The Way Artist Chuck Close Sees Himself
On my last visit to Long Beach, Close and I wandered into his studio for a look at his latest self-portrait (above). As we entered the room, I felt something jump in my throat and heard myself whisper, “My god.” The painting was six feet high and rendered in dusky, ominous tones, with one side of his face dissolving into darkness. It was as if, after months of struggling to present himself in sensational color, he was finally settling into a quiet peace with the twilight of his life. I mean to say, there was nothing gloomy about the painting, nothing tragic or diminished or broken, but it was freighted with the necessary weight of time, emanating the unknown.
I had seen the painting once before, six months earlier, when he was beginning it. He had just arrived in Miami from New York, and I was stuck on a layover at the airport, so I decided to slip out of the terminal for a quick glass of whiskey at his apartment. The sky was heavy with incipient rain, giving the city a wounded air, and we sat beside a bank of windows overlooking the ocean. At the time, the canvas that would become his new painting was mounted on the easel, entirely blank except for a few horizontal streaks of pink and blue. Without much thought, I asked, “How is the painting going?” and a strange look washed over his face. He turned to stare out the window for a moment, then said in a low and raspy voice: “I’ve never had an artist’s block before. If I just get to work, it’ll happen. But I worked on a painting in Long Beach after my last show, and I sat there so confused. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. So I quit that painting and backed up, and hoped a change of venue would make it happen.”
“Could you be happy if the block doesn’t go away?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t want to,” he said.
Six months later, he was back in Long Beach with the canvas nearly complete. It was the darkest painting he’d ever composed and, to my eye, one of the most beautiful.
From “The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close” by Wil S. Hylton for The New York Times Magazine, 2016; Portrait photo by Andrew T. Warman; Above photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum
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