"Here’s where I will lose my light," Chuck Close says, as we sit in his ground-floor downtown loft. The vacant lot adjacent to his loft is rumored to be site of more new construction. "If they build, I’ll lose the side windows and my skylight will be hovered over by a six story building. If I lose the light, I’ll move."
All this is somehow symbolic. Close, 68, is both faithful to his craft and still experimenting with the best way to get the effects he desires. His large, Photorealist self-portraits and portraits of friends are icons. Still, I found Close intensely engaged with contemporary art, happy to comment on new artists, and trying new things -- in the past few years, he has been experimenting with transferring his images to tapestries made on Jacquard looms. The studio where we met featured many examples that showed how Close used the looms to experiment with pixilated effects.Ilka Scobie: Do you have any painting rituals?
Chuck Close: I work every day, seven days a week. When I had kids living at home I didn’t work on the weekends. I’d rather paint than anything.
I work three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. I paint Christmas Eve and Day. And New Years Eve and Day, and Easter and Passover.
IS: Do you paint while you’re at the beach?
CC: Yes. I have a studio out there. I love the light. For some reason, people don’t call or fax as much there. But after forty years of being out there, for the first time I stayed in the city and I loved being in the city. I get a lot of energy from all the people and things being built and torn down. I realize that it is a lot easier to live in a place where people work than in a place where people play, because they want you to play with them.
IS: Where did you get your pictures developed?
CC: Polaroid on Prince and Broadway. You know you can’t own those cameras anymore. You rent them -- they only have seven. C-prints have faded more than Polaroids. I always work from my own photographs.
I tell Chuck that I am a poet, and we discuss career choices.
CC: Being a poet is the one thing dumber than being a painter! We like having poets around so we can see we haven’t made the worst career decision. I couldn’t make it to Bob Holman’s birthday. Didn’t they do 50 poems for him?
IS: Yes, it was a great evening at the Bowery Poetry club. Are there any contemporary artists that you have your eye on?
CC: A lot. I like people who make stuff. I like stuff better than I like ideas, and I like the touch of the hand. I like people who sign onto a process and stay there for a while. The most dreaded word in the art world today is "craft." Have you heard of the latest word in the art world, which is "deskilled?"
I think there is something about painting that is transcendent. I like people whose work is labor-intensive, who are compulsive. It doesn’t have to be a painting.
I love Tara Donovan, but she’s not a painter. I love James Siena. I once was paired with Tom Friedman in a conversation show at the Art Institute of Chicago. They had one of my dot paintings and one of his works of all the words in the dictionary written in ballpoint pen. It was wonderful to see the dialogue between the two.
I like Tim Hawkinson. My best friend and favorite painter is Mark Greenwold. He just did a wonderful show at DC Moore.
I think my generation is making some of the best work. People I went to school with like Brice Marden and Richard Serra. People that I came to New York with -- unfortunately Elizabeth Murray just died. Mangold and Ryman and Joel Shapiro. As a group, I feel our generation is doing the best work. I think that is because though we grew up in the ‘60s we really are of the ‘70s, and unlike the artists of the ‘60s, who are superstars, or of the artists of the ‘80s, who were superstars, the ‘70s were very pluralistic and nothing dominated. None of us were superstars, so the spotlight wasn’t on us and we didn’t have to mature, and I think that gave us legs. I think that is what kept us going, no matter what ways the winds were blowing in the art world. We had our own trajectory, our own path, our own set of issues.
IS: I think it is hard to be a young artist, especially for the women, and the pressure to be fashionably relevant. . .
CC: Horrible. There were no beautiful women in the art world. There was nothing glamorous about the art world. The fact that supermodels would come to an art opening was unheard of. The whole mingling of art and fashion is the worst thing that could ever happen.
IS: What have you been up to lately?
CC: I was just in Russia and there is so much money there. I was at the Ritz in Moscow, and just there being a Ritz in Moscow is pretty weird. I had a show is St. Petersburg, at the Hermitage. I flew up to Moscow to look at the Pushkin. At the restaurant (which I didn’t have to pay for) there was wine being sold for $250,000, and many bottles being sold for $12,000-$60,000.
IS: Do you have collectors there?
CC: I had a Russian who just bought two paintings out of my White Cube show to take to his museum in Minsk. I never hung out with collectors -- it seemed too brown-nosey and you don’t want to find out that they were assholes, because then you know that some asshole has your work. I think that is a generational thing. I’m not sure that’s true for today’s young artists.
IS: You have been painting big since. . .?
CC: Forever. In graduate school I made the biggest paintings. That is the only aspect of my work that hasn’t changed. It was abstract like De Kooning.
IS: When did you do figurative work?
CC: I started to work from photographs in ’64. Then in ’67, I started using the airbrush, which is what let people know about me. I moved to Greene Street in ’67, then moved to Prince Street. ‘Lived there for 14 years, then moved uptown when the kids were in school. Now, we are back in the West Village.
IS: What are some of your current projects?
CC: I am making cotton tapestries which are woven in Belgium. I’ll show you what they look like.
IS: They will be in the next show?
CC: Yeah, I will have a room full of tapestries and new paintings.
IS: When is your next show?
CC: It’s at Pace, I think in November -- we don’t have a definite date.
IS: How did this project come about?
CC: Years ago, I made tapestries in China. Then I found out about the Belgian tapestries. So I have been making these for a couple years.
IS: How long is the process?
CC: To get to it takes a long time. Once you finally arrive at what you want, they can make one a day.
IS: Which portraits will become tapestries?
CC: As tapestries they will all be artists. As paintings, there will be one of Bill Clinton, and then family portraits of my daughters, my mother and father in-law. James Siena. The Chinese artist I am doing next.
IS: Your show is an event everyone looks forward to. The art world has been very supportive of you.
CC: Yes. Never more so than when I was in the hospital. . . Besides my family and friends, the other group that showed up for me was other artists -- and they were really pulling for me.
We look at the large and beautiful tapestries that are propped against the walls.
IS: Are these done by a machine?
CC: A couple of hundred years ago, they were trying to speed up the process of tapestries. They hit upon an idea because Rubens made a painting and it was worth ‘x’ dollars and the tapestry was worth five times as much. There was more status in the tapestry then in the original painting. It took two years to weave a tapestry of an original painting that would take just two months to make.
They found a method of making paper tapes which had holes in them that were pulled through the loom. If there were holes, they would send the thread up. If there were no holes they would send the thread down. This ultimately led to the IBM key punch card -- which is also hole or no hole. They were looking at the technology that tapestry makers would use.
Binary numbers -- the 1 or 0 just stand for hole or no hole. It goes back to that. It was either on or off.
It turns out that the computer, which owes its existence to tapestries, is a perfect medium in which to talk to the tapestry. So I work with the computer to see if we can use certain color threads. There are about 150 different colors and values. There are 65 in the color ones and 250 in the black and white. They are made from the guerrotypes by laying them down on a scanner. The scanner illuminates and records the information. It is like a contact print. We do a lot of work on the computer, then we start weaving test strips. And then weave the whole.
This thing over here is a tapestry test. You can see how the threads going in different directions make complicated combinations of colors.
IS: You are known as such an important part of the New York art world. . .
CC: I try to be a good art-world citizen -- being responsible and generous. But I don’t think that I am alone at that. I am weary about the term "giving back." When I find that people use that word "giving back" they are usually getting something out of it. I wouldn’t use that term. I certainly didn’t get where I am without lots of people who were mentors to me, and lots of people who gave me a break. I think that being a good art-world citizen is about being a good citizen in general.
ILKA SCOBIE is a poet.