By Marcus Toral
"Ease is the enemy of the artist. When things get too easy, you're in trouble." —Chuck Close
A misshapen orange triangle is wrapped by a layer of black and then sky blue. Pull back, and you’ll see more layered shapes decorate its neighbors. Each unit is a similar – yet unique – pattern. Step back further and watch tile after tile swim into view, like curious, minuscule creatures beneath the magnification of a microscope. From the mingling of this shoal, a bright blue human eye takes shape. Further away still a nose, a smiling mouth, ears, and finally the entire gleeful face of a young girl materializes before your eyes. A myriad of tiles, seemingly garish and dissonant up close, coalesce to form a portrait of spectacular realism. And if you zoom out even further, you’ll see a light cast over a solitary wheelchair-bound man. His hunched shadow strewn over a paint-splotched benchtop, the bespectacled and full-bearded Chuck Close presses himself up against his image of the young girl, putting the finishing touches on one final tile.
In stark contrast to the vibrancy of his work, Close’s life has been marred by disability and suffering. Close was born with dyslexia, prosopagnosia, also known as ‘face blindness,’ and a neuromuscular condition which left him clumsy and uncoordinated. On top of all this he also had a learning disability, thwarting his efforts to master reading or remember sets of information. When he turned 11, Close's father passed away, and his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite carrying enough misfortune for several people, fate dealt him one blow further. In 1988, Close suffered an infarction of a spinal artery which left him almost entirely paralyzed. Only after numerous rounds of physical therapy did Close regain partial use of his limbs, though he would remain confined to a wheelchair. Despite brutal hardships, Close has worked ceaselessly – adapting his artistic approach to face challenge after challenge.
As an infant Close had difficulty with both learning to walk and controlling the little muscles that allow for precise eye movements, disrupting his vision. On some occasions his legs would lock inexplicably before he would hit the ground with a heavy thud. Though Close has never been formally diagnosed, his symptoms are consistent with Myasthenia Gravis. In healthy people, nerves release a chemical called acetylcholine which interacts with a receptor on muscle cells, causing them to contract. In patients with Myasthenia Gravis however, the body’s immune system attacks itself, generating antibodies that block, alter, and destroy the acetylcholine receptors that make muscle contraction possible. With this vital step disrupted, muscular force quickly weakens with repeated activity, and coordination suffers. It is nothing short of amazing that Close became a painter when every basic movement was a struggle.
School was a waking nightmare for Close; his dyslexia cursing every lesson with inscrutable and alien symbols. While his classmates around him thrived, a simultaneous subtle and profound learning disability compounded Close’s troubles. In the 1940s and ‘50s, learning disabilities weren't recognized as true medical conditions. While today many resources exist to accommodate learning disabled students, these didn’t exist for Close. These problems often left Close feeling lazy or stupid. Close realized he needed to be creative to overcome his plight. He sat at the front of his classes and participated fully – often raising his hand to answer questions even if he didn't know the answer.
Equally insidious and debilitating, prosopagnosia – or face blindness – has affected Close since childhood. What makes prosopagnosia so curious is that the afflicted, despite having the visual and cognitive capability to identify other objects, can’t recognize faces; even those of family members and close friends. While they can describe each part of the face, the nose, eyes, and mouth, the gestalt those features create is completely lost. Essentially, everyone is a stranger. The first cases of face blindness were seen in individuals who had injured a region along the base of the brain known as the occipitotemporal gyrus. This area, a center for recognition, is also implicated in dyslexia and synesthesia. People suffering from face blindness often use unique approaches to cope with their condition. Close, for instance, deconstructs faces. By analyzing the face in his head as a flat two-dimensional image, he finds he’s able to commit it to memory.
No hardship, however, was more devastating for Close than what he simply refers to as ‘the event.’ At age 48 in the middle of presenting an award to another artist in New York, Close felt intense pain jolt through his chest, back, and down his arms. Within thirty minutes he was completely paralyzed from the neck down. The diagnosis was ‘spontaneous occlusion of the anterior spinal artery,’ also known as a spinal stroke. When blood flow is blocked off to the delicate spinal cord, the nerve cells quickly die, resulting in irreversible and profound disability. Despite the grim prognosis, Close’s spirit was defiant; a friend claims that Close declared he’d hold the paintbrush with his teeth, or even spit paint onto the canvas if he had to. After many rounds of physical therapy, Close ultimately regained partial use of his arms, though much of the fine motor skill in his hands was lost. Close adjusted to these setbacks – mounting his work-in-progress up on the wall and surrounding himself with paints and brushes accessible from his wheelchair. To paint, he straps a brush to his wrist. To eat, he straps a fork to his hand.
Close has produced almost entirely portraits, and his work is an exploration not only of his own neurology, but also of the concepts of identity, celebrity, and perception. The intense photorealism in his paintings of celebrities like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Philip Glass both embraces and mocks today's cult of photogenicity and its obsession with detail. But there's something unsettling about those glossy depictions. Perhaps Close’s meticulous facsimile of a candid Polaroid mirrors how self identity is often a carefully crafted version of the real thing. In a world where the faces of those you care for most are shrouded in mystery, identity can take on many forms. As Close has grown older he's become obsessed with deconstructing the face – rebuilding it with grids, neon squares, thumbprints, and on occasion even his own saliva. Close has chosen to be both an artist and illusionist, co-opting your occipitotemporal gyrus to play tricks on the automatic and subconscious programs your brain runs to make sense of the world around you.
A litany of obstacles and challenges have filled in the various tiles of Chuck Close’s life. In the close up, they seem like a jagged, impassable mountain range. But pull back and you’ll see ingenuity, peerless passion, and unquenchable persistence. Step back further and watch as these abstract facets form the face of a man who is greater than the sum of his pieces.