When painter Chuck Close moved his retro from the Metropolitan Museum to MoMA, the Pentagon of modern art turned to a battle-hardened staff sergeant Robert Storr to curate Chuck's big heads.
Sgt. Storr has led the museum through the Nauman, Ryman and late de Kooning campaigns, all complex battles.
On top of the Close-fest, Storr also brings a major Tony Smith retro to MoMA in June.
Your scribe produced his Sony over refreshments at Remi, across Sixth Avenue from the museum.
Finch: Last week, Rob Storr, you were quoted in the New York Times as saying that there had not yet been a great computer artist, and yet you're curating a show of Chuck Close, who really is the first great computer artist; whose work has an affinity with the digital world, anticipating it in an uncanny way. How do you explain that?
Storr: Well, first of all, I still haven't seen the article. I remember talking to the interviewer, but I don't know how it came out.
Digitization, per se, is not the same as computerization. It may account for how you break down the information, but it doesn't account for how you then resynthesize the information. There may come a time when you can mechanically approximate what Chuck does, what you can't approximate is the fine decisions about what to leave in, what to leave out.
Plus, there's the fact that you're dealing with a human organism that does things involuntarily, as well. So there is a synthetic process which is not equivalent to the scanning that you get with a machine. It's what you get out of an entire sensory organism, and also, of course, the hand that makes it.
Finch: The irony is that, since his great catastrophe in 1988 [a sudden ailment that paralyzed him and confined him to his wheelchair], Close's work has, if anything, become more tactile.
Storr: The big stylistic change really happened several years before, he calls it "an event," it really wasn't an accident, but a delayed rupture of a blood vessel. After many years of weakness, it blew out and resulted in paralysis.
But the move Close made towards a more painterly, a more gestural style had already begun in earnest. And what's remarkable is how, rather than being derailed, he continued to deliver a consistent style. He was in charge, not the "event."
Finch: In three portraits Close did of Alex Katz post '88, you almost see Chuck contrasting the vibrancy of Katz with his own physical limitations. Katz' face is alive with anger, vigor.
Storr: There are two Katz images in the show, plus the reduction print. There's one that Close made while he was still in the hospital, and there's the later black-and-white painting. Katz looks like the character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the one that Bogart plays, this absolutely miserable guy, this basically "don't fuck with me" thing.
Finch: Man stripped to his core, so to speak.
Storr: Alex, whose work I admire, always paints himself in the Cary Grant part, rather than the Bogart part. So to have Chuck, who's an affable guy, strip away Katz's masks and show Katz's ambition and his hardness is something!
I mean, Katz is a charming guy, but the guy you see in those pictures is not charming, and you should count your fingers before you leave -- a real New York tough guy.
Finch: There was a sense when Close's heads first came on the scene 25 years ago, that this was space-age work for the ages, which people 100 years from now would identify as paradigms of our era. How does your curation handle the monumentalism of Close's early work?
Storr: You have to deal with Chuck as a conceptual artist, in many ways. What drives the work is a thinking process about how to go about making the image. The changes in style lead you to make associations, such as the more recent, gestural work leading back to the New York School, but there is a detachment in the newer paintings that, for all the brighter colors and gestural strokes, maintains the same distance from the subjects, and from you the viewer, as the earlier, more hard-edged work, and therefore forces you to maintain the same distance as you did when the faces were harder, and the surface more unified, and the stare more intense, so the underlying distance is there still, but in a different manner.
Finch: That distance is reflected in the flatness of the work. When Close sits a subject for preliminary photographs, he actually asks the subject to pose "flatter" for him!
Storr: The distance is parallel to another artist, Philip Pearlstein. In the early 1960s, Pearlstein wrote a manifesto against making Abstract Expressionism more humanistic. Philip took a gamble: If you're really painting a nude model under studio conditions, you're painting a pale person under neon light, you make a unified image of the artist's subject -- how the eye works, rather than psychological change of an obvious kind.
I think Chuck, without coming out of Pearlstein, has done something equivalent and taken it in other stylistic directions. Close is obviously doing so within the context of Minimalism and Conceptual art. He looked at Sol LeWitt's writing on Conceptual art, the procedures he describes, the promise that you follow all the steps without deviations based on taste. You do not try to bring the process towards a desired end, but you allow the variables and choices to dictate the end of these processes.
That's also a part of the background of Chuck's work. Chuck and LeWitt arrived at these ideas at much the same time, so it was the zeitgeist, if you will.
Finch: So it's a big mistake for the Super-Realists to persist in describing Close as one of them, right?
Storr: Yah -- the Super-Realists were interested in what they were painting primarily, and photography was a means to get to that image. It imposed a certain chill, which they liked, that they'd taken out of photography -- that's, if you will, the late Warholianism and the sort of down-home American hamburger Super-Realism; and the other side of it was to edit in a certain way, so that you get a super-graphics effect. These extreme angles go back to Degas, ultimately.
They were American scene painters of the 1960s, and Chuck is not. The fact that he works with photographs doesn't mean that he's trying to achieve photographic similitude, it means that the photograph is both means and subject.
Finch: Does part of your show lay out the photos and grids which Close uses?
Storr: It's not really possible. The show will open on a room full of the gigantic heads from 1968-1970, a kind of gray pantheon, and there will be a single image there of an early drawing, and one photo, the first one he used for his own self-portrait.
And you'll see those two steps of the process, and you'll see the changes later on in his photography and printmaking, but I'm reluctant to do shows that lay out the process in quite that way, because it makes people think that, if they've gotten the "how" of it, they've gotten the "why" of it.
And even in the case of Robert Ryman, when the "how" is the "what," it's not the whole story, and I want people to experience the completeness of the paintings, not dissect them, because you've dissected a frog in a vitrine someplace else.
Finch: I asked that question, of course, because in your great late de Kooning show, you were required to deal with the issue of process, as well as the issue of human infirmity. Was there a psychological lag for you from that show into this show?
Storr: Chuck is dealing with an entirely different set of physical problems, he's not dealing with intellectual, or emotional, or aging problems. And also, there's no scandal about his work. There was a scandal about de Kooning, a cooked-up scandal, a misguided scandal, but it was necessary to say, "Look, that is what really happened, these are the pertinent facts, you can make of them what you will."
In Chuck's case, it's not necessary to do that -- the work analyzes itself, anyway. If you see him move through different phases, the cumulative effect gives you a lexicon of possibilities, embodied in the complete work unto itself.
Finch: Do you think Chuck feels any sense of irony, in his new portraits of younger artists like Judy Pfaff, Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith, about the artist's diminished importance in the wider world?
Storr: My answer to that would be, "Sez who?" It's not an established sociological, or philosophical, fact that the individual is gone, and only the phantom remains. It's connected with Chuck's sociability, his interest in work other than his own. He's not an ideological artist who isn't interested in work hostile to his argument.
Again, connected to Katz, because I think there's a certain bond between them, they've made their work about the art world for years -- it's a sort of dramatis personae from the '50s onward. These people who are now somebodies in the wider world were nobodies then. Now Chuck has moved over, depicting the world as it is for him, which is full of brilliant people. He's thinking about the company he keeps, from the dean of American gay painters Paul Cadmus to Lorna Simpson, who is doing conceptual video and photography.
Finch: Did you formally discuss with Close's subjects what it's like to be chosen as one?
Storr: I like to think of the paintings separate from the personalities. Personality plays a very measured role in Chuck's work. He's not a psychologist. The other side is Chuck exploring their work and their reaction to being painted. So I figure Chuck will take care of that piece of business, and I'll take care of my business, which is to deal with the art as art.
Finch: Did Chuck's curation of his 1993 portraits from MoMA's permanent collection mean that he took a more active role in your curation?
Storr: Chuck is a pretty active guy, as artists go. He's an amiable guy, and I'm pretty active, too, so it boiled down to his floating an idea, and my floating an idea, and the show is an agreed-upon product.
When I first sat down with the books of the available work, the things I recommended were very close to what he had in mind. He's a strong-willed guy -- you go around, see how it lands, but I think it's going to land well.
Finch: Not to go into rough commerce, but Close's work has been a little undervalued with a recent record set at $450,000 -- do you think this show will push him into seven figures?
Storr: I don't talk about money for two reasons -- One, to be quite honest, not having very much of it, I'm not very interested in it. When I have to make a specific acquisition I found out what I need to know, but following the bouncing zeros has never been my particular passion.
Two -- I don't think it's really a museum's business to worry about what things cost, except when you buy them. So that's a separate part of Chuck's reality, and I wish him well.
Finch: The abstract gestures in Close's new work suggest everyone from Philip Guston to Ellen Gallagher.
Storr: You do get those kind of fugues. You get this visual jitterbug, you're prepared for the first visual breakup, then you move in, it breaks up further, but it's not atomic, it doesn't just keep going that way, so that you're lost in the stars in 2001, but you can go pretty far.
The image is static, but nothing about what makes the image is static. You keep coming back to a coalescing entity, which is the head, but the more you look at it, the more you lose it. I think that's the way vision really is. If you bear down on your forelock long-term, you get a wobble visually.
Finch: Chuck is very sensitive about being asked to do someone's portrait. Has he ever agreed to do a portrait on request?
Storr: There are only two, to my knowledge. There is a small portrait of a woman who was the wife of a friend that was done as a friendly gesture to thank her for something. And then there's the photograph that he did for Bill Clinton. That's it.
Finch: With Yoshio Taniguchi's brilliantly simple switch of MoMA's entrance to 54th Street -- you just walk around the block, are MoMA's curators anticipating the new spaces when they look at what they're working with now?
Storr: The anticipation of those changes is the reason those changes have occurred in the design. There was serious consultation with senior curators about what they needed, and Taniguchi got the job because he listened hard. He did synthetic things, which turned simple requests into something richer and more flexible. Taniguchi, and this is rarely the case, was an extremely responsive architect.
But, there are more stages, still. We have the design, but when you get down to detailing galleries, and consider actual allocations of space, modifications are going to be needed -- there are aspects of his detailing which some of us have not yet seen, so there's a good deal more to come before anyone can say, "this is the museum."
Finch: About your Tony Smith show in June, the Public Art Fund is going to be placing Tony Smith public sculptures throughout the city?
Storr: I went to [Public Art Fund director] Tom Eccles and said we want to make a show where what's in the museum is the core. The exhibition will correlate how Tony thought in four different disciplines -- drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture -- there will be maquettes, and so on.
The MoMA garden will have larger-scale works -- and then we decided to take it out into the city, because Smith wanted to see his work against nature and against urban spaces. He's an incredibly expressive artist, and the attitude towards Minimal art is that it's not for the general public, but Smith's stuff really moves and it will change the way the public thinks about Smith.
Finch: Thanks, Rob.
"Chuck Close" opens at the Museum of Modern Art, Feb. 26-May 26, 1998, and features some 80 paintings, drawings, prints and photographs from all phases of the artist's career.
CHARLIE FINCH is the New York editor of Coagula Art Journal and has coauthored the forthcoming Most Art Sucks from Smart Art Press.