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On Chuck Close

The Canvas, the iPhone, and the Science of Facial Perception

Fred Wilson by Chuck Close

To make sense of the ambiguities Close cultivates with his fragmentation of the image is to realize how active a part you play when you step into the viewer’s role.

Carter Ratcliff, critic and art historian

Reinventing his approach to painting time and time again over the course of his career, Chuck Close achieved new chromatic and perceptual feats in his final body of work, the subject of our exhibition Red, Yellow, and Blue: The Last Paintings, on view in New York through April 13, 2024. Shedding light on the personal, scientific, and phenomenological dimensions of the portraits he made in the last five years of his life, the show—which features complete and unfinished works alike—focuses in on his process for rendering the human face using, miraculously, only three colors: red, yellow, and blue.
Here, we uncover the many nuances of Close’s last paintings, not only in the context of his practice and lifelong struggles with various disabilities, but also in relation to the scientific study of visual face processing and the rise of facial recognition technology today.
Claire Danes in Chuck Close Studio
Chuck Close Studio
Cindy Sherman x Chuck Close in Conversation
In July 2018, Close’s longtime friend, the artist Cindy Sherman—a subject of several of his portraits over the years—paid a visit to his home and studio in Long Beach, New York for an interview originally commissioned by The Brooklyn Rail. Published for the first time in our new book accompanying Red, Yellow, and Blue: The Last Paintings, this intimate conversation between the two luminaries is excerpted below.
Chuck Close Studio
SHERMAN: I’m curious about the face blindness. How early did you realize that it was an abnormal condition?

CLOSE: As early as in kindergarten, because I couldn’t remember which kids were in my class or in the other class, and by the end of the year I still didn’t know or remember their names.

SHERMAN: So, listening to somebody’s voice may help you to identify who they are?

CLOSE: It’s curious, to this day I recognize people more by their gait, by the way they walk, than other aspects of their physiognomy. In high school I used to make caricatures of all the teachers, so I eventually learned that a caricature accentuates features and looks more like a person than a regular drawing does.

SHERMAN: So, looking at somebody’s face in person won’t help your facial recognition, but if it’s a picture, either a painting or a photograph, of a face, that’s okay.

CLOSE: Yes, because in either case it’s a flat image, which is how I correspond his or her face to his or her name. This is the sole reason why I’ve worked from photography from the very beginning. In other words, if you move your head one-quarter of an inch to me, it’s a whole new head, so photography allowed me to freeze an image, flatten it out, and then I could study it. If it hadn’t been for photography I don’t think I would be a very interesting painter.

SHERMAN: Say you’re taking many Polaroids, say ten, of the sitter— does each one look like a different person to you?

CLOSE: No, only the one I choose to paint will be identified with the sitter.

SHERMAN: Because you just memorize the one image that you’re painting?

CLOSE: Yeah, only after having scrutinized it over and over and over again a thousand times as a way of committing it to memory will I cement who he or she is in my psyche. So, for example, having painted you twice in 1988, you are a part of my—

SHERMAN: Your repertoire.

CLOSE: That’s right; people I know well from having painted them.

Mapping the Human Face
As Close told Sherman, he used art as a means of navigating severe dyslexia and prosopagnosia—or face blindness—throughout his life, up until he completed his final body of work. Close’s experience with these disabilities is reflected in the phenomenological qualities of the likenesses in his last portraits, which appear more abstract than representational to the human eye but come into focus when viewed from a distance or through the lens of a camera.
A new essay by neuroscientist Barbara Knappmeyer, published in full in our new catalogue, situates the “mind-boggling magic” of the artist’s work in the context of facial recognition technology, breaking down the science of human face perception and processing.

[The] intersection between art, magic, and science encapsulated in Close’s portraits is what makes them so unique.

Barbara Knappmeyer, neuroscientist

Chuck Close Studio
Chuck Close Studio
In The Studio: Reinventing a Medium
As a result of a spinal aneurysm that he suffered in 1988 at the age of 48, Close lost the use of his arms and legs. Though he was told by doctors he would never be able to paint again, the artist would, against all odds, eventually return to the canvas. Teaching himself to paint in an entirely new way, he began using a brush-holding device strapped to his wrists and forearms in the middle of his career.
Close’s last paintings, created at his home and studio in Long Beach, are all the more astonishing given the fact that he adopted a palette of only three colors. His process for each of these compositions, as with past bodies of work, began with photographing his subject. He then gridded the resulting image in scale to a corresponding canvas, which he then numbered in the same sequence.
Building up his compositions in layers of red, blue, and yellow paint, Close used a chromatic architecture of brushstrokes to forge not only legible but recognizable images of human faces. The complex color relationships that unfold in these portraits are visible at the bleeding edges of each square within his grids, where the ragged, painterly ends of each individual color are visible.

His paintings work so powerfully because they find a balance between light, color, tone, structure, process, and, of course, faces.

Carter Ratcliff

Fred II by Chuck Close

Above: Chuck Close, Fred II, 2017 © Chuck Close

The Exhibition

The gallery’s first presentation dedicated to Close’s work since the artist’s death in 2021, this show will feature a selection of paintings, photographs, and works on paper— most of which have never been exhibited before—that reflect Close’s significant contributions to the history of art. Since it began representing Close in 1977, Pace has exhibited each new body of his work, and this upcoming presentation will complete that cycle.

Read More About The Exhibition

Chuck Close: Red, Yellow, and Blue Cover

The Publication

Our new publication on Chuck Close’s final paintings accompanies Red, Yellow, and Blue: The Last Paintings, on view at our New York gallery through April 13, 2024. Featuring a previously unpublished interview between Close and fellow artist Cindy Sherman along with essays by critic Carter Ratcliff and scholar Barbara Knappmeyer, the book delves into the personal, scientific, and phenomenological dimensions of the artist’s last portraits, which he created using a palette of only three colors: red, yellow, and blue.

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