Magazine article The Spectator

Close Encounter

Magazine article The Spectator

Close Encounter

Article excerpt

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. …

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