Chuck Close turned on the speakerphone so he could do his interview while photographing himself in a Polaroid studio on Broadway in New York. He and longtime collaborator John Reuter couldn't get the shadows quite right, especially around the nose, without losing the glint of the eyes. The final photograph would go to Chinese artist Zhang Huan, who planned to use it to make Close the subject of one of his ash paintings.
"I hope you have a lot of whatever minutes," Close called into the phone. His voice turned away. "One, two, three," he chanted to Reuter. The black-and-white instant camera shuffled as it shot.
We were talking because Close was about to travel to Tacoma to give a talk with his friend, the poet Bob Holman, in conjunction with their joint traveling exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum through June 15. (The talk is now over, but the show remains up.) Close didn't want to be interviewed in person while he was here, except on one TV program. The phone compromise seemed fitting for a celebrity artist who makes tight close-up portraits of faces obstructed on the micro level by some distracting technique—promises of intimacy that inevitably deliver just as much distance. Close was coming back home—he was born in Monroe, lived most of his childhood in Tacoma and Everett, and studied with Alden Mason at the University of Washington—but there would be no sit-down interview over coffee in some nostalgic spot, no constructed confidences. Instead: a studio session overheard but not seen. As knowledge and information works in the world of Close's art, it seemed perfect.
"Right now it's too flat," Close told Reuter. "I want to get more light into the eyes and more direction, not so much straight on. It's not bad to have a shadow here, and let the backlight do most of this. Let the nose cast a shadow over here." Reuter said something unintelligible, and Close responded, "Have this light be more like that light? Actually, that's probably not so bad."
This was the third try. Even though the photo was going to Zhang, Close wanted to shoot it like an image he'd use in his own work—ruthlessly and dramatically, in high contrast. So dimensional that the subject appears to poke into this world.
Over the years, using photographs as sources, Close has recorded in painful detail the pores, bags, wrinkles, facial hairs, pimples, and scars of family, friends, and acquaintances— often famous people, from a tired and puffy Philip Glass to Kate Moss without makeup to a steely-eyed Andres Serrano. If Close were a writer, he might be in trouble. But honesty has a different currency in images.
"I'm not out to flatter," Close said. "Carly Simon and Christopher Plummer were the worst. Carly Simon wrote 'You're So Vain' about herself. Christopher Plummer was a nightmare. He wanted his age spots erased out. I offered to give him a photograph at the end and he said, 'Who would want one?' Some people will not be taken."
The exhibition at Tacoma Art Museum (and a book published by Aperture under the same name, A Couple of Ways of Doing Something) is based on a series of daguerreotypes Close made of artist friends. The images are paired with exuberant praise poems by Holman—an idea that came out of a birthday party for the late painter Elizabeth Murray (Holman's wife). The poems may be caresses, but the photographs are punishments. Daguerreotypes are an early type of 19th- century photography in which images are exposed directly onto a mirror-polished surface. Close loves them for their intensity and intimacy, but a humongous amount of light is required to make instant daguerreotypes. He flashes six powerful strobes at once at his subjects.
"Your eyes slam shut so fast, it feels like somebody stuck an ice pick into the middle of your eye," he said. "If we don't have the shields, you can smell your hair and your face burning."
A certain amount of hostility is inevitable in the resulting images. Photographer Cindy Sherman wears a disgusted and almost fearful look in her portrait—it's not only that she's appearing without her trademark disguises but also that she's being, quite literally, overexposed. But the psychology of Close's works has been largely overlooked by an art world mesmerized by what he does formally and technically. He has used airbrushed acrylics, scribbles, fingerprints, brush strokes, and paper pulp to make his massive paintings resemble blown-up pixilated photographs. They provide only the illusion of detail, though. Look closely and you've entered a world of abstract loops and marks.
Except Close didn't always use the facial close-up to promise total revelation, only to withhold it. In 1967, he made a single enormous photorealistic nude based on a photograph he had taken of a secretary at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he was teaching. She is reclining and has her hair pulled up, like a classical nude, but she is 22 feet long and almost 11 feet high. "Kiki Smith said it was the first piece of body art because of the stretch marks and the cesarean scar," Close told the speakerphone.
Big Nude is the only painting of its kind. Close never made another full body at that size and with that level of straightforward detail. Into the speakerphone, he said it wasn't large enough. He wanted more closeness, more detail, so he focused in on a smaller area. The way he describes it, his portraits should be so close that the viewer experiences them as landscapes, like the Lilliputians walking on the giant—Gulliver—in Gulliver's Travels. (Taking the literary reference further, it's the viewers, not the subjects, who are out of scale.)
In Close's Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1998 (which traveled to Seattle Art Museum), the earliest work was a nine-by-seven-foot hairy facial self-portrait, which became, by default, the beginning of his career. But Big Nude is another source for Close's art, the last moment of a certain unabashed, knee-knocking, intensely sensual full exposure in Close's career.
Characteristically, he's hidden it. It lives in Seattle, tucked away in a private home, and has only been exhibited once, in Germany. (I saw it by chance a few months ago.) The real thing is approximately 26 times larger than the reproduction at the top of this page, meaning that you're hardly seeing it at all, even now.
After about an hour of interviewing and eight Polaroids of Close's face, the speakerphone began to beep because it was running out of power. "You're really getting to see how we work," Close said. But I never did get a look at the final photograph.