In New York, a show that helps redefine the limits of portraiture
They are not, in any sense, portraits of Beautiful People. Every wrinkle, bulge and sag in their flesh is colossally magnified: a face 9 ft. high is no longer a face but a wall of imperfections that mock the convention of "good looks." The face is always seen head on, like a mug shot or a passport photo; yet it is blown up to the size of some staring mosaic Pantocrator on a Byzantine a pse. These are, of course, the portraits by Chuck Closefamiliar items in the art of the 1970snow gathered in a retrospective of Close's work, which, after its debut last fall at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, opened last week at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art.
Those who believe an artist ought to be a creature of inspiration are likely to have difficulties with Close. There is no more phlegmatic temperament in American art, or so one might think; the divine afflatus is reduced, in his paintings, to metered squirts from an air brush. His procedure for the big portraits that made his name in the 1970s never varied. First Close photographed the sitter, with a depth of field so short that there are blurs of focus in the distance from the eyeball to the tip of the nose, or from the edge of a Up to the lobe of the ear. Then he made color separations of the image and scaled it up to the giant canvas by means of a finely ruled grid. After that the image was transferred, square by square.
To get "natural" huesas natural as those of color photographyClose applied three overlays of standard color, in effect, three monochrome portraits painted on top of each other: first red, then blue, then yellow. The illusion rises quite automatically out of the method. Seen against the plodding, laborious character of the day-to-day work, which requires up to a year for one finished painting, it has a more than hallucinatory quality. "I want the thinnest, most ethereal possible paint film, with colors built by superimposing one color over another so that there's almost nothing thereyou could take your fingernail and scratch it off," says Close. "It is rather like magic. When I get to the last color, yellow, you can't see the pigment come out of the air brushit's like waving a magic wand in front of the picture, and the purple eye becomes brown. It's really quite wonderful; there are a few kicks left in this racket after all, and that's one of them."
The observer's eye knows nothing of the sitters in advance. None of them is famous for being famous, except at the SoHo level of celebritysome being, in fact, well-known artists, like the sculptor Richard Serra or the composer Philip Glass. Thus what Close proposes is a kind of portraiture diametrically opposite to Andy Warhol's images of Marilyn or Liz, where the painting, an icon of the Star, adapts itself to the intrusive power of repetition and generalization. With Close, there is no generalization at all. None of his faces has a role. There are no costumes, props or traces of social relationships, no evidence of the sitter's work or status; in short, none of the facts that portraiture traditionally conveys.