Chuck Close: 'The Beat of the Grid'
'James' with close-up detail (2004)
Close experimented with the effect of the grid in his art, sometimes applying it horizontally, sometimes diagonally and sometimes rotating it around a point. He employs it as an important compositional device to structure his image and not merely as a method for scaling up his photographic source material. Its scale and placement in relation to the image is crucial as he searches for what he calls 'the beat of the grid' - the configuration of increments that breaks up the image in the most interesting manner. In general, the size of his grids have increased over time resulting in a lower resolution image but amplifying the abstract qualities of color and pattern. Therefore, what he loses in descriptive detail he gains in the colorful impact of each individual section.
Although Close's early black and white heads worked on different levels, you had to take an imaginative leap to engage with alternative readings of the image. The use of the grid was implicit and not obvious enough in the final work to awaken your consciousness to the conceptual content of the process. With the works that he has created since the 'Event', his use of the grid is more explicit. He controls the viewers interaction with the image in a more measured way. An increased focus on his vocabulary of marks and colors lends more emphasis to an abstract reading of the image and heightens your awareness of the grid as a structural element. This results in a better balance between the representational, abstract and conceptual qualities of the work.
'Self Portrait' in progress (1997)
oil on canvas, (102"x84")
Chuck Close's working method is quite remarkable. Unlike most artists he only engages with the image close up and does not move back to view the work from a distance. This means that he not only places complete trust in his technique but that he also possesses an extraordinary understanding of the effects of color.
When he starts to paint a portrait he applies a background color to each individual section of the grid. The colors that he chooses have a similar tonal value to their corresponding section on the grid. He then starts to fill each section with four or five freely painted outlines of different colored forms. He draws these from a vocabulary of simple shapes that include squares, triangles, right-angles, doughnuts, lozenges and 'hotdogs'. Each small section becomes an abstract color study whose hues mix optically to create a 'visual chord'. Years of experience have taught him how this 'chord' will read from a distance and how it will combine with adjacent sections to form the tones and colors of the head. There is a certain irony that someone who started out creating uncompromisingly monochrome images should develop into such an outstanding colorist.
Some critics have attacked Chuck Close due to his use of photography and his grid-oriented approach as they feel his work is too prescriptive. Would they make the same criticism of Claude Monet whose landscapes were influenced by photography and whose serial images of Haystacks and Rouen Cathedral have become touchstones of modernism? In its own way, Close's work is a contemporary development of that tradition. He takes pains to stress that his art 'is found, it’s felt, it’s arrived at, and it’s not some mathematical overlay.' As Monet analyzed his subject matter and reconstructed its form through the prismatic spectrum of Impressionist color, Chuck Close uses the same intuitive eye to analyze and reconstruct the subject of his art, what he refers to as 'the road map of the face'.