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Everyone knows Chuck Close as the painter of raw, close-up, and larger-than-life portraits of friends, artists, and celebrities. But not everyone may know the other forms in which the artist also works: prints, tapestries, and photographs. His portraits all start with a photograph, from which he creates a grid to achieve his large-scale hyperrealism. But for him the photograph has never been just a practical tool or device. This summer, the Parrish Art Museum explores Close’s relationship with the medium in the exhibition “Chuck Close Photographs,” on view through July 26.
The show features just under one hundred images from 1964 through today, including several works that have never been seen before by the public. It looks at Close’s use of the photo in three distinct areas: source material, Polaroids, and early techniques. “Early in my career, when I decided to incorporate imagery into my painting, I looked at photographs as source and artistic material by borrowing elements from magazine and record album sleeves. These were very much experiments, and almost none of those early works exist today,” said Close, speaking with us recently. It wasn’t until 1969, though, that he started to create paintings from photographic imagery. “My first use of photography as the basis for a painting was in 1969, when I created Big Nude based on black-and-white photographs.”
Close also created maquettes around that time, color and black-and-white photographs that he would manipulate with ink and tape. “I took black-and-white photographs of myself and artist friends, and from those ‘maquettes’ I created the big ‘heads’ that I showed at Bykert Gallery,” he said. His first “head” was Big Self-Portrait (1968), which depicts the artist from his bare collarbone up, head confidently tilted back, hair a mess, with a lit cigarette resting in his mouth.
Small- and large-format Polaroids of family, friends, and, later, people like Hillary Rodham Clinton (1999) and Alec Baldwin (2010) are a big part of the exhibition. But there are some larger Polaroids that stray beyond portraiture, capturing flowers and nudes. “The large-format Polaroid composites of flowers will be a revelation,” said Terrie Sultan, director of the Parrish Art Museum and co-curator of the show with Colin Westerbeck. “I don’t believe they have been on view since 1989, when they were featured in an exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute organized by Colin Westerbeck,” she said.
This is not the first time Sultan has worked with Close on curating an exhibition of his lesser-known works and materials. In 2003, she organized “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration,” which focused on more than forty years of the artist’s printmaking. “I learned a lot from that project, and it was also a revelation to audiences around the world. I say that because the exhibition traveled to more than twenty venues, and because it demonstrated that, although Close is a highly recognized artist, there are still things to be learned about where his ideas come from,” said Sultan. She sees “Photographs” as almost a companion to the print show in the way it sheds light on an as-yet-unfamiliar area of the artist’s oeuvre.
Whether Polaroid, film, digital, daguerreotype, or even Woodburytype, Close has tried them all. “I don’t like to play favorites,” he said. He began experimenting with the last two techniques in 1997, capturing Kate Moss in a daguerreotype in 2003 and Brad Pitt in a Woodburytype in 2012.
And while there are a number of surprising moments in the show, such as his maquettes from the sixties and his Polaroids of flowers, according to Sultan, “What is striking about the works in the exhibition is not so much the fact that some of them haven’t been seen in a museum exhibition, but that this is the first time in Close’s long career that this key aspect of his creative process has been explored and interpreted.”
What is clear, from the late sixties through today, is Close’s interest in and his relationship with his sitter, which he takes time to cultivate. “In photography, what I don’t like is the idea of shooting thousands of pictures, one right after the other. I prefer to take my time, make just a few images with corrections along the way. And I like a dialogue with the subject, collaboration,” said Close.
“Chuck Close Photographs” is on view through July 26. This article is published in Whitewall‘s special Hamptons Issue out this summer.