SFMoMA: Chuck Close, Retrospective, February 2006

I have visited this exhibit twice because I loved it that much.

On exhibit was almost exclusively his self-portraits which I very much enjoyed since self-portraiture has been major theme in my own work. I appreciate the level of consistency and exploration Chuck Close has exemplified over his nearly forty-year career. The beauty of a self-portraiture retrospective is that you can see both the progression as an artist and the progression of the artist’s physical self. Of course, this is the draw to self-portraiture in the first place.

At the beginning of the exhibit we encountered a monstrous self-portrait done in the Seventies, or maybe late-Sixties. Of his work, I believe this is one of his most famous: it is a representation of the young and slightly arrogant Mr. Close. A cigarette dangles from his mouth, dark horn-rims frame his eyes, his hair a little out of control and he peers down at the viewer with a sense of attitude of exceptional confidence.

In the age of conceptualism and non-representational color fields, Chuck Close was the ultimate realist. His backlash to the contemporary art scene of the time was to go as realistic as possible, often employing airbrushing techniques to give a smooth, photo-realistic finish.

Even in his earliest work, he used the grid as a basis for his exploration; it’s just that in the beginning he masked it with image. As I progressed through the exhibit there were several examples of Mr. Close’s process for creating these works.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the exhibit, in fact, was seeing the same image in so many different materials and constructs. For example, he used the big head with cigarette for a series of pigmented paper-pulp on string grids, fingerprints with ink on paper, and other ink studies, each time getting a little further away from the whole image and just focusing on the materials.

Also on display were several etchings using the grid, which blew my mind – not just for their size (huge) but for the clarity and precision. Around the corner lived some massive Polaroid collages, drawings and even holograms.

Towards the end of the exhibit, we see a looser, more relaxed Close. His grid is fully apparent and the shapes are loose, fluid and the image is slightly abstracted. His stare is kinder and straight on with the viewer. He has come around full-circle from the young perfectionist to the fully empowered painter.