Artist Chuck Close Featured at Neuroscience 2012
Gregarious, witty, and erudite, world renowned artist Chuck Close enthralled the audience with his lecture “My Life as a Rolling Neurological Clinic,” the 2012 Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society lecture, which took place at Neuroscience 2012 in New Orleans. Speaking via live satellite feed from his New York City studio, Close spoke candidly about his art, its connections to his physical and cognitive disabilities and gifts, and his philosophies on life, creativity, and the importance of art in education.
“Everything about my work is driven by my disabilities. Once I discovered who I was I gravitated toward what I could do,” he said.
Close was selected for the prestigious Dialogues presentation by past SfN President Moses Chao because of his extraordinary artistic achievements, as well as the unique neurological challenges he was born with and has experienced over his lifetime. Born in 1940, Close suffered from neurological problems as a child and he also suffers from prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Later, in 1988, Close suffered a spinal artery collapse and after eight months in the hospital, was paralyzed from the chest down. He has worked from a wheelchair since that time.
Close, a multimedia artist, is internationally recognized for his extraordinary large scale portraits of the human face, particularly interesting because of his prosopagnosia. He is best known for his oversized photorealist portraits composed of tiny airbrush bursts, thumbprints, or colorful brushstrokes. Close received a 1962 B.A. degree from the University of Washington in Seattle and a 1964 MFA degree from Yale University.
In New Orleans, Close explained to the Neuroscience 2012 audience how he makes his mural-sized portraits: after enlarging a photo and sliding an acetate grid over it, he “grids up” the photo, lettering and numbering each square, and then transfers the photographic image square-by-square onto the canvas. The grid is often visible in the final painting. Following his initial work in black and white, Close began working in color, painting one square at a time using only three primary colors — magenta, cyan, and yellow — in a first layer of paint. In the second layer, Close paints shapes on the squares. Color mixing happens on the canvas and the viewer reads the squares collectively as a face.
Following the arterial collapse, Close remained determined and creative as an artist and developed a new way to continue his work. He hired assistants to grid his photos and canvas and asked them to clamp a paintbrush between his teeth. Moving his head, Close maneuvered the brush and painted.
Close is now 72, and his portraits have been exhibited around the world. The Close portrait of U.S. President Bill Clinton hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Reflecting on his earliest awareness of neurological deficits, Close said that as a child, “I had trouble with my arms and legs and couldn’t run. I couldn’t read or do math or history.” But, he noted, “I could draw, so I used my art to make maps of the Lewis and Clark trail as extra credit projects to show teachers I was interested in the subject even though I couldn’t answer questions correctly. Art saved my life.”
Yet he also believes he has cognitive gifts that serve him as an artist. “I have virtual photographic memory of flat images. I can find anywhere in the world like a Native American moving through the forest. But I don’t remember the address or street or house number. It’s like I float over the world and see it flat. I can draw any room I’ve ever been in but won’t know whose house it is,” he said.
Following the presentation, a panel discussion and question and answer session was led by Eric Kandel, Mary Bartlett Bunge, and Margaret Livingston.
Replying to the question, “Are you a better artist because of the challenges you’ve faced?” Close said: “My disabilities didn’t make me a better artist or make it easier for me, but they didn’t stop me.”
Regarding physical therapy, he said “I don’t believe [it] did much for me and I don’t think attitude helps. I think your body gets well when it wants to. My arms and legs still don’t work properly, but I managed finally to get back to work.” Close went on to describe the craving he had for the tactile sensation of paint.
His recognition as an artist has also driven Close’s passion to emphasize the importance of the arts in education. “And I’ve always said that 'If I hadn’t gone to Yale, I could have gone to jail.'”
In 2000, President Clinton awarded Close the National Medal of Arts in a White House ceremony, the highest honor conferred on American artists. Close currently serves on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He is also an advisor to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission, where he advocates for increased music and art classes.
“What I think will cure the dropout rate is to create more ways to make students feel successful and special,” Close said. “Not all are good at sports. Art and music instruction will let children know they have skill sets different from others, yet they can be just as useful and successful.”
Close’s most recent work, exhibited at the Adamson Gallery in Washington, DC, November-December 2012, comprises two new techniques, Watercolor Prints and Felt Hand Stamps. Those portraits were visible in his studio during the lecture, lining the wall behind his wheelchair.