Bill Clinton looks down at me with that famous, lazy grin. His perfect American teeth show bright white and his blue eyes lock on to mine. I take a few steps forward (who wouldn’t?) but as I draw closer something odd happens to Bill: his face blurs, its outline distorts, wobbling as if underwater. A few steps more and his features have begun to pixelate into small squares and the smooth pink of his cheeks has unmixed itself — separating out into a hundred different colours. Bill is going to pieces. Closer still, now eyeball to nostril with President Clinton, I lose all sense that I’m looking at a portrait: in front of me is an abstract painting — a vast grid-full of sherbert swirls: mauves, oranges, lemon yellow, fuchsia.
As I walk backwards, Bill’s 9-ft oil-painted head pulls itself together and begins to grin again, and, beside me, the artist, Chuck Close — dressed in designer black in his electric wheelchair — grins too.
‘I always liked magic as a kid,’ he says, ‘and the way I think of my work is that it’s like doing a trick — pulling a rabbit out of a hat — but revealing how you did it at the same time: you can look at the painting up close and see the mechanics, or from further back and enjoy the illusion. Either is all right.’
And does Bill like it? ‘Bill hasn’t seen it yet, but I think he’s a little anxious,’ says Close, fondly (Bill is a good friend). ‘When he came round to sit for me, he was very worried because he’d forgotten to take his water pills.’ Water pills? ‘For reducing the bags around his eyes. Bill does have amazing eyes. When he looks at you, you feel like you’re the most important person in the world!’
Chuck Close looks up at me, and I realise that he too has charm in spades. It’s very rare to read a negative interview with Close; very rare, even in the venomous art world, to hear a disobliging word said about him. People are drawn to him, and once drawn, they like to stay there. As Close shows me around his exhibition at White Cube gallery in Mason’s Yard, a cluster of devoted admirers bob about like flotsam in the wake of the wheelchair: there’s me; a Canadian couple; a man with a CND badge; Christopher Finch, whose excellent book, Chuck Close: Work, is published to coincide with the show. No one wants to leave quite yet.
‘First, I mark out a big grid on the piece of paper,’ says Chuck to his little class, pointing at a 9ft head of his daughter (‘Georgia’, 2007), ‘then I work from the photograph, painting one square of the grid at a time.’ How often do you step back to see how the likeness is going? I ask. ‘Never!’ says Chuck, ‘and the canvas is tilted, so I don’t see a face as I work. I paint each square from the photograph until the balance feels right. Instinctive.’
To understand this alarming fact, it’s important to realise that capturing an exact likeness is not what Chuck Close’s work is about. He isn’t painting conventional portraits — like Holbein, say. What he’s doing — what he’s always done — is painting the photograph of the subject, reproducing and enlarging it following a technique (using a grid and scaling up the photograph square by square) that he invented over 40 years ago, and has been evolving ever since. It’s a way of marrying ‘process art’, as pioneered by Jackson Pollock, to the old ideal of representation, and it’s what’s carved Chuck Close his space in the history of art.
Close’s first heads were photo-real, vast airbrushed portraits in black and white. In the Seventies he devised a way of making his heads in colour (he mimicked the way a printer works and used layers of just three colours — cyan, magenta, yellow — to give the illusion of flesh-tones). In the Eighties he put away his airbrush and experimented with different mediums: ink, fingerprints, paper pulp. But though he’s relied on the expertise of technicians — paper-makers, tapestry-weavers — what sets him apart from our Britart brats is that he doesn’t just farm a concept out to a factory, then forget about it. Because the process is part of the work (and because a viewer is expected to appreciate that process), Close is involved every inch of the way.
‘An artist shouldn’t just dream up an idea then leave the rest to technicians,’ he says, eyes glinting behind fashionable glasses. ‘An artist should be involved in the process by which the art is made. It’s how you learn things, it’s how work evolves. When I was making portraits from paper pulp, for instance, I noticed how the drops of pulp dried on the floor in “pats”, and I used these pats to make another portrait [‘Georgia’, 1982]. You see? Work is what breeds work. Inspiration is for amateurs.’
And in Close’s case, it seems that that difficulty breeds, or at least stimulates, work as well. Young Chuck, growing up an only child in Everett, Washington, suffered from severe dyslexia and a neuromuscular condition which meant he couldn’t join in games. For some, this would have been a disaster; for Close, it was an opportunity to fight his way back to normality, learning to paint to compensate. In high school he was diagnosed with prosopagnosia — a form of face-blindness which makes it very difficult to recognise people. Well. It’s a mistake to overanalyse, but surely it takes an unusually determined prosopagnosiac to end up making portraits?
Then of course there was the incident that left him in a wheelchair, largely paralysed from the neck down, able to paint only with a brush strapped on to his hand. The first warning signs of the disaster to come — the ‘Event’, as Close, rather curiously, calls it — were chest pains, which he ignored. Then one bitter winter day in Manhattan, the pains grew unbearable. He was taken to ER, he began to spasm and within hours he was paralysed by what turned out to be a spontaneous occlusion of a major spinal artery. The long process of recovery, of learning to paint again, is documented in Christopher Finch’s book, but his disability is not a subject Close feels comfortable discussing. How did your accident change your art? I ask, but though Close smiles, he seems suddenly preoccupied and zooms off to help rehang a giant portrait, leaving me standing with Christopher Finch.
‘He doesn’t really like to talk about it,’ says Finch. ‘He’s still very sensitive about it, about people dismissing him as a “disabled artist”. But it’s silly because the work he’s doing now is, if anything, more interesting than anything he’s done before. He’s getting better all the time.’ Across the room, a beaming Bill Clinton seems to agree.
Chuck Close: Family and Others is at White Cube, 25–26 Mason’s Yard, London SW1, until 17 November; Chuck Close: Work is published by Prestel.