Known for his massive, photorealistic portraits, American artist Chuck Close says he owes all of his artistic success to his limitations.
If Chuck Close had his way, we’d all walk around with name tags and short bios pinned to our chests. While riding on the subway, he once failed to recognize an ex-lover whom he had lived with for a year only two years prior. The 75-year-old artist has overheard people he’s known for ages call him an asshole and a stuck-up snob after he’s passed them by yet again.
Close doesn’t mean to be a jerk. Despite being one of the most widely recognized portrait artists, he simply can’t remember faces. All the parts—nose, mouth, eyes—don’t add up to a memorable whole in his mind. The National Medal of Arts winner has prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a condition that likely affects around two percent of the population. “You move your head a half an inch, to me, it’s a whole new face I’ve never seen before,” he told RadioLab host Robert Krulwich.
Growing up in Monroe, Washington, Close realized that he couldn’t recall faces when, at the end of kindergarten, he still couldn’t identify his classmates. Faces weren’t the only things he had trouble remembering. Severely dyslexic, he also wrestled with deciphering words, and he never managed to memorize the multiplication tables. To say teachers weren’t as aware of learning disabilities in the ’40s and ’50s as they are now is something of an understatement. “They just assumed that you were dumb or lazy,” Close said in a Brooklyn Rail interview. (Close never even heard the word dyslexia until the 1970s when he had children of his own.)
But from a young age, Close had art. When he was five years old, he asked for an easel for Christmas. And so his father, a sheet metal worker and tinkerer (he invented the reflective paint used on airstrips), built him one. Next he asked his parents for a Genuine Weber’s Oil Color Set that he discovered in a Sears’ catalog. “I can still, to this day, smell the cheap linseed oil in the tubes of paint,” Close recalls in Martin Friedman’s book, Close Reading. “They were fat tubes, not little skinny ones. I knew, even then, that the little skinny tubes were for dilettantes.”
By the time he was eight, the precociously determined artist was painting still lifes, landscapes, and best of all for young Chuck, nude models in a private art class. The experience made him the envy of the neighborhood, and solidified his destiny. As he said to Tilda Swinton in BlackBook, “I was drawing nude models at age eight, so I thought, ‘Why would I want to be anything else?’”
At school, his art skills worked as a social and academic lubricant, helping to smooth over the fact that he couldn’t keep up with the three Rs in the classroom or the other kids on the playground. In addition to his academic struggles, lifelong neuromuscular problems kept him from running or playing catch. To impress his classmates, he’d draw pictures of World War II airplanes and caricatures of their teachers. To show his teachers that he cared, he’d create elaborate art projects, like a twenty-foot-long mural of the Lewis and Clark Trail that he made for a history class.
Everything in my work is determined by my learning disabilities.
Despite his obvious focus and talent, Close’s eighth grade counselor told him to not even think about college and to set his sights on trade school or body and fender work instead. Close ignored that bunk advice and enrolled at the local junior college. He signed up for courses that allowed him to write papers rather than takes tests, hired a typist, and dictated his essays based on his memory of the class lectures. From there, he went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and a master of fine arts from Yale University. Reflecting back on his counselor’s terrible direction, Close offered his own wisdom on “CBS This Morning”: “Never let anyone define what you are capable of by using parameters that don’t apply to you.”
A few years after graduating from Yale, Close, a former de Kooning devotee, bucked the current Abstract Expressionist trend and began painting his now iconic portraits, or “heads,” as he calls them. Flatten a face out, like in a photograph or painting, and Close can recall it with nearly photographic precision. Close believes that this talent, along with his face blindness, drove him to paint portraits as a way to commit the faces of people he cared about to memory.
“Everything in my work is determined by my learning disabilities,” Close told Krulwich. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that having face blindness, I paint people’s faces,” Close told another interviewer. “It’s my way of getting closer to people. When I paint someone, it’s always a person’s face I want to remember.”
Close has worked in a range of media outside of oil paint, including jacquard tapestry, daguerreotypes, and more recently an inkjet printer. Over the years, he’s created painstakingly detailed likenesses of many famous faces, among them President Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, the composer Philip Glass, Brad Pitt (who thinks he might also be face blind), and fellow artists Cindy Sherman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns.
Confronting a Chuck Close portrait up close is an experience akin to face blindness. The artwork is so massive, often 9 feet high, that it’s impossible to take it all in at once. Your eyes are forced to move across each feature — from a colossal eye staring back at you, to its lashes, to the crow’s feet below. These large-scale portraits would be hard for anyone to tackle, let alone someone who has difficulty seeing the big picture. To work around this problem, Close breaks each image down into smaller, workable components. First, he photographs his subjects. Then he creates a grid on the photograph and a proportional grid on the much larger canvas, dividing them both into thousands of corresponding pieces. From there, he often spends three to four months (sometimes up to a year) building the portrait square by square. Close has described the process as similar to Lilliputians traveling across a giant’s face: They don’t know that they’re on a giant, but they can see every detail of the landscape as they travel.
Since his Brobdingnagian, hyper-realistic breakthrough piece, Big Self-Portrait (1967–68), Close’s work has evolved to more mosaic-like paintings, where each square is a more defined unit. His palette has also gotten much brighter, in part because of a catastrophic event that occurred 28 years ago.
At the age of 48, Close’s spinal artery collapsed, leaving him partially paralyzed from the chest down. He was determined to paint again, even if it meant spitting paint at the canvas. “Physicality is so important to me in my work. Pushing paint around, that’s what I do,” Close told the Guardian. “But whatever it takes to get there, I’ll do it. That’s always been my way of thinking.” When he was back in front of the canvas, Close said he felt like the happiest person on the planet and he’s been celebrating the joy of painting extra hard ever since.
Even after 70 some years of pushing paint around, his recent work is just as, if not more, vibrant than ever. Today, he zooms around his studio in a motorized wheelchair and moves his large canvases into position with a motorized easel. Intensive therapy eventually helped him regain partial use of his limbs, and he paints with a brush strapped into a customized brace on one arm, like Renoir. After a lifetime of dealing with rocks in his shoes, Close describes these now decades-old adaptations as “just some other rocks being inserted in my shoes.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Close wasn’t always conscious of the motivation behind his relentless drive to paint faces. It was only after painting portraits for two decades that he began to wonder why the subject still had such urgency for him and he started to connect it to his disabilities. “What kind of personal urgency do you have any more than dealing with your deficits?” Close said in a studio interview with White Cube. “That’s who am. I am that person with these major deficits. I spent years trying to hide it. But that’s who I am.”