Art: Blowing Up the Closeup

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No painter was ever more aptly named than Chuck Close. Since the late '60s, when his paintings of giant heads began to make him a reputation in New York City, Close has been known for one thing: a relentless inspection of the surface of the human face, recorded at immensely magnified scale, not only "warts and all" but with every pore of every wart meticulously set forth. Large and legible though they are, Close's portraits illustrate a paradox: although faces are the most recognizable and memorable objects in the world, neither artists nor perceptual psychologists yet know for sure why we recognize them, or what makes a given face familiar. In the street, one scans a face and recognizes it from swift generalizations. No computer has yet been successfully programmed to make these generalizations; only the human brain, apparently, can both sort out and recognize forms as complex as those of a face. But Close's big paintings, each head 7 ft. or 8 ft. high, try not to make any generalizations at all. Every feature is recorded in its tiniest particular, with the strange result that his subjects become almost unrecognizable — they are veiled by the surplus of information on the canvas. As a consequence, Close's works are among the most troubling icons of American art in the '70s. He is perhaps the only artist of his generation who has really extended the meaning of portraiture.

Close, 36, a tall figure with a patriarchal beard, works very slowly, his air brush patiently rendering each microform of flesh and hair like a polyp secreting coral. Each painting takes months to finish, and since 1970 Close has finished only 18 of them. Thus any show by him is an event of interest, and his current one at New York's Pace Gallery is no disappointment. It consists of three large heads — one of Close himself, two of his friends in the art world — and a group of studies and drawings for them. Self-portrait and Klaus (1976) are in black and white. The third, Linda (1975-76), is a color painting of the face of a red-haired woman in a red dress.

Close's method is complex: he squares up from a large, side-lit studio mug shot of his subject, working over it first in pure red, then in blue and finally yellow; the overlays, as in three-color printing, produce "natural" color. The camera is focused on the sitter's eyes, and the photo's depth of field is so small that the tip of the nose blurs, and one can see as many differences of sharpness in Close's beard or Linda's tangle of rusty curls as among the stalks of a wheatfield. These blurs and elisions are rendered with exquisite accuracy.

Flaky Skin. Close's mixture of size and precision is disorienting. Faces would look like this to a louse, if lice could scan them: a fleshy landscape, dried salt pans of flaky skin, monstrous glittering folds of mucous membrane, each wrinkle a canyon, the nose a mountain, lakes for eyes. The effect is both real and hallucinatory at once, and it has a lot to offer on how we scan, decode and see the most ordinary configurations. Held in memory. Close's por traits marginally change every face one glimpses in the subway, or in a mirror.

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