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Chuck Close‘s face made him famous – at least his face on canvas. Gigantic, up close and personal, his black and white 1968 large self-portrait leave nothing to the imagination. You can see every stubble, every tuft of unkempt hair, every curl of his cigarette. It was a bold opening line from someone who went on to become one of the best-known portraitists of his generation, who has passed away today at the age of 81.
Born in Washington State in 1940, Close struggled as a child with what he later realized was dyslexia, but art was never a struggle. His parents encouraged him and paid for art supplies and lessons; he told the New York Times Magazine in 1998 that he remembered staying up late, studying magazine covers with a magnifying glass, “trying to figure out how paintings were made,” which may have hinted at where his career would eventually go.
How the big heads were made
Close didn’t just work in paint – he was a photographer, a graphic artist and even a weaver. But he is best known for those big heads, the pixelated portraits of himself and his friends from the art world that he created by dividing photos into intricate grids and then blowing them up, painstakingly reproduced square by square on large canvases. He even developed a system with a forklift, a platform, a chair and a rope that allowed him to easily maneuver around the entire painting.
Close’s style has changed over time. He added color in the 1970s and drifted away from the strict photorealism of large self-portrait to a bushier, looser look. But he was forced to make a drastic change in 1988, when a collapsed spinal artery left him largely paralyzed from the neck down. Eventually he learned to paint again with brushes attached to his hands with Velcro, and canvases prepared with grids by his assistants. Some of Close’s later works exhibit a whimsical psychedelism: each grid square can be accurate, or it might as well contain a colorful blob that looks like a target, a hot dog, or a teardrop until you step back to experience the whole.
Allegations of sexual harassment
Close found great success in those later years, making Polaroids of movie stars and painting former President Bill Clinton. But he also faced allegations of sexual harassment; several women came forward and said he made inappropriate comments about their bodies and private lives when they came to his studio to pose for him.
“If I’ve embarrassed anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to. I admit I have a dirty mouth, but we’re all adults,” Close told the New York Times. The National Gallery of Art a show of Close’s work cancelled following the allegations.
Close was diagnosed in 2015 with frontotemporal dementia, a condition his neurologist said could explain some of his behavior?. He died of congestive heart failure at a hospital in Oceanside, New York; survivors include daughters Georgia and Maggie and several grandchildren.