Chuck Close has developed a strategy for mapping the world in a system of visual metaphors. His paintings, photographs, and prints mark an intersection between representation and abstraction that is simultaneously of the moment and timeless. Close makes his paintings through a rigorous process of creating and editing a series of abstract marks that coalesce into a coherent representational image. He has often described his artistic methodology as a series of corrections, sometimes evoking the metaphor of a golf game, in which players move from the general to the specific, starting with the biggest, broadest stroke and refining their activities incrementally until they reach the ultimate goal. That metaphor grew out of Close's engagement with the art of printmaking, and it reinforces how he builds his images layer by layer. The imposed order and extremely precise practices inherent in traditional printmaking allow him to translate the language of paintings into another idiom, with shades and nuances conveyed through an entirely different set of notations.[l] Early in life Close developed systems to help him with his difficulties memorizing school lessons. Similar processes of systematization, developed and reinforced through his love of printmaking, have become the basis of his studio practice. "Virtually everything that has happened in my unique work," he asserts, "can be traced back to the prints."
Close's paintings are labor-intensive and time-consuming, and his prints are more so. While a painting can occupy Close for many months, it is not unusual for one print to take more than two years to complete, from conception to final edition. And with few exceptions -- separating the Mylars for silk screens or carving the woodblocks -- Close insists on a decidedly interactive approach to the creation of his prints. He carves linoleum blocks, draws on and applies acid to his etching plates, and personally directs all the intricate handwork involved in pulp-paper multiples. He also revels in his collaborations with master printers: "Like any corporation, I have the benefit of the brainpower of everyone who is working for me. It all ends up being my work, the corporate me, but everyone extends ideas and comes up with suggestions. It is a very different attitude than coming into an atelier, drawing on a plate, and giving it over to printers to edition. My prints have been truly collaborative, even though control is something that I give up reluctantly."
The relationship between Close and the master printers is key to the success of his prints. But it is only part of the story of this collaboration. The other essential element is the role of the publishers who, Close emphasizes, "put their money and their faith up front." In this regard, Close has been fortunate in working with visionaries who place their trust in what is essentially an unknown outcome. The early prints were published by Robert Feldman of Parasol Press, Ltd., and Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press. Since the late 1970s, almost all of Close's prints have been published under the auspices of Richard Solomon at Pace Editions, Inc., in New York.
Close has described himself as "an artist looking for trouble" because pushing the limits of a technique gets him in trouble, and extricating himself from a technical corner becomes an essential. catalyst to his creativity. Prints often provide the arena in which he can work out solutions to the aesthetic problems his restless imagination poses. "Prints have moved me in my unique work more than anything else has," he asserts. "Prints change the way I think about things." Often he will experiment with a new approach and then set it aside, letting it rest before returning to the problem with a new point of view. "I have said for many years that problem solving is greatly overvalued in our society. Problem creation is much more interesting. The questions you ask yourself are the most interesting, because they put you in a jam. Then your solutions are going to be personal solutions, not art-world solutions. If you can ask yourself the right kind of questions, the solutions become self-generating."
Close credits Jasper Johns as one of the primary inspirations of the printmaking renaissance that began in the 1960s: "Jasper elevated the print from ugly stepsister status to princess of the ball. It was clear in his prints that he was serious about creating a physicality and quality of visual experience that was different from, but equal to, his paintings." Johns and many other artists of his generation made some of their first prints at Universal Limited Art Editions, founded by Tatyana Grosman in 1957. It was at ULAE and at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop that the notion of a collaborative printer was established as a professional category. Ironically, Close has never worked with ULAE, perhaps because the primary focus there has been on lithographs. Although Close did make several early lithographs, including "Phil/Fingerprint" and "Keith/Four Times", he never felt entirely comfortable with this medium. "I don't like litho because it is all chemistry. You must work within the difficult-to-control tendency of the stone to attract or repel ink. You might get an image that you like in proof, but in edition, one chemical reaction can change everything. I like tooths -- something I can dig my fingernail into. I want to carve, I want to etch, I want to play around with pulp. I want to squish things with my fingers. I want to lay on color so you can see one layer on top of another. I don't want ephemeral, chemical change. I want that physical experience."
Close's long engagement with prints began in the early 1960s, when he was completing a double major in painting and printmaking at Yale University. He studied technique with the renowned printmaker Gabor Peterdi and the history of prints with Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, the noted scholar and curator, who was then teaching at Yale. Close also took care to study Yale's fine print collection. "We were allowed to see and touch remarkable prints by Rembrandt and Dürer, among others. I could study state proofs of Rembrandt's Descent from the Cross, and I was able to clearly see the choices and decisions that Rembrandt had made. I could hold them a few inches from my nose, I could touch them and feel the tooth of the etching. Most important, I could see the process evolve through the progressive states. I really understood printmaking for the first time then." Another important aspect Close gleaned from Yale's print collection was an understanding of the essentially collaborative nature of printmaking. "In those Dürer prints I saw that the artist had done what was easiest for him. He glued a sheet of paper on a block of wood and drew with a pen. The easiest way to draw tonal gradations with a pen is to make a crosshatch stroke. The hardest thing for the printer who must follow the artist's drawing to do is cut a crosshatch, because you have to go in and cut out the little spaces between. If Dürer had to cut his own block, he would have made only one crosshatch drawing and then said, 'Hey, wait a minute, what am I doing? I have made something so difficult.' He would have immediately abandoned cross-hatching. But because other people cut the block, he could go ahead and draw whatever he wanted, and it became their problem."
"Keith/Mezzotint" was a defining experience for Close, establishing many of the practices that would propel him over the next thirty years: relentless self-education, ambitious innovation, and extremism in both scale and technique. Close was clear about what he wanted and didn't want in a print. "A lot of artists for a lot of years didn't know much about making prints, and what they got was a photomechanically derived offset reproduction on a good piece of paper. My generation of artists was the first to be educated through graduate school, and we all studied printmaking. We are not afraid of the medium, and we know what it is to put ink on paper in a variety of mediums." "Keith/Mezzotint" was the first print Close had undertaken since graduate school, and the first since abandoning his early abstract style. He deliberately selected a process that, though popular with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists, was little used by his contemporaries. In that sense, his decision was audacious: neither he nor printer Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press knew how to make a mezzotint, and they had to learn together. His determination to pursue this difficult medium was complicated by his decision to work on a scale -- 51 x 411/2 inches -- heretofore unheard of for mezzotint. Crown Point Press had to acquire a special press just to be able to print Keith. For several years Close had based his mammoth painted portraits on a grid system that disappeared with the completion of the painting. In Keith, Close purposefully revealed the grid that had been the invisible armature for his painting system. The minute details of Keith's face are conveyed square by square, so that the print reads like a topographic map. Conflating iconography and methodology, Keith foreshadows Close's later decision to reveal the grid matrix in his painted portraits.
By 1977 Close had become deeply engaged in all aspects of printmaking. As printmaking became a well-established part of his studio practice, many editions followed, using different techniques and a diverse range of publishers. These include the lithograph "Keith/Four Times", created at Landfall Press in Chicago; etchings for Graphicstudio, at the University of South Florida; his first woodblock print, "Leslie", created in Kyoto, Japan, with Tadashi Toda for Crown Point Press; his first spitbite etching, "Self-Portrait", made with Aldo Crommelynck in New York; and -- in what signaled a major expansion of his printmaking repertoire -- pulp-paper multiples with Joe Wilfer in New York. Wilfer was appointed publications director for Pace Editions in 1984, a position he held until his death in 1995. During this time, Wilfer worked with Close on many multiples and prints, serving as his quintessential problem solver. "Joe was a very creative guy. I remember when I was trying to make color prints, and we needed a way to make fingerprint drawings in yellow, red, and blue, and have them print in black. But the yellow didn't block light, so you couldn't use it to block out a plate. So he thought of using PABA, the stuff that is in sunblock, grinding that into the ink, so even though it was transparent yellow, it would not let the light through. This was the way he thought. There was never a mistake so big or an accident so great that he couldn't use it somehow." Wilfer encouraged, teased, and pestered Close into exploring the possibilities of pulp paper, a medium the artist had previously dismissed as being too craft-oriented. The resulting body of work consists of eighteen editioned paper multiples, as well as a number of unique works. Close recently returned to this medium with "Self-Portrait/Pulp". Developed and executed by Wilfer's colleagues Ruth Lingen and Paul Wong as a collaboration between Dieu Donné and Pace Editions, this extremely complex stencil pochoir pushes pulp paper to a new level of sophistication.
Each time Close approaches a print, the making is different, and so is the visual experience. His interpretation of his iconography over time results not so much in similarities as in differences, as if each image were the artist's first take or initial perception. Close recycles images. His subjects repeat over and over. We become familiar with Phil (Glass), Keith (Hollingworth), Leslie (Close), Alex (Katz), and of course the artist's own visage. But in many ways Close's familiarity with the portrait subject is beside the point. Beyond the physical resemblance inherent in any portrait representation, his print images fascinate because they reveal how they were constructed. The lithograph Phil/Fingerprint (plate 1), the pulp-paper "Phil III", and "Phil Spitbite" are all based on the same photograph, yet each time Close addresses the image of Phil, he blurs the certainty of achieving a definitive depiction. What we become enmeshed in is the freedom with which Close manipulates the convention of representation, maneuvering tonal valuations to suit the enforced order of grid-based seriality. The extremes of this approach can be seen in two prints of Alex Katz made within two years of each other. The shimmering ninety-five-color Japanese-style "ukiyo-e woodcut Alex" is a hallucinatory composite of abstract gestures assembled from forty-seven woodblocks that culminate into a recognizable image. "Alex/Reduction Block", on the other hand, establishes a nearly corporeal verisimilitude. The oppositional stance of these two pieces -- each deriving radically different solutions from the same image -- embodies how Close is "always looking for how one piece can kick open the door for another possibility."
All of Close's art presents an abundance of information in a dislocating scale that alters the terms of engagement between viewers and his art. Our role as viewers is to determine the relationship between the parts and the whole and to discern between the surfaces of his representational inventions -- brush strokes, fingerprints, dots, dashes, pulp-paper particles -- and the host of competing metaphors for legibility or illegibility that they suggest. In some ways portraiture is a honey trap for Close, an alluring veneer that attracts viewers only to bring them face-to-face with reality unmade into a host of competing compositional marks. In this sense, Close's portraiture is not so much psychological as perceptual. Whether the surface of his images must be visually pierced, as in his early works, or pieced together, as in his most recent art, the recognition that the sitter is Phil or Keith gets us no further than the basic act of categorizing, of separating A from B. To understand these images, we must return to the artist's notations, to the means he has used. His individual marks can be read as diaristic entries in his daily effort to express an image. Taken together, they create a portrait of Close's sensibility, vision, and intellect that is more revealing than any of his self-portraits.
This book is entitled "Process and Collaboration" because those two words are essential to any conversation with Close about his prints. The creative process is as important to him as the finished product, and these works strive to reveal the routes taken to get to them. Showing the progressive and state proofs here along with the editioned work demystifies the artist's decision-making process, allowing us to visualize how these complex images are made, how he was thinking when he made the mark. "My images are like variations on a composition originally written for violin and piano that can be rescored for different instruments. It will have the same melody line, but it will become a different experience."