Jackson Pollack transformed painting with his expressive, gestural mark making that was pure abstraction and undermined the traditional priorities of painting.
Mark Rothko made large color field paintings that became an environment too large for the viewer to take in whole.
Chuck Close sought to incorporate both of these aspects into his work. In the beginning of his career, Close was known for his larger than life hyperrealism portraits. His first, breakthrough painting, The Big Self Portrait is 9 feet tall. Like Rothko, his paintings are too large to take in and so become more of an environment of viewing.
The Big Self Portrait, copyright Chuck Close
Like Pollock he focused on mark making and not image making. Close didn’t intent to reproduce photographs nor did he want to be a portraitist. Instead he sought to take the painting concepts of abstract art expressionism into a new realm.
His approach is well understood by every first year art student. He took a reference photo and then divided the photo into sections using a simple grid. In art school we are all taught how to do this.
From here Close focused in painting each grid. He see his paintings as a collection of abstract tiles. The focus is the grid, each section in turn. The outcome is the portrait.
Over time he began to approach each square in the grid differently. Replacing the airbrush he began with, he used all manner of technique to work on each grid even including fingerprints.
In 1988 Close suffer a collapse in his spinal cord that left him paralyzed from the neck down. In time, he returned to painting, portraits, and the grid. Each square still corresponded to a square from the reference photo, but in increasingly abstract ways. The portraits still recognizably emerged. Despite his situation the painting progressed.
Detail, self portrait, copyright Chuck Close
Chuck Close’s grids are important for me. The create a structure where each little bit, as abstract as it maybe, as random or chaotic as it may seem, works together to form a coherent whole.
The grids in my paintings are there to remind me and to emphasize for me the structure of the world even when it feels cut loose from any ground.