About the NEA

Facing It: Iconic Artist Chuck Close receives a Visual Arts Fellowship

New York


Painting of the artists face, front view. The image is distorted as if situated behind a textured glass. On close examination the image is made up of many small rectanglular sub paintings which contain concentric irregular shapes brightly painted.

Self Portrait, 2004-2005

oil on canvas

8' 6" x 7' 1/2" (259.1 cm x 214.6 cm)

Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

© XXXXChuck Close, Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

1973Born in Washington in 1940, Charles Thomas Close -- he professionally became Chuck thanks to a misunderstanding with a reporter -- knew he wanted to be an artist from the time he was four years old. By 1973, when the Arts Endowment awarded him a $7,500 Visual Arts Fellowship, Close was well on his way to becoming an art world luminary. His work had been included in the 1969 Whitney Biennial and the Walker Art Center and the Museum of Modern Art had purchased his work for their collections. Close was encouraged in his art by his mother, a piano teacher, and his father, a plumber and part-time inventor who gave Close his first art set at age five. The young artist was dyslexic, but he made up for his disability in school by doing art projects for extra credit. Close's parents continued to encourage his talent with field trips to museums and private painting lessons from a local artist. Close began his college years at Everett Community College. In a 1987 interview he noted, "[Everett] had a wonderful art program. I got a much better first two years of art education than I would have had I gone to the University of Washington and essentially been taught by the TAs." He finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington, after which Close studied for his Master of Fine Arts at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, along with classmates Richard Serra and Brice Marden. During this time, Close's work evolved from imitations of mid-century masters, such as Willem DeKooning, to the distinctive large-scale portraits for which he is now known. A master portraitist, Close executes his unflinching, glamourless pictures in a variety of media including photography, painting, drawing, collage, and printmaking. His subjects include family, artist friends, and himself. He reportedly has said that he refuses to take commissions because "anyone vain enough to want a nine-foot portrait of themselves would want the blemishes removed."

Front view of a hyper-realistic depiction of a long-haired man with thick-rimmed glasses and a cigarette in his mouth. Painting resembles a black and white photograph.

Chuck Close, "Big Self-Portrait", 1967-1968
acrylic on canvas
107 1/2 x 83 1/2
Collection Walker Art Center
Art Center Acquisition Fund, 1969
Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Each portrait starts as a Polaroid photo to which Close affixes a grid. He then painstakingly transfers the contents of each cell to its large-scale counterpart, rebuilding the portrait box by box. Over the years, he has used a number of brush styles and materials to fill in the grid, including his own fingerprints and chips of paper pulp. The more gestural qualities of his later work are due in part to a catastrophic illness in 1988 that initially left Close paralyzed from the neck down. Although he remains in a wheelchair, Close has learned to paint again by using a paintbrush strapped to his hand with a specially designed brace. Nearly 40 years after launching his art career, the artist's reputation is such that, according to a 1997 interview, he turned down a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Close instead turned to the Museum of Modern Art, which had given him his first major solo show in 1969.