I Have to Talk About Chuck Close

Happy New Year to all! Sandra Bruce here, with my first post of 2014. I’m excited about the year coming up and hope it proves to be a creative and enriching year for us all. This will be Artistic Alchemy’s first full year and we have a lot to share with you, our readers!

I can’t possibly blog in the Artistic Alchemy site without talking at some point about Chuck Close, who has been very influencial to me as an artist, and a human being. I talk about him in my lecture as an art quilter, and hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t cross my mind in some capacity. Let me give you a snapshot of his life and work, and if you’re not familiar with him you will be driven to go look him up and discover more about him yourself. There are many interviews and articles on the web you can easily find.

Chuck Close was born in 1940 in Washington state to parents who encouraged his artistic leanings. Chuck was severely dyslexic as a child and struggled as a student in school, except for art. A teacher once told him he’d never amount to anything. He was not socially popular and couldn’t play sports due to a condition he had. When he was 11, his father passed away, followed closely by his mother developing cancer and Chuck himself was struck by a kidney infection that forced him to spend a year in bed. So much at a tender age! His love of art deepened as a teenager after seeing an exhibit of Jackson Pollack’s paintings, and that was when he determined to become an artist himself. Fast forward to the 60’s, when Close got a degree in Art from Yale and established himself with his signature style: very large, photo-realistic paintings of people, including himself. This acrylic painted self portrait, from 1968, is 83″ by 107″:

late20th32 copy

Amazing, isn’t it? Notice how absolutely, perfectly detailed it is.  It is so…..real. Imagine it at its size. By the 1970’s Chuck Close had established himself as a leading American contemporary artist and was enjoying success and notoriety, rightly so.


Fast forward again, to 1988, when Close was at a ceremony where he was on his way to the podium to present an award. He fell mid-stride, suffering a spinal collapse of an artery, which left him paralyzed from the neck down. One can only imagine where this left him in his mind, unable to do anything, let alone paint. Months of rehab brought him limited movement in his arms, but he was to always remain in a wheelchair. In a documentary about him, his wife, Leslie, tells of his depression in rehab, and how she pressed the doctors to help: an art studio of sorts was set up in the basement of the rehab hospital, where they literally strapped a paintbrush onto his wrist with tape, and Chuck Close began to paint. His new technique was born. This is my favorite of his self-portraits:


Close grids the photos he takes, commonly in a diagonal format, and paints each square of the photo a solid color, then makes amorphous circular shapes, one inside the other. Inches away it is hard to imagine what exactly you’re seeing, but stepping back to view it your eyes see it as he intends you to see it. What truly amazes me is how he knows what colors and shapes to paint each time! He’s making an average hue. Here’s a close-up view…..squint!Chuck+Close+Chuck_Close_Up_Close

Incredibly, Chuck Close also suffers acutely from “Prosopagnosia”, or face blindness. He once failed to recognize the face of a woman he had lived with for a year. But, if Close paints a face, therefore converting the image into a two-dimensional one, then he can commit it to memory, and have a photographic memory for it. “Everything about my work is driven by my disabilities”, he once told an audience of neuroscientists. Chuck Close is the ultimate illustration of “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I do not mean to make light of his handicaps, just to say that he epitomizes how to make the best of what life deals you. Chuck Close is an exceptional human being. There are many quotes attributed to him, but my favorite, and the simplest is, “Art saved my life”. He took what could easily have been the end of his career and life as he knew it and turned it into a new career, more successful than the last. He continues to work, making each day mean something. He sees his glass half full. In fact, I’d say he sees his glass running over!

The first time I saw a Chuck Close painting in person I instantly thought: QUILT. Although it was not in the front of my mind at the time, I think a seed was planted that finally came to fruition in my quilt “Self Portrait”. The act of using fabric to represent a photographic image in a gridded, square format is very exciting to me. Unlike making a quilt that is “photographic”, where the image is represented literally, using my Material Matrix technique allows for fusing color, line and form in a way that invites serendipity and happy surprises.closeup of eye SBquilt

I’m looking forward to teaching my workshop this year, in particular with my Artistic Alchemy sisters in Zephyr Cove, Lake Tahoe, in September, 2014. Those participants taking my workshop will be able to experience some magic, hopefully, creating quilts from their own photographs. I invite you to join us!

Meanwhile, again I wish you a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Chuck Close.Film_ChuckClose


10 thoughts on “I Have to Talk About Chuck Close

  1. I knew the story, from your class, but this blog is wonderful! So many details and great photos. I was so excited when I saw his work at the New York Met – so meaningful. I am only a week away from finishing a few projects and getting back to work on my quilt!

    • Robin, Glad you got to see his work in person, there’s nothing quite like it. The scale! I can’t wait until you finish your quilt.
      It will be accompanying you I’m sure to many book readings and signings of your books!

  2. Thank you for the wonderful blog. Had never heard of Chuck Close. Incredible artist and so inspiring. Blows the mind what some people can do. Sandra, your quilts blow my mind as well!
    You are an inspiration as well.

  3. Fantastic job, Sandra, and I really enjoyed learning about Chuck and his amazing talent. And no surprise that you’re influenced by his work. Thanks for sharing his story.

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