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Chuck Close
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Ellen Page Wilson
Chuck Close working on Self-Portrait with Julia D’Amario

Close Talker
by Roberta Fallon

A crowd of artists, students and other art lovers fills the Zellerbach Theatre at the University of Pennsylvania for the sold-out lecture, "An Evening with Chuck Close," on Apr. 7, 2005. The audience for this installment of the Locks Distinguished Artist Series clearly wants to be close to Close. "I've followed his career and it’s an exciting opportunity to see him," says Marsha Moss, a public art curator and consultant. Moss remembers seeing Close in a New York gallery, studying the work of some other artist. Her visit to the gallery was interrupted, and when she came back later Close was still there contemplating the work. "It must have been 45 minutes. That kind of interest in another artist’s work is unusual," she notes.

In attendance are Sueyun Locks, director of Philadelphia’s Locks Gallery, and her husband Gene, who together launched the lecture series; architect Wendy Evans Joseph; and Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Michael Taylor, organizer of the centennial Salvador Dalí exhibition you may have heard about. The PMA owns the Close painting Paul (1994), a detail of which was reproduced on the lecture invitation card.

The Locks Series has produced three great events in three years. In 2003, Alex Katz and Robert Storr carried on a provocative public conversation. The 2004 guest was Robert Hughes, who gave a talk on Goya, based on his best-selling book on the artist. This year’s lecture, featuring Close, is in many ways the best. Close’s optimism, his energy and humor, his fluid story-telling and his generosity in revealing himself and his practice make the evening an inspiration.

"Some of you may know Chuck Close from Sesame Street," begins John Moore, chair of the Fine Arts Department at Penn Design, side-winding his way into an introduction. "Some of you may know him from the movie Six Degrees of Separation, where he played opposite Will Smith." Close did indeed appear on the famed children’s show, and had a cameo in the film, so it’s an appropriately irreverent and pop culture-y preface for an artist whose big, colorful and all-but-abstract portrait heads are instant icons and, if not as well known as Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, then certainly as memorable.

Eventually, Close, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a 1989 stroke, wheels onto the stage and parks his chair next to a low table set with two bottles of Poland Springs water. He launches into his presentation immediately. "Since this is a school I’d like to talk about why I got started and the kind of early thinking behind my choices." Close mentions his beginnings in a "poor white trash community in a mill town" in Washington state and his less-than illustrious academic performance. "Before I was disabled I was learning disabled," he jokes. "Dyslexia wasn’t invented yet. I still don’t know my times tables."

He may be dyslexic but his words flow as freely as water over a waterfall -- they cascade, in fact. He’s funny, he’s candid and the audience loves every word, which comes without editing, back-sliding or hesitation.

During his youth, Close wasn’t athletic but he could do art -- and it made him feel special. With this note, Close launches an impromptu sermon. "It’s important everyone has something to make them feel special. I mention this at a time when art and music are being cut out of school budgets. If I hadn’t had music and art. . . ," he says. The world famous artist is also a concerned father, and later he shows a portrait of his daughter, Georgia, now 31, who is a doctor.

One of the first things you notice about Close are his hands. They are enormous but limp and inert. He uses them to gesture so they are a big presence on the stage and a constant reminder of his disability.

At some point the artist stops speaking, reaches for a bottle of water and grasps it with the palms of these oddly functional hands. He brings the bottle up to his mouth, bites down on the cap with his teeth and proceeds to wrestle the bottle open. It looks difficult and the performance isn’t easy to watch. "If I ever lose my teeth I’ll be in trouble," Close says finally after taking a sip. The crowd laughs; the ice is broken and we can all relax.

I am struck by the generosity of this gesture as well as by its usefulness. By creating a tense dramatic moment and then dispelling it with humor, Close helps the audience get comfortable with him and at the same time signals that he isn’t here to talk about the disability. He’s still got his teeth, thank you. What’s to talk about?

Two seemingly opposite personality characteristics keep cropping up in Close’s account of himself. I think they explain a lot about his art.

First, he’s a great mimic. At age 11, he saw his first Jackson Pollock paintings and "within days I was dribbling paint over my realist paintings." Later on he mimicked de Kooning’s gestural abstraction. All the paintings we think of as Chuck Close paintings, of course, mimic photographs or, when looked at up close, imitate gestural abstractions laid on Minimalist grids. He also seems to be channeling his grandmother’s knitting and crocheting, something he mentions more than once.

Then there’s his contrary streak, which has apparently served him well in figuring out his career path. After graduate school at Yale, for example, he was told he had a good sense of color -- "so I decided I’d have no color, only black and white." Later, he reversed that dictum and began to use wild, Ab-Ex colors to make his paintings. Also early on, he threw away his paintbrushes and took up the air gun in order to make tiny, "un-lovable" marks instead of big gestures. And his career-long quest seems to be to make paintings of people with an "all-overness" that repels the human gaze.

At one point, Close shows a slide of a portrait of Alex Katz, the first work he made after his 1989 stroke and the subsequent eight-month recovery in the hospital. "I had done Alex Katz before, but this painting came out profoundly sad. The palette brightened; colors were brighter and crazier. The work embodied a sense of loss and celebration -- I could get back to work."

As he shows slides of his works on a big screen, Close makes some memorable quips about the often-famous sitters for his memorable paintings.

Lucas Samaras: "Lucas, if he could, he’d be the Ayatollah . . . if he could run for it he’d do it."

Cindy Sherman: "Someone showed up who said she was Cindy Sherman. I tried to photograph her and there was no one there. Finally I told her to move around and gave her roles to play. I said, 'You look like a Brancusi head, so be a Brancusi'. I also did a profile of her and told her to pretend she was on a coin or stamp. The minute there was a role she was fine."

Agnes Martin: "I had to do as a grid because she owns the grid."

Robert Rauschenberg: "I tried to get him not to smile. He can’t. On the other hand, Jasper Johns can’t smile."

Roy Lichtenstein: "He looks a lot like Ren from Ren & Stimpy. Also in profile I got to do a little Dick Tracy chin on him.

Close is a joyful painter whose enthusiasm for each inch of his paintings is full of the spirit of "all-overness." "Each little square is like a painting," he says. "And it’s like a celebration when each one is done."

Now that’s a philosophy.

ROBERTA FALLON writes about art for Philadelphia Weekly and for the artblog she coauthors with Libby Rosof.