his index finger as a tool and inking it on a stamp pad, he replaces the dot within the grid with a unique eccentric oval--his own fingerprint--and brings back the Abstract-Expressionist concept of the artist's hand, the signature brushstroke, 4 as an identifying mark. Another literal touch. Dark and light tones become a function of pressure, of a light or heavy touch against the paper, and what critics have often called Close's "pointillism" becomes instead a literal "tachism." The realism results from a basic act of touching, a simple pressure on the surface.

It is interesting that the two most minimal, most conceptual of the Photo Realists did not remain satisfied to keep reproducing the transparent photographic surface. Both, concerned with perception, moved toward a more tactile surface: touch took over where sight left off. While Morley buried his realism in choppy paint and increasingly eccentric private grid schemes, Close reduces his images to coded information, and personalizes the code. The fingerprint brings out the issue of identity--that of the maker as well as the image. It gives added dimension to the self-portraits in which he periodically scans the surface of his own face. Close likes the idea that they can't be forged; "they can't even be restored" he says. They make realism the by- product of a unique proof of identification. What could be more artificial?

In December 1971 Hilton Kramer wrote: "The kind of work Mr. Close produces is interesting only as evidence of the kind of rubbish that follows in the wake of every turn in the history of taste." A month later Emily Genauer wrote: "At this moment I'd say that most of the new photo-realism is terrible, citing Chuck Close, Malcolm Morley, and Richard McLean . . . as particularly awful examples." At the same time Barbara Rose, also rejecting the whole Photo- Realist movement as "academic in the worst sense," called Close "the best of the worst."

There was a reason the critical establishment was so hostile: they were rejecting it on modernist grounds. Barbara Rose even mentioned Close's "equivocal relationship with modernism." But now that we are beginning to see modernist art as something fast receding into history, along with formalist criticism, that equivocal relationship looks less like a return to the academic past and more like its opposite: the beginnings of a radically new attitude that was signaling a fatal threat to modernism. For the moment, it is being called post-modernism by those who acknowledge the fundamental break, and pluralism by those who don't.

To future historians, the mark of the modernist period may well be its insistence on style. And Minimalism may be the last of the modernist styles, the end of a seventy-year process of stylization and formalization. "We're obviously all tagged on to the end of the tradition of western art," comments Close. But while his premises were literal, Close, like a number of other artists--late minimal, post-minimal, conceptual--who emerged in the late '60s out of the Minimalist climate, somehow turned the reductive approach against itself, making it a means for other ends. With the whole concept of style in doubt, they made motifs of Minimalist forms, subjected them to natural forces or materials, dug them into the landscape, dematerialized them, or used them as codes, turning the imperatives of a style into voluntary patterns. Close, using information as content, substituting technique for style, moves, as if in spite of himself, beyond modernism. Photo Realism, at least in the hands of Close and Morley, now looks like another manifestation of post-Minimalist art. Conceptual realism might have been a better name for it. Close is beginning to appear to be part of a generation that had the enviable or unenviable role of straddling an abyss. 5

Kim Levin

1978


NOTES
1
Quotes, unless otherwise specified, are from a conversation with the artist in April, 1978.
2
It is easy to trace Close's scale to Rosenquist or Wesselmann, his mimicry of commercial printing processes to Lichtenstein, his portrait heads to Warhol; it is also misleading--the affinities are superficial.
3
The photograph, subject matter of the Photo Realists, became a medium for post-Conceptualists, who also followed the implications of the informal snapshot to their logical conclusion: narrative content. Photo Realism, as well as Conceptualism, paved the way for the recent re-entry of content.
4
In the early '50s, during the Abstract-Expressionist era, Saul Steinberg had turned single fingerprints into heads in a witty double entendre about identity, and titled them Passport Photos, but the intent was quite different.
5
The comparison that has been made by critics between Close's heads and late Roman portraiture, like the colossal head of Constantine, can now be seen as more than merely stylistic. The brief period of our recent past, with all its overlapping categories and conflicting ideologies, will probably remain as complex to future art historians as that of all the competing cults at the end of the Roman Empire, just before Christianity became the official religion. And Close's heads, like those staring blank-faced Romans who have been interpreted as icons of spiritual uncertainty or determination, will sustain similar readings.

-39-

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Twenty-Five Artists
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Table of Contents v
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Foreword ix
  • Interview with Hans Namuth 1
  • Photographs by Hans Namuth 5
  • Essays on the Artists 29
  • Notes 39
  • Color Plates 85
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