“If you think that his work is about a portrait then… you’ve missed the work.” So says composer Philip Glass in this documentary about the life and work of contemporary artist Chuck Close. Painting is a way of seeing, and since the ‘60s, contemporary artist Chuck Close has been painting large-scale portraits that present a way of seeing, which has revolutionized portraiture.
Marion Cajori’s posthumous documentary, Chuck Close is a sophisticated study of the artist, his life and his career. Cajori originally began working on the film in 1994. After four years of filming and interviews, she decided to make a short film for television. After Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress aired on PBS in 1998, Cajori returned to her original goal, which was to make a feature-length film about Chuck Close. Cajori passed away in 2006, and the film’s editing was completed by Ken Kobland.
Cajori’s documentary takes us through an 82-day period in 1997 during which Close completes a self-portrait. The process begins with the creation of a large photo maquette taken with a giant Polaroid camera. This preliminary image and a much larger blank canvas are then divided into grids of equal ratio. Meticulously, each square of the canvas grid is filled in with varying colors over which dots, lines, circles, squares, or oblongs are later painted. Miraculously, from this complex grid of shapes and patterns, a magnificent color portrait emerges from the canvas.
Interspersed between selective days of the process the film presents an array of interviews and dialogues with Close, his family, and friends. Friends of Close who appear in this film are either artists themselves, or have connections to the art world. Among them are painters, Janet Fish, Robert Rauschenberg, Elizabeth Murray, and Mark Greenwold, art historians Kirk Varnedoe and Klaus Kertess, and composer Philip Glass, just to name a few. Aside from offering fascinating insight into Close and his paintings, many of the interviews function as miniature artist profiles of Close’s friends, as well. Family members who participated include Close’s wife, Leslie and his two daughters, Maggie and Georgia.
Most of the people presented in this film have also been subjects of Close’s work, thus along with each interview there is a corresponding portrait. Together, the interviews, the artist at work, and footage of the work itself, provide a rich and comprehensive context in which to consider the man and his career.
The film covers a range of topics both personal and professional that include Close’s childhood in Monroe, Washington, his brief stint as a professor resulting in marriage to one of his students, the struggle to break free from abstract expressionism, the beginnings of the conceptual art movement, and the changing way in which photography was perceived after the ‘60s. The discussions are compelling and thought-provoking, though at times they might get a little abstruse as when Glass is explaining process, a concept inherent in Close’s work: “I often said that music is just something you listen to while to while you listen to the music. So, the image was something you looked at while you looked at the picture.”
Close began painting large-scale canvases of faces, beginning with his first self-portrait in 1967. At the time large-scale figurative painting was unheard of in the art world. Unlike his later work, Close’s early paintings were void of color. Using an airbrush, Close filled up the grid with tiny droplets of ink. In vintage film footage, Close describes this process as attempting “to make something where every square inch of the piece would be the same.” The goal was to eliminate “elegant or meaningful or powerful art marks” and yet still create a “beautiful, powerful image out of stupid marks.”
In 1988 Close suffered a spinal artery occlusion, which left him partially quadriplegic. For some such a tragedy might have signaled the end of a career. For Close, the event seems ultimately to have enhanced his work. Of Close’s later painting, art historian Kirk Varnedoe states that with its “lush, brilliantly colored canvasses, there is something incredibly released about this work. Having sucked what seemed to be all the life out his [early] art, this new life is the miraculous repetition of the promise of what twentieth century art can deliver.”
Chuck Close lays bare the artistic process. What cannot be explained in this documentary, however, is Close’s internal decision-making process: choice of color, or which rudimentary shapes go where. How these marks on a canvas work together to produce a harmonious and recognizable image is also something of a mystery. It is, perhaps, this simultaneous transparency and mystery that evokes the sense of wonder one gets when looking at a Chuck Close painting.