Work of the mind, not hands

Expressionless faces, usually of colossal size, emerging in black and white or color in pixels, are the trademarks of Chuck Close, one of America’s most important living painters. His portraits bear witness to a perfectionist master of the color palette. The 65-year-old artist continues to paint with the same passion today as in 1988, when, in the prime of his career, he became partially paralyzed. This gifted painter, photographer and engraver granted an interview to Kathimerini on the occasion of his exhibition at the Xippas Gallery. How did you begin painting? I was dyslexic when I was young and that made my life at school very difficult as well as with friends. Back in the 1940s, people with learning difficulties were seen as stupid. So I had to find a way to make friends. I knew early on that I wanted to be an artist. Finally, when I was 8, my father paid for a tutor and I began taking lessons. My life changed. Other than painting, I also performed puppet theater and magic tricks for my classmates. Art really saved my life. It was the only way out for my mind, which could not contain information, letters and numbers. It allowed me to convince my teachers that I was worth something, that I was not useless. Did you find your own style early on? I belong to a generation of artists with personal vision and a thirst for experimentation. Ever since 1980, I feel that things have changed because of the greater tendency to conform, to compromise. It became fashionable to borrow someone else’s vision so you could find your own. In contrast, all the artists with whom I grew up were only interested in making art that resembled no one else’s. That is no longer the case today. What are your procedures for working? When I am painting a portrait, I always use a photograph I have taken of myself, a family member or a friend. Some photographs are a lot more exciting than others and I find a way to recycle them, such as an old shot I have of Philip Glass, with his hair all mussed up where he looks like Medusa. Then I make a grid to divide the photographs into small pieces. Dividing the photograph allows me to see the dimension I will give the piece and on what grid to work (horizontal, diagonal or lateral). Then I use color, without having decided what it is I am going to do exactly. Do you like contemporary art? I can’t say that I am moved any more by a painting than by an installation or a video. I love poetic work. Tara Donovan, for example, has made a fantastic installation using thousands of plastic cups all stacked together to look like valleys, the sea and mountains. Painting though allows us to transform external reality. It also normally requires the artist to have skill, ability, a penchant for it and not just a good idea. A love of the craft is what separates the good artist from the bad in whatever genre. How do you feel about young artists? I feel more fortunate than they are. The ideas that fed my generation of artists would pass from one to the other. We shared the same passion for the process and not for the result, and this liberated us. Look at Glass’s compositions, for example. We would spend hours in bars, talking and drinking. There was fomentation, criticism, support for each and every one of us. In the 1960s, we experienced the age of the artist as artists. Then came the age of the art dealer, then the curator and now we are in the age of the collector. On a practical level that means that artists adapt their work to the tastes and needs of collectors. You claim to be illiterate in new technologies. How do you see the future of painting? Life and art move in cycles. I think that the past few years have seen a renewed interest in handmade things and arts that require skill and time. There is a balance in the art world. When one area becomes saturated, we revisit the past. How do you deal with your disability? I have always been an optimist and I don’t mean that as a boast. It’s in my nature; I can’t help it. It is a stance that I adopted when I was a child because I had learning difficulties and I lost my father at a young age. I had a well-developed mechanism for overcoming difficulties. In 1988 I suddenly became paralyzed. I couldn’t move my fingers and I was put in a wheelchair, and began looking for solutions. The best was to have the paintbrush tied to my wrist so I could paint. An artist’s greatest fear is losing the use of his hands or eyes. When I became partially paralyzed I decided that since I still had my sight I could continue painting in some way. When I was in the hospital someone told me that we paint with our minds and not our hands, and it’s true. Xippas Gallery, 53D Sophocleous, tel 210.331.9333. More on the artist Chuck Close was born in 1940 and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington, Seattle, before going on to study at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture. He moved to New York in 1967 and a year later began creating black-and-white paintings. Some 10 years later, he began producing a series of works based on photographs. His work has been exhibited in over 20 countries.