themselves. And I think for people who don’t make prints, it’s fascinating to see a woodblock, a linoleum block, and the things used in that process.”
While a painting might take close to a couple of months to complete, some prints have taken a couple of years. “That’s because a print is a collaborative endeavor,” says Close, a large, burly man, dressed in New York chic black. “A print doesn’t happen the same way as a painting. In a painting I mix the colors. In a print, they can’t have thousands of colors, so they have to stack the colors up and make a color out of three or four colors. It’s much more time consuming than just painting directly.”
However, he’s discovered certain satisfactions with the process. In 1986 he went to Kyoto to work with Tadashi Toda, a highly respected woodblock printer. Close had sent ahead a watercolor gouache and, as he says in the exhibition catalog, “I was shocked to see when I got there that it had become his piece.” This being Japan, he had to slowly negotiate his way through how the final piece would look. In retrospect, he says now, “a dialogue can sometimes be more interesting than sitting in a room talking to yourself.”
Close made his first serious foray into print making in 1972, when he moved himself and family to San Francisco to work on a mezzotint at Crown Point Press. Having worked with Wayne Thiebaud and Sol LeWitt, Crown Point was gaining a reputation for working with artists. Close, says Kathan Brown, founder of the press, “wanted to work on a scale we’d never attempted before. Mezzotints are an old and difficult way of working, so they’re generally small, just a few inches in diameter.”
To accommodate him, Crown Point found the largest copper plate it could (36 inches wide) and purchased a new press, allowing Close to make a work that was 3 feet by 4 feet. During a three-month residency, the artist showed up daily to work on a portrait of sculptor Keith Hollingworth from an enlargement that had been divided into grids -- the traditional way artists have transferred smaller images into larger ones. Since he drew onto the plate grid by grid, learning as he went, the final print shows variations in tone and mark-making. But instead of seeing the mistake, Close saw the magic. In fact, says Brown, “He found that he liked that grid effect so much, he began incorporating it into other work.”
Armstrong cites Close as pivotal in the elevation of prints into the fine arts category by contemporary artists. “When he started making prints, it was not very highly regarded by artists,” she says. “It was considered arcane and tech-y, too technique-oriented. The whole thing changed when printmakers started collaborating with artists like him.”
CLOSE’S studio is off a bustling city street. The foyer doubles as an office, where a couple of assistants are busily fielding calls and handling year-end business. His workspace is on the other side of the door, a rectangular expanse with lofty ceilings and works in progress scattered on tabletops and leaning against the wall. A nearly completed portrait of former president and current New York resident Bill Clinton, done with painted “doughnuts” in grids, is clamped onto an electric easel.
The easel can be lowered below the floor level and tilted left and right for ease of access. It’s especially useful for a man with limited mobility. In 1988 a spinal artery collapse for a time left Close a quadriplegic, which stalled his work but did not stop it -- he learned to paint with a brush in his mouth. Since then he’s regained enough use of his arms that he can handily propel his wheelchair and paint with brushes strapped to his arms.
He likes to wave his hands as he talks, although his fingers remain paralyzed. He enjoys the mark-making process -- “I still like having the hands-on experience,” he says in his deep, rumbly voice. And of course he can supervise and dictate the tone, texture and scale of his prints.
Last year Clinton had agreed to sit for a photograph by Close. The artist is painting from an enlargement. Was this work commissioned? “I don’t do commissions,” he says. “I do portraits because I want to do them. This one we’ll be showing when it’s finished and then hoping it will be purchased for a major institution.”
For much of his career, Close has focused on portraiture. Furthermore, he’s interested only in making portraits of people he knows and cares about, which includes friends, his wife and his children.
All the portraits are derived from photographs he has taken, and the exhibition shows the recycling of about a dozen faces. Close estimates, with a short laugh, that he’s made about 200 art pieces from a single photograph he took of composer Philip Glass in 1968 -- the one in which Glass looks as if he’s just gotten out of bed, his eyelids dropping, mouth slightly ajar, and hair an untidy mass of tendrils about to fly away. This image is so ubiquitous in Close’s oeuvre that it’s now iconic.
“It’s like a magic well,” he says. “You think you know everything about that photograph, you think you’ve gotten everything out of it, and all of a sudden I see things in it I’d never seen before.”
“There’s something about what I do which is like raking gravel in a Zen Buddhist garden,” Close observes. “Not only are there conventions and traditions in how you do these sorts of things, it’s also very calming. I’m a nervous wreck who has no patience, which would seem to preclude me doing what I do.”
Instead, having a routine and a structure for working reassures him. “With repetitive, incremental processes like knitting or crocheting or quilting, you just keep working and eventually you get done, you don’t get hysterical,” he says. “When you get done with that piece, then you can think about what you’re going to do next.”
Chuck Close Prints
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach
When: Jan. 28 through April 22. Museum hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays.
Price: $8 to $10; free on Thursdays
Contact: (949) 759-1122