In 2005-06 the Walker Art Center and SFMOMA co-organized a wonderful show of Chuck Close’s self-portraits. The show started with one of the most important works in the Walker Art Center’s collection, Close’s Big Self-Portrait (1967-68), Close’s first ‘big head’ and the first Close to enter a museum collection.
One of the disappointments of the catalogue for “Chuck Close Self-Portraits, 1967-2005” is that neither then-Walker curator Siri Engberg nor then-SFMOMA curator Madeleine Grynsztejn spent much time examining or historicizing the Walker’s painting: Both drove by it in their catalogue essays. A previous potential opportunity for an unpacking of Close’s Big Self-Portrait passed when Kirk Varnedoe — who considered doing his 2003 Mellon Lectures on 20thC self-portraiture — picked another topic.
Fortunately, the painting receives its own chapter in “Chuck Close: Life,” Christopher Finch’s new biography of the artist. Finch was an associate curator at the Walker and describes himself as having been the impetus for the acquisition, so it’s no surprise that his chapter on Big Self-Portrait is the best chapter in the book.
If I were an artist, I think I’d hope for a thoughtful writer to do to one of my paintings what Finch does to Close’s Big Self-Portrait. (And it’s this chapter of which I was substantially thinking when I suggested that this was a good book for art students to read.) Here’s a passage from Finch’s chapter on Big Self-Portrait:
Chuck Close was never reticent about acknowledging a firm belief in his own ability. In the fall of 1968, he had not yet sold a painting, yet he was comfortable telling me, on my first visit to his Greene Street studio, that he had no interest in producing work for private collectors. The paintings he was planning to make were meant to be hung in museums and seen by large numbers of people. He was quite firm about it.
I recall too how, during one of those long nights of intense dialectic at Max’s [Kansas City], Chuck threw out the remark, “An artists style is what he happens to be doing when he is discovered.” Like all good aphorisms, this one contains more than a few grains of truth. In Chuck’s own case, however, chance played a minor role. Once he had made the break with gestural painting, it took him a relatively short time to focus in on his initial goal…
According to Chuck’s telling of the story, the first of [his] “heads” was a self-portrait quite simply because he was the only person around at the moment he initiated the series. The source of this first self-portrait was a black-and-white photograph made when he was alone in the studio one day, using a borrowed camera with a cable release. There was an element of trial and error about the shoot. His recollection is that he stripped to the waist because he was still involved with the idea of the nude, and thought of the head as a detail of a nude rather than as an independent subject. (This notion carried over to his second large portrait, Nancy. [Now in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum.] The sitter, Nancy Graves, was actually wearing a peasant blouse when she was photographed, but Chuck painted it out so that she is represented with bare shoulders.) The fact that he was alone — had no assistant or stand-in available — meant that he had to estimate focus and angle as best he could. He came up with the idea of focusing on a brick wall, then improvising a ruler out of cardboard, measuring the distance from the lens to the wall. he then posed himself in front of a different wall — one that was plastered, providing a light-colored neutral background — and used the improvised ruler to measure how far from the lens his face should be in order to make the most of a deliberately shallow depth of field. He selected a fairly low angle, so that the camera seems to have been looking up his nose. There are eleven portrait exposures on the contact sheet in addition to a photograph of the brick wall. The image he selected to work with displays very explicit shifts in focus — the frames of his glasses being sharp, for example, while his nose is not — the consequence of that shallow depth of field.
Related: Close discusses Big Self-Portrait with Engberg and Grynsztejn.