JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 black and white and color works, framed in white/blond wood and unmatted, and hung in the front and back galleries and the connecting hallway space. The show also includes 1 silkscreen, 1 woodcut, 1 etching, and several studio photographs of the artist at work on specific paintings. The unique photo maquettes are either gelatin silver, black and white Polaroid, or color Polaroid prints, often mounted to foamcore and covered with tape, ink, graphite and other materials. The final works range in size from roughly 6×5 to 40×30, and were made between 1975 and 2012. In general, the maquettes are single images, although there is one set of 4 maquettes hung as a group. No photography is allowed in the galleries, so the installation shots at right are courtesy Eykyn Maclean; the artworks themselves are ©Chuck Close, courtesy Pace Gallery. A catalog of the exhibit is available from the gallery for $40.
Comments/Context: This tightly controlled retrospective of Chuck Close’s intermediate photo maquettes is a crash course in artistic decision making. The works are the physical remains of his systematic process, the evidence of in-between steps and conceptual iterations along the way to the creation of his larger paintings. Seeing four decades of this richly physical raw material hung together highlights the evolving “how” of Close’s work and gives clues to the changing nature of his artistic eye.
Aside from the precise detail afforded by his 24×20 Polaroid camera, Close’s photographic portraits aren’t particularly memorable, even when they capture the faces of famous artists or his own. Straight-on head shots against blank backgrounds are the norm, with slight variations in the turn of a head, a full profile, the angle of the light, or the color the backdrop the only tweaks to his consistent approach. Masking tape is used to crop in from the edge of the image, in some cases allowing the subject a little space to breathe, while in others, the frame squeezes in with claustrophobic snugness.
But the real interest in these maquettes lies in the grid lines. Starting in the mid 1970s, Close overlaid the source photographs with graphpaper-like pencil-thin grids, cutting the facial imagery into discrete boxes, each an individual fragment of visual information. His grids began as rigidly horizontal and vertical patterns, like a screen door, and over the early years, he experimented with different square sizes and spacings, generating varying sized image elements that could then be executed in sharp detail or more abstract blurs (like fingerprints or pigment marks). Seen up close, the decisions he had to make about where grid lines intersected in relation to the features of his subjects are fascinating (i.e. does the pupil of an eye fall in the center of the square or is it split between two squares? and how does that decision impact other joints and edges in the rest of the composition?). By the mid 1980s, Close turned the axis and introduced angled lines that rotate the squares into diamonds. Again, he iteratively tuned the spacing of the grids into smaller and larger elements, and placed line intersections at exact points, allowing the individual elements to be built into larger adjacent forms or forcing them into new shatter systems. The result is an approach that is at once elegantly simple in its conception, but that allows for nearly infinite complexity in its application.
Taken together, the maquettes prove that Close’s career long study of analog pixelization has been extremely rigorous and thoughtful. In an age when photographic pixelization has become so commonplace, these works show that Close was way ahead of his time in terms of carefully puzzling over the problems of (and opportunities in) image fragmentation, taking foundation ideas from Pointillism and Impressionism and reconsidering them in a more machined manner. In the end, what’s exciting is that there is still more conceptual exploring to do in this area – hang one of these maquettes next to a massive Thomas Ruff JPEG and there will be plenty of common thinking to be observed.
Collector’s POV: The individual maquettes in this show are priced at either $85000 or $125000, with the set of 4 maquettes of Keith priced at $225000. Several of the works are NFS. Close’s photographs have become more consistently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $2000 (works in large editions) and $300000 (generally large multi-part works).