CHUCK CLOSE: Yale, Poetry, and Chicken Sh*t

by Frank Messina

Chuck Close © Stéphane Israël
Once every generation an artist breaks new ground, climbs from obscurity and grabs the human psyche. So much so that their work becomes iconicand the artist, legendary. And anything written about them becomes nothing more than a distorted caricature that stretches far from anything the artist ever intended. 

When I landed the opportunity to interview the most famous artist in America, I was careful not to fall into the trap of asking the same questions he's been asked for decades. By doing so would mean perpetuating the same myththe same caricature that follows an icon like a cruel shadow. 

So, instead of asking questions, I chose to listen. Because, when you listen carefully to seemingly ordinary conversation, extraordinary things can be heard.

Chuck Close was born July 5, 1940 in Washington State. He graduated from the University of Washington School of Art in 1962 and got his Masters of Fine Arts from Yale University School of Art and Architecture in 1964. Incredibly prolific and widely acclaimed, his work has been the subject of over 200 solo exhibitions and 800 group exhibitions. President Obama recently appointed Close to serve on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. With all his accolades, one might expect Close to be reclusive, reticent and detached. In fact, a very well-noted journalist friend referred to Close as "most elusive". However, at 71, I found him accessible, friendly and possessing a healthy and intact sense of humor. And while the debate in whether or not he likes journalists is still up for grabs, he admittedly has a deep admiration for thinkers, poets in particular.

"How are you, Frank?" Close said, in his gravelly baritone voice. "Great," I said. "Just finished grilling a chicken." The simple culinary small-talk triggered a memory that Close eagerly shared. When he was studying at Yale, Robert Rauschenberg came up as a visiting critic to observe the younger artists' work. "He said the place reeks of Matisse. And it probably did," Close said. 

"I went to a fresh poultry shop and bought a live chickena white chicken, and tied its foot to a pedestal and put a bag over it. And you know, he started to give the chicken a critique, as if it were a real sculpture or something. And the chicken stood up, plucked himself up and took a big shit, a big liquid shit going all across the room, which was hilarious. We thought it was so funny, as if the chicken was giving Bob a review of his criticism."

© 2012 The Art Story Foundation
As a young painter, he became infatuated with making portraits. But they were not any type of portraitsbut super-realist paintings executed in such precise detail that they appear to be photographs. Close attributes his fascination with portraiture from being born with "face blindness" (Prosopagnosia), a rare brain disorder that impairs his ability to recognize faces, even those of friends and family.  

In 1988, Close suffered a collapsed spinal artery which paralyzed him and confined him to a wheelchair. But as would be expected from an innovator, Close learned how to cope with his disability. He now paints using a special device that clips the paint brush to his hand and forearm.And his studio in New York is equipped with a sophisticated mechanical easel that moves the canvas up and down, allowing the artist to remain stationary.

Chuck Close's Self Portrait, © Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America
Close said his time at Yale, from 1962-1964, was not so much about learning, but unlearning. "We were very conservative students," Close said. "So conservative considering what some of my classmates went off to do later. There was no indication at the time that I would do anything to speak of." Steeped in the presence of master artists Nicolas Carone and Spanish painter Esteban Vicente had its payoffs. Utilizing what Close described as a "relatively benign" teaching style, Carone guided and encouraged Close rather than trained and controlled. "I liked the fact that he sort of dealt with what I was doing rather than try to get me to do something else."

Close also refers to his years at Yale as directly challenging everything he'd previously believed about painting the figure. "When [painter] Jack Tworkov took over the art department, he brought up Rauschenberg, [Frank] Stella, and Philip Guston, who I was a student of for the whole time." Tworkov, a legendary figure in the abstract expressionism movement was made Chairman of Yale's art department in 1963. He is best known for re-introducing the figure into abstract expressionist paintings. "There was no way we could've broken yard and shown what we were doing in graduate school as people are doing today. We were reactionary, pretty stuck in the mud," Close said. "And to one degree or another we were trying to find a way out of it. But we just didn't find a way out of it until we left school." 

But still, Close credits his teachers for passing down the courage needed for he and his fellow classmates such as Richard Serra, Brice Marden and Nancy Graves to free themselves from their own creative restraints. "It took us all a bunch of years before we figured it out," recounts Close. "So I think being a student, when you're a student, is a very good thing." 

Dali Lama, Oil on Canvas, © Chuck Close
After graduating from Yale in 1964, Close received a Fulbright Scholarship to Vienna, Austria. There he studied for about a year and a half. During that time, Serra introduced him to musician Philip Glass. Close would later teach from 1965 to 1967 at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. But despite remaining prolific, Close was unsatisfied with his results.

It was only when he moved to New York City in 1968 that he "broke yard" and forced himself free. "Aside from the transitional work I made while in Amherst, I was still making stuff that I didn't think was very interesting. So, what I did was construct a series of limitations with the guarantee that I can no longer make those things and then just see what happens," Close said.

But there was another dilemma: other artists shared the studio with him. Among them, a stubborn silver-haired fellow. "It was occupied with [Willem] de Kooning and people like that," Close said. "They were in the studio with me and I had to get rid of them." 

Getting rid of de Kooningwho by that time had a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, may have seemed like a high hill to climb. But the younger Close stood his ground and before long, de Kooning and the others were gone. 

Close describes the time as a cathartic experience: borrowing the tools he "unlearned" from Carone, Rauschenberg, Guston and Vicente. "To just sit in the room finally once it was empty, and figure out what it is that I might want to dotry something. Try something else. Just keep moving," recounts Close. "It was purging."

From 1968 onward, Close produced an enormous catalog of paintings, many of which were large format portraits. His style imparted his paintings with the illusion of a photograph, virtually indiscernible to the naked eye. In 1970 he had his first one-man show at New York's Bykert Gallery and in 1973 his work was exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art. And by 1988, at the time of his spinal injury, he was one of the most sought after artists in America, ratcheting impressive sales results both in private sales and public auction.

Chuck Close with Meryl Streep 5/24/12
He's also kept his hand in a variety of creative projects, including one that combines photography and poetry. In 2004, Close published a limited edition collaborative volume, A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, featuring twenty daguerreotypes portraits by Close, each accompanied by a praise poem by New York poet Bob Holman. For the project, Close photographed many of his artist-friends who have made appearances in his paintings over the years: Laurie Anderson, Cecily Brown,Carroll Dunham, Philip Glass, Elizabeth Murray, Andres Serrano, James Siena, Lorna Simpson, James Turrell and Lisa Yuskavage.

Indeed, Close has amassed many friends in his time. But, he fondly regards poets John Ciardi, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara and later Allen Ginsberg among his personal mentors. "The great art critics were poets," Close said. "The people we read and listened to were either philosophers or poets."

"And I always preferred the poets."

Chuck Close is represented by:
32 East 57th Street
New York, New York 10022
T (212) 421-3292

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Bob Holman, Chuck Close, Beth Zopf and the Archives of American Art
Some of the biographical information on Close was garnered from the following source:
 All photo copyrights revert to the photographer except where noted. All material copyright protected and may not be copied or disseminated without the expressed written consent of Chuck Close Studio, Frank Messina, the Archives of American Art and the Artist Rights Society.