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Mr. Burgher's Art Facts

Chuck Close

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Chuck Close: 1940-****...United States

"If you paint a face big enough, it's hard to ignore."
~Chuck Close

One of the greatest figuration artists, as well as one of my personal favorite artists, is Chuck Close. He is an artist who has created his art in paint, print, and photograph. "Most people are good at too many things. And when you say someone is focused, more often than not what you actually mean is they're very narrow." He is a leader in the area of figuration art and one of the most respected living American artists. He is known for creating his large face paintings that he calls "heads."

Chuck Close was born "a poor white-trash kid from a mill-town" in Monroe, Wisconsin in 1940. As a dyslexic and unathletic high school student he was picked on and had few friends. "I wasn't athletic, I couldn't catch a ball, I couldn't throw a ball, I had all kinds of physical limitations as well. So [art] was it." Because he was seen as an outcast, he was a loaner, but loved taking art classes and was quite skilled. He would draw his friends and gained a reputation as a great artist in his school, but refused to draw people he did not feel were his friends. He went on to attend the University of Washington in Seattle. He then went on to graduate school at Yale University, where he received his MFA under the painter Gabor Peterdi. In those early years in his career, he worked in a style that most would call photorealism. "I think most paintings are a record of the decisions that the artist made. I just perhaps make them a little clearer than some people have." At the age of thirty-two, he got his first big break into the art world when he was working on a series of prints and one of those was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Starting in the 1970's he made several etching, lithograph, and other means of creating his artworks, which were largely his "heads." In 1988, Close had a spinal blood vessel rupture that resulted in powerful convulsions. This rupture resulted in six weeks in intensive care and Close's permanent partial paralysis.

For most artists this would have been a career ending event. But after his paralysis, he was motivated to continue a career in art. He designed a lifting machine to raise and lower canvases so that he could continue his art career. This art making style also evolved at this point in time. He currently works in a style that many may call abstract expressionists, but he continues to work in his favorite subject, the "heads." His continued work and skill earned him an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Colby College in 1994, University of Massachusetts and Yale University in 1996, and Rhode Island School of Design in 1997.

From the beginning of his career, Close has created his artwork in a very constantly particular way. He begins works for his heads by first taking photos of the persons face. These look a lot like a driver’s license photograph. This photo is created using that grid structure that I spoke of earlier. "I wanted to translate from one flat surface to another. In fact, my learning disabilities controlled a lot of things. I don't recognize faces, so I'm sure it's what drove me to portraits in the first place." He always builds his compositions off of a grid structure. Another note to his work that it is all made by hand. Many artists use various tools and technologies to aid their art while Close has always rejected this. "Some people wonder whether what I do is inspired by a computer and whether or not that kind of imaging is a part of what makes this work contemporary. I absolutely hate technology, and I'm computer illiterate, and I never use any labor-saving devices although I'm not convinced that a computer is a labor-saving device." A single painting can take Close many months to create, but some of his works have taken him years to finish completely. One of his greatest commissioned works was a nine foot by seven foot painting of former-President Bill Clinton, titled President Bill Clinton. Close was invited to the White House by Clinton ten times and even was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He asked for permission to create a portrait of him after taking a large-format Polaroid photo of him. Although the work was bought by a private owner,  who willed it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. "I joked with the president that he'd be the first persident in the National Gallery- not the National Portrait Gallery- since Gilbert Stuart painted the founding fathers. I told him that he would probably be happier hanging next to Andy Warhol's Elvis than a bunch of other former presidents." Generally, Close dose not work on a true commission. He feels that if he works on commission, the work is not his; it belongs to the person commissioning the artwork. "I'm just making the paintings I want to make and then they go away and money comes in, and there doesn't seem to be much connection between the two."

President Bill Clinton

As an artist, I respect Chuck Close’s work very much, but I also identify with some of his personal struggle as a dyslexic student. "I'm very learning-disabled, and I think it drove me to what I'm doing." Words that I have also spoke to many of my students. Art is an area that can drive and motivate our lives in amazing ways. His success in spires me and I feel that it could also inspire students that also struggle with the academic side of life. I wish that I could have Close in class to discuss art history, to get his take on the works throughout history. "You know, the way art history is taught, often there's nothing that tells you why the painting is great. The description of a lousy painting and the description of a great painting will very much sound the same." Maybe it is better if we just make up our own minds.

Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063