These days, to say anything negative about Chuck Close amounts to heresy. Yet, if I owned a recent Chuck Close painting -- not a classic black and white canvas from the late 1960s -- and could get at least $1 million for it, I would be a seller.
Chuck Close is the closest (no pun intended) thing the art world has to a universally beloved artist. Whether you're a curator, collector, dealer or critic, chances are that you have been impressed by both the work and the person. By now, Close's amazing life story about overcoming an illness, which seemed to threaten both his career and life, is well documented. Indeed, it is nothing short of remarkable that he ever picked up a brush again, let alone made a coherent painting. The fact that Close's late work is of such a high caliber speaks volumes about the triumph of the human spirit in general, and the artist's uncanny talent in particular.
However, as anyone who saw the Museum of Modern Art's Chuck Close retrospective can tell you, if you've seen one example, you've seen them all. That may be a harsh assessment, but it happens to be true. Whether Close is doing a portrait of Roy Lichtenstein or one of Alex Katz, you are basically looking at the same painting.
The art world doesn't particularly want to hear this, but Close's paintings are about a formula -- a highly successful formula -- but a formula nonetheless. In art school, one of the first things an instructor teaches you is that art is not about arriving at a formula. A formula is basically a variation on a theme, such as painting a flower in red, then doing a painting of the same flower and coloring it blue. The end result is predictable and uniform, not a one-of-a-kind experience for the viewer (nor a learning experience for the artist).
Ironically, the art market loves artists who work in a formulistic way. Dealers like nothing better than when an artist hits on an image that sells. A great artist like David Hockney may have painted swimming pools throughout his career, but the difference is that each pool retains its own identity. Each and every one of Hockney's pool images treats the viewer to a unique point of view. Sometimes the pools emphasize the water's reflections, and other times the water's changing colors. In Chuck Close's case, his palette and scale are repeatedly similar. About the only variation is whether the painting will be a front-on portrait or a profile.
Let's look at portraiture in general. Capturing the sitter's likeness isn't enough, or at least not enough to get you in the art history books. Close's mind-blowing early black and white works captured every pore, freckle and blemish of the sitter. As a result, his work spoke of the imperfections in each of us. There was a profound truth that permeated his work. What's more, each of his subjects retained their personalities. Each portrait forced the viewer to confront the subject as an individual.
For his recent color paintings, Close put away his airbrush, which he could no longer physically use, and devised a contraption that would allow him to hand-paint his portraits. By using photography and breaking the face down to a series of grids, he was somehow able to put together a group of concentric brushstrokes -- whose individual strokes couldn't stand on their own, but whose cumulative marks formed a recognizable face -- as if some magical alchemical process had occurred.
The canvases Close produced have rarely found their way to the secondary market. The last major Close to come up to auction (and the first in many years) was one of his late color paintings. Estimated at $600,000-$800,000, Cindy II, a portrait of Cindy Sherman, easily exceeded a million dollars. The fact that this was one of his weakest paintings from the series demonstrated the pent-up demand for his work.
If a first-rate large color Close were to come up to auction today, the price would likely be closer to $2 million. A rare early black and white painting, none of which I believe have ever been to auction, might go as high as $5 million.
The point to this article is this: If you are fortunate enough to be offered a new Close painting from PaceWildenstein, you should buy it in an instant. It's hard to determine how much a new painting costs because one can never get a straight answer from Pace (unless they know you are a heavy hitter and serious about buying one). An educated guess is $700,000-$900,000.
Obviously, if you bought one and put it up to auction, Pace would never deal with you again. However, hypothetically, if you got into his market early and paid a more reasonable $350,000 (their cost in 1995), I would be sorely tempted to cash out. The only thing protecting the Close market is the fact that the artist has produced very few paintings.
I have my doubts whether, in the future, Close will be thought of as the genius that people currently regard him to be. I see him more as an artist who initially carved out a niche as the finest Photo Realist painter. In regard to the late work, there's too much of a "gee whiz" quality and not enough depth to be grouped with the top artists of the last 50 years.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.
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