The great 19th century French realist Gustave Courbet once said that an artist ought to be able to render something--a distant pile of sticks, say, in a field--without actually knowing what it was. The hyperrealist Chuck Close has gone one better than that. In 1971 he painted the face of his father-in-law Nat Rose. The huge, minutely detailed likeness was bought by a Maryland collector who lent it to the Whitney Museum in New York City. There it was seen by an ophthalmologist who, not sure whether he was intruding or not, got a message to Close. Did he know that one eye of the man in the painting showed signs of carcinoma? No, Close didn't, but his father-in-law had a checkup, and it turned out to be true. People always hope their lives will be enhanced by works of art, but this was the only time an American's sight was saved by one.
It's unlikely that Close's current retrospective at New York City's Museum of Modern Art will produce any further medical revelations, but Close emerges from it as a remarkable artist all the same, and well served by a couple of excellent interpretative essays by curators Robert Storr and Kirk Varnedoe. Close's reputation as a stick-to-it, intensely focused, all-round-good-guy of the American art world has been gathering strength for years; and since 1989, when he was paralyzed from the neck down by a catastrophic stroke and had to learn to paint all over again from a wheelchair, he has become something of a legend. None of this bears on the quality of his art, of course. But you can't help reflecting, as you look at his infinitely laborious portraits in which one vastly enlarged face after another is elaborated into a moonscape of pores, wrinkles, blackheads, stubble and multiple highlights, that sheer determination is the common factor of both Close's art and his life.
Chuck Close has to be the most methodical artist that ever lived in America. He goes at the canvas with all the afflatus of a silkworm eating its phlegmatic way across a mulberry leaf. His way of painting, once set up, becomes an effort of pure transcription that relocates the acts of imagination way back in the roots of its system, and spends months on it. Essentially, what he does is copy faces large from small photographs. "Large" means enormous--canvases 8 ft. or 9 ft. high, filled with the staring face of someone you probably don't know and who has no special public existence. (All Close's sitters were his friends, mostly artists such as the sculptor Richard Serra or the painter Joe Zucker, none of them well known at the time. He has never done a commissioned portrait.) He began his big faces in the late 1960s, working directly from black-and-white photographs he took himself. The results were very strange. The images weren't "expressive." Their obsession is with fact, an overload of fact--not in the least with character. Their eyes don't contact the viewer: they look right through you. They were as anticosmetic as mug shots (some disconcertingly so: young Richard Serra looks like a dockland thug; his wife, artist Nancy Graves, like a snaggle-toothed nut). And it's interesting that Close's heads, then and later, work best when they are either strictly frontal or in profile; any turn or tilt of the head, suggesting that the sitter has noticed you, weakens the image.