I want to ask you, since your studio is below 14th Street, were
you here on September 11th?
Yes, I watched it. As I came down in the car on FDR Drive and
turned onto Houston Street, I saw the first building was burning.
Then I came in and watched on television and saw the second plane
and came back out and watched that. And then they [the World Trade
Center towers] went down, and people started pouring up the street
covered with dust. It was really a horrific experience.
Did you have to evacuate?
Yeah. And it's had obviously a much more profound influence Downtown.
There's a real disconnect Uptown I think. You might as well be in
the Midwest. But down here you can really feel it and smell it.
I was profoundly affected by it. I was very very upset and I think
I cried every day for about 5 or 6 weeks.
I know you attended the "Arts on the Highwire" fundraiser on
January 11th, in support of the arts community's needs in the aftermath
of September 11th. What were your impressions?
It was a very nice evening, actually. Originally they wanted me
to read a poem or something like that, and the things they suggested
were all 50 years old. But I felt, as the only visual artist on
the program that I really wanted to try and talk about what it's
like to confront a painting, and how embedded in the work itself
is all the information you need to sort of decode how it happened.
I used Robert Storr's essay on the late de Kooning paintings from
the exhibition at the Modern, because his verbiage is specific and
so beautiful, describing the process. And then at the end of this
really wonderful description of how de Kooning made the painting,
I said to the audience: Now Rob didn't see him paint this painting,
in fact he's never seen him paint any paintings. Part of the joy
of looking at art is getting in sync in some ways with the decisionmaking
process that the artist used and the record that's embedded in the
work which allows you to deconstruct and then kind of reconstruct
in your mind, and have a very physical experience, vicariously.
Very few people have written about what a work really looks like,
especially once there were photographic reproductions of works and
so they felt that the photograph would carry the information, and,
of course, it does a piss poor job of letting someone know of the
scale of the work and of the physicality and how thick the paint
was and what the touch was. So Rob happens to be an unusual critic.
And he's actually a painter which probably makes his text different
from regular art historians, who are more interested in iconography
or biography or social history. You know, the way art history is
taught, often there's nothing that tells you why the painting is
great. The description of a lousy painting and the description of
a great painting will very much sound the same. Or the description
of the Arnolfini Wedding by van Eyck - one would think from the
way historians write about it that it's a great painting because
of what the convex mirror means, what the shoes mean, [laughter]
what the dog is doing there, and all this stuff. And in fact it's
not a great painting because of that, it's a great painting despite
all of that.
Because of how it's actually made.
Yeah, I mean, they're just great apparitions. I always thought
that one of the reasons why a painter likes especially to have other
painters look at his or her work is the shared experience of having
pushed paint around. And I've said it's a little bit like a magician
performing for a convention of magicians. All the magicians in the
audience watching this illusion - Do they see the illusion or do
they see the device that made the illusion? Probably they see a
little of both. I think a painter looking at a painting sees the
image, but they also see how the image was constructed. And I think,
you know, painters drop crumbs along the trail, Hansel and Gretel
style, for people to pick up if they want to.
You've done teaching off and on?
Not in a long time, since I made a living from the work.
Have you ever thought about teaching art history?
No. I do on occasion give lectures and I just did something at
the Frick about their collection. I did a piece with Michael Kimmelman
for the Times on works in the Metropolitan Museum's collection.
I mean, it's always a pleasure to talk about someone else's work.
Robert Storr, in his essay for the 1998 retrospective of your work
at MoMA, suggested that your work is close to minimal and process
When you come up in the art world, whatever's in the air, the
issues of the moment, end up becoming part of the working method
or modus operandi of how you think about doing a painting. And I
came up at a time when--actually painting was dead when I came up.
Sculpture sort of ruled. And of all the things, the only thing stupider
than making a painting was making a representational painting, and
of all the genres the most dead and seemingly bankrupt was portraiture.
In fact, the reigning critic, Clement Greenberg, had said that there's
only one thing you can't do and that's make a portrait. And I thought,
Well that's interesting. I backed myself into a corner, which gave
me a lot of elbow room. I didn't have a lot of other people around.
And so there's a greater chance my response would be personal, rather
than, you know, what's going on. But definitely the minimalism,
post-minimal process-oriented stuff; you know, a sculptor like Richard
Serra...he didn't want to make bronze sculpture and carve in marble.
He went down to Canal Street and he got rubber and lead and stuff
like that. And he wanted materials that didn't have historical baggage
associated with them and then just tried to see what the material
would do. And so, in a similar sort of way, to sort of purge the
gods from my studio, the people looking over my shoulder whose work
I cared so much about, I tried to, with a series of self-imposed
limitations, back myself into my own personal corner where nobody
else's answers would fit. I've always thought that problem-solving
is highly overrated and that problem creation is far more interesting.
If you ask yourself a personal enough question, your response is
more likely to be personal, and that means that if you get yourself
into trouble, no one else's answers are going to be applicable and
you'll be flying by the seat of your pants and you'll have to come
up with something.
In your book with William Bartman, The Portraits Speak: Chuck
Close in Conversation With 27 of His Subjects, you joked to
Richard Serra: "Some of us make art the way God meant us to make
art. We go indoors and up on the wall, not out there where people
bump into it." What is it that draws you to the flat surface?
I love sculpture and minimal sculpture is really my favorite stuff,
but I wasn't very good at it and I don't think in a 3 dimensional
way. I'm very learning disabled and I think it drove me to what
I'm doing. And I didn't want to work from life because the person
is in 3 dimensions and if they move a little...so I wanted to translate
from one flat surface to another. In fact my learning disabilities
controlled a lot of things. I don't recognize faces so I'm sure
it's what drove me to portraits in the first place. But also painting
is the most magical of mediums. The transcendence is truly amazing
to me every time I go to a museum and I see how somebody figured
another way to rub colored dirt on a flat surface and make space
where there is no space or make you think of a life experience.
Sculpture occupies real space like we do...you walk around it and
relate to it almost as another person or another object. But a painting
has this remarkable ability to become more than the sum of its parts.
And working with painting you are essentially working with light?
Yeah. That's interesting too, if you saw the Vermeer and the other
Dutch painters show that the Met Museum did this last year. Here
you had almost identical situations painted by de Hooch and painted
by Vermeer, and de Hooch was painting things, he was painting bricks,
he was painting speckled buildings...and Vermeer was painting light.
And so when you walk into a room where the other Dutch painters
are, his paintings just sing. And they're an entirely different
experience. And I'm sure it's because he was using a camera obscura
and he was in fact looking at light while he was painting rather
than looking at stuff.
I know you attended the symposium, "Art and Optics: Toward an
Evaluation of David Hockney's New Theory of Opticality", at New
York University in December. What did you think?
Well...I think it's clear. It doesn't upset artists to find out
that artists used lenses or mirrors or other aids, but it certainly
does upset the art historians. Susan Sontag said something really
funny...she said to find out that all her art heroes cheated and
used aids, lenses and things like that, is like finding out all
the great lovers in history used Viagra. And you know that doesn't
bother me. I don't care what they used to make whatever they wanted
to make. But art historians would say things like that if it turns
out that Ingres used a camera lucida then they might have to reassess
his body of work and obviously downgrade it. I don't care. Anyone
who can make a magical image like that...I don't care what they
used. I remember I once had a group of 3rd graders in my studio
and this kid said, "Can you really draw or do you just copy photographs?"
And I thought, oh my god, they're already believing this crap that
if you're looking at a photograph you're not looking. What difference
does it make whether you're looking at a photograph or looking at
a still life in front of you? You still have to look.
How long have you been using the big camera with the 20x24 inch focusing
I think I started in about 1975. I had made large blow-ups before.
But the big difference was, I never knew what I had till I developed
the film and made a print to work from. Once I started working with
the Polaroid I would take a shot and if that shot was good then
I'd move the model and change the lighting or whatever...slowly
sneaking up on what I wanted rather than having to predetermine
what it was. I usually take 10 or 12 black and whites, and 10 or
12 color. And then the sitter gets to see each photograph as it's
taken too...so you're immediately involved in a kind of dialogue
instead of capturing their image while they're unsuspecting of what
you might want. They get a chance to see, so together you sort of
fashion an image that you want.
It makes me think again of the idea of looking at what colors
are already there, always working with the context.
And moving from somewhere to somewhere else...it's a very different
way than conceptualizing what it is you want.
And this way your portrait subjects get to participate in that?
Yeah...they can lobby for what they want; I won't always listen
to them. But I would like to say that I don't do commissioned portraits
and I don't paint college presidents. I can't imagine what kind
of ego it would take to want to have a 9 foot high picture of yourself.
[laughter] So when someone lends me their image, it's an
act of extreme generosity, because they don't know what I'm going
to do with it, they have no control over it, they're not paying
for it, so they can't ask for their nose to be straightened. It
requires some bravery and generosity on their part.