Art History’s Best Mustaches: Chuck Close’s Obsessive Neo-Pointillist Portrait of Robert

While facial hair lends itself just as readily to being portrayed with either smooth or frenzied brushstrokes — as we’ve seen throughout our Movember-long survey of art history’s best mustaches — the idea of painting a hyperrealist ‘stache with every bristle and whisker sharply defined and delineated seems, with good reason, excruciating. That has never dissuaded Chuck Close, whose oeuvre includes beards and mustaches aplenty, foremost among them the fellow in “Robert/104,072” (1973-74).

Close’s affable-looking subject Robert Ellson — a junior high school friend of the artist’s wife — sports a nice, thick ‘stache of the sort we’ve alternately seen described as a major, a traincar, and, fittingly, a painter’s brush. The latter might be slightly misleading, however, because Close used a spray gun to apply the innumerable dots of ink mixed with acrylic paint in the nearly imperceptible grid of 104,072 squares that gives the painting its incredibly evocative sense of shading and texture.

“To make a piece like this, which took fourteen months, I spent a long time up on a ladder,” Close told the Museum of Modern Art. “Each dot is hit an average of ten times, ten little puffs on the airbrush. So, it’s 1,400,000 little presses with my finger on the airbrush until I developed arthritis.”

The enormous nine by seven foot canvas is in MoMA’s permanent collection. From a distance — and in photographic reproductions — it’s very difficult to get a sense of the grid, though in person it becomes apparent very clearly upon close inspection.

“I wanted to make a big, aggressive, confrontational image that you could see from across the gallery,” Close said. “And then I wanted to suck people up into the kind of middle distance, in which they’d have trouble seeing it as a whole, almost like Gulliver’s Lilliputians crawling across the surface of a face, not knowing that they’re stumbling on a beard hair, and falling into a nostril. And then I want to suck the viewer right up to the surface, for the really intimate experience, more information than you ever wanted to know about someone’s face.”

— Benjamin Sutton

(Image via the Museum of Modern Art; © 2012 Chuck Close.)