Close Calls in Art and Life

Chuck Close, self-portrait
Chuck Close, self-portrait Wikimedia Commons

It should come as no surprise that as a child, portraitist Chuck Close studied the illustrated covers of magazines with a magnifying glass. He says he just wanted to see how the paintings were made, but the proclivity to magnify images apparently never left him.

Close has spent a 30-year career portraying the human face on a massive scale — like the 7-by-8-foot 1992 portrait John, shown above, one of 80 works in a major retrospective from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on display at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden through January 10.

Close's approach has not varied much during his career: starting with a Polaroid mug shot, he imposes a grid, then re-creates the face square by square. But his style has changed dramatically — from a precise photo-realism to the surreal playfulness of his canvases today.

His work had just begun to take on that whimsical quality when, in 1988, a blood vessel ruptured in his spinal cord, leaving him nearly paralyzed. For months it wasn't clear whether he would paint again. But soon he was strapping paintbrushes to his wrists, and using a motorized easel to lift and turn his canvases. The art that emerged is, perhaps, the most joyful Close has ever created, with each tile within his portraits containing a luscious world of color and expression all its own.

By Minna Morse

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