This is Bob where I first saw him in 1982, in the Australian National Gallery. It was an early acquisition and at nearly 3 metres high and 2.14 wide competed with Anselm Keifer’s ‘Twilight of the West’ for dominance of the space where they were displayed. Probably like most people I thought, hmm big photo, quality print, caught a moment and, probably like most people, was a bit shocked to discover it was a canvas covered with acrylic paint. However close you stood it was hard to be convinced. Photorealism realised.
Chuck Close was the artist.
I began to follow his career which has at least two unusual aspects. The first was that Chuck has prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, a cognitive disorder where the ability to recognize faces is impaired while other aspects of visual processing and intellectual function remain intact. It can be acquired or congenital and may affect up to 2.5% of the population. The specific brain area usually associated with prosopagnosia is the fusiform gyrus which activates specifically in response to faces allowing the recognition of faces in more detail than other similarly complex objects. Rather thrilling in itself. To date, no therapies have demonstrated a capacity to remediate the condition. Prosopagnosics often learn to use ‘feature-by-feature’ recognition strategies involving secondary clues such as clothing, gait, hair color, body shape or voice. Because the face seems to function as an important identifying feature in memory, it can also be difficult for people with this condition to keep track of information about people, and socialise normally with others. Who else has prosopagnosia? Friend to primates Jane Goodall; French actor Thierry Lhermitte (at left) whose face you might recognise if not his name; possibly accounting for his very wide range of wives and mistresses playwright Sir Tom Stoppard (né Tomáš Straussler, who knew); Dr Karl of Triple J and splendid shirts fame; Oliver Sacks who despite writing case studies of prosopagnosia didn’t realise until recently he had it himself.
There is a major exhibition of Close’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney at present, and Myrna didn’t like it much. One of her reasons was that there were too many self portraits, and yes there were a great many, but maybe it’s a manifestation of his prosopagnosia. Close himself has said: ‘I have difficulty recognizing faces. That occurred to me twenty years after the fact when I looked at why I was still painting portraits, why that still had urgency for me.’ A need to establish your own physical identity?
Perhaps paradoxically, Bob the subject (Robert Israel) has said: ‘I had wanted Chuck to ask me to pose for him, but I really didn’t feel it was proper for me to ask. Chuck’s decision of who he would paint had to do not only with whether you were a friend, but with the topology of your face.’ What’s he seeing there? Close tells his own story about Bob. ‘I had taken a break and was walking back into the studio. Looking at the painting, I realised that a highlight in one of the eyes was too bright. And I said, “Damn it, now I’m going to have to take his glasses off”. But when I realised what I had said, I pivoted on my heel and walked out leaving the lights on, the compressor on and the airbrushes full of paint. When you start believing in your own illusion, you’re in serious trouble.’ Clearly his relationship with his work is complex. Is this another version of the idea of art, high art, fine art, being a product of dysfunctionality? And this is Chuck. (It’s a photo that I took of the desktop of the computer at the entry counter.) He’s in his wheelchair. In December 1988, Close suffered a seizure which left him paralyzed from the neck down. A spinal artery had collapsed. He’s worked hard to get some mobility back and for some time he has been able to paint by strapping paint brushes to his arms and moving them — the second remarkable aspect of his career. So, rather than the very fine work with spray painter, airbrush and so on, his gestures have become larger and his media more wide-ranging. Again, art influenced and modified by infirmity. At left is a detail from the self-portrait on the right. What brilliant colour management.
Another reason Myrna didn’t like the show was its focus on the technical aspects of the work. She had been warned. It was called ‘Prints, process and collaboration’ and it was one of the reasons I enjoyed it.
It was a display of North American can-do technological skill and willingness to experiment in collaboration with master craftspeople. I like that. He moved from paint to print a long time ago but now we have very complex photo processing which produced this lovely portrait in which the whites are stronger than I have been able to make them here. And adventures in paper pulp (above, plugged into the grid at right according to a very detailed ‘colour’ chart), and renaissance games with perspective (below).And this, this, is a tapestry! It was clear how the print series layering colour on colour become their own works of art both as individual pieces and as series. Even the print woodblocks create their own jigsaw of delight. Finally, the audience makes its own contribution. Jacquard tapestries. Roy Lichtenstein on the left. Extraordinary.