Chuck Close

Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 13

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz: Metaphysical Portraits

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through September 13

By Stephen Longmire

When Chuck Close joined the New York art world in the late 60s it was still under the spell of abstract expressionism, which had reinvented most of painting’s traditional categories in an impersonal yet emotive way. Close remembers Willem De Kooning–the most admired painter then working–saying, “Today the only kind of painting you can’t make is a portrait.” To Close, the master’s announcement was an irresistible challenge, and he set out on the surprisingly rich path of becoming an abstract painter who does figurative work.

Close calls his paintings “heads,” a choice that distances him from the standard honorific tradition of portrait painting and puts him in line with the minimalist sculptors he admires. His larger-than-life heads vie for the status of dignitaries of former times, but in this democratic era their proportions seem cartoonish, their often vacant faces unreal. From a distance, his heads through the mid-80s might be taken for photographs. Not that the faces are genuinely lifelike–rather, they’re often banal, caught wearing expressions only a camera would record.

Close works from Polaroids he makes of his sitters: evenly lit, full-frontal shots like passport photos or mug shots, which he reproduces in excruciating detail at poster size. As you approach, the faces dissolve and the photographs become paintings, abstract marks on canvas with lives of their own. In an interview for Artforum the show’s curator, Robert Storr, describes the odd “feeling that you’re at one remove from the familiar, and, at the same time, you’re offered degrees of intimacy that you don’t know quite what to do with.” Close’s 1967-’68 Big Self-Portrait–the retrospective’s opening work–is a case in point: it shows a surly, unkempt young man, his intent eyes in shadow, a cigarette smoldering at his lips. Close said during a lecture at the show’s opening that he hoped the viewer would feel “like a Lilliputian on a face, without knowing it’s a face until you fall into a nostril.” Would De Kooning have recognized his challenge in this response?

Close’s approach to portraiture is predicated on the idea that all the options in this ancient genre have been played out. His early images, reproducing the most commonplace photographs in paint on a gigantic scale, are less interesting than his clever, virtuosic method. Close explains his use of Polaroids pragmatically: who would sit still for the several months it takes him to finish a painting, working as he does from edge to edge so as not to privilege any area of the composition? More compelling, Close describes himself as learning disabled and says he doesn’t recognize faces until he sees them photographed. And he’s not alone in finding a photograph easier to assimilate than life: today photographs are taken as proof that any number of things exist and happen. Siding with the postmodernists, Close suggests that no meaningful distinction remains between photography and life, making the processed reality of photography the raw material of his art.

Close traces his consistent popularity to his figurative focus: “Everyone is very good at reading faces.” Yet the faces are often the least interesting aspect of his paintings, as he himself admits. They are merely the constant in a formal experiment designed to establish whether representational paintings can be made with the same “alloverness,” the same attention to every detail, as abstract ones. Yet “the paintings are really about how the camera sees,” he says. The MCA show includes some of the large Polaroids he’s worked from and some composite portraits made up of several photographs, arranged in grids. But these are interesting only as steps in his journey. Until recently, the heads themselves often seemed means to an end.

At first Close took his use of photography to an ironic extreme. He used an airbrush to apply black and white paint so thinly that no handwork could be seen. In 1970 he began to work in color (though he returns periodically to black and white), using the same three hues that make up color photographic emulsions: magenta, cyan, and yellow. In these early heads he went so far in his pursuit of photographic likeness that portions of each canvas appear out of focus. In 1973 he began to paint using a grid, typically building his portraits out of visible patterns of dots, whether the three colors or black and white. Up close these look like overenlarged screened or digitized photographic reproductions, or they dissolve into pointillist abstractions. Having experimented extensively with the size and intricacy of his grids, which vary from painting to painting (and in the prints he’s had editioned over the years), he can say with assurance, “It takes 120 dots to make an image of a recognizable person.” Usually he paints several thousand more.

By the 80s Close was visibly painting the dots by hand, even applying them with his fingertips in a series of portraits of family members whose faces he literally caressed. In another striking series, faces are built from clumps of handmade paper pulp. Such handwork is in tension with the grid he derives from the processes of photography’s mass reproduction. Since the late 80s, around the time Close was partially paralyzed by a spinal artery collapse, his work has become dramatically more abstract, with grids of lozenges in every imaginable color composing faces that seem to be seen through glass bricks. “It flirts with not coalescing into an image,” he says of this new work, unquestionably his most appealing: here his abstract and representational tendencies are openly in tension.

Like his recovery, it’s an amazing development–one that began before he had to relearn to paint, the brush strapped to his hand. But it’s hard not to see a new tenderness and awareness of human frailty in Close’s paintings of the 90s, in which faces are deformed and reconfigured as his grids open and twist and his brightly colored dots dissolve and even swirl, as in the circular grid he used to paint fellow artist Lucas Samaras. Even more remarkable, this warm new work has arisen from Close’s chillingly ironic beginnings. It’s a testament to his strength as an artist that he makes this new vision seem the inevitable result of all the steps that came before–like dots set down in a pattern only now apparent. His 1997 self-portrait is an emotional tour de force, showing a seasoned master peering through the scrim of his art.

As with all unnecessarily difficult tasks, Close’s project entails an element of bravado. His paintings don’t show that photographs have become ubiquitous–that’s a given. Rather, they show just how much time and effort it takes to do by hand what machines do routinely. As if to outwit the camera once and for all–Close describes himself as “a Luddite and a technophobe”–the painter implicitly boasts that he can do better, making images that have more going on than the bland photographs he copies. “I’ve always been lucky,” he says. “I pushed myself into my own idiosyncratic corner so that I can paint as an individual, so that the art world doesn’t set my concerns.” The challenge Close set himself as if on a dare from De Kooning has sustained him through vast changes in the art world’s fortunes and his own.

Close came to portraiture as other artists were pronouncing the genre dead, but he doesn’t directly challenge the conventions accused of killing it or the view that portraiture is inherently bound by convention. Instead he discovers new possibilities in those conventions by inventing a hybrid of traditional portrait painting and photography–forms that are anything but experimental. Nor does he challenge the interaction between artist and model, which is underplayed in his work although he knows nearly everyone he paints. The intricacy of his process requires that he spend months, sometimes years, with each of his heads, but he leaves his sitters alone. He sets the scene but doesn’t try to manipulate the way his sitters appear to the camera–that’s up to them. Though his approach appears looser in recent work, Close’s faces still seem constrained, caught in a technique gone wild.

By contrast, Polish artist and writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz seems to have viewed the photographic portrait as a tug-of-war between two souls, mediated by the seemingly impartial camera. Witkiewicz photographed his friends, his family, and himself throughout his intensely creative life (1885-1939), but most of the portraits on display at the Chicago Cultural Center (many of them brought to this country for the first time, by New York’s Robert Miller Gallery) date from the teens. Their psychological intensity is almost unprecedented in the history of photographic portraits, with the possible exception of those Julia Margaret Cameron made in England half a century earlier, which Witkiewicz admired. From either edge of the Victorian era and of Europe, these two poke through the overstuffed conventions of their times, prodding their sitters into reflection.

Not even Cameron got this close to her sitters, however. Witkiewicz all but eliminates the distance between camera and subject–between sitter and viewer–by cropping out the sitter’s protective social space and often the edges of his or her face. At first he trimmed his portraits with scissors, then he extended the lens of his large glass-plate camera with a piece of pipe, pulling his subjects into the eye of the magic box. Eyes are at the center of his compositions, a sequence of searching stares between himself and those he loved–and those of us who look on. The results are both dramatic and overbearing, as if psychoanalysis could be conducted just by focusing the lens. Close’s recent canvases sometimes zoom in this close but remain dispassionate, keeping a polite distance. Witkiewicz seems to have wanted to swallow his subjects alive.

The theatricality of these portraits announces the presence of a third party–the camera. Everyone, including the viewer, is staring at it, into it, through it. In some ways, Witkiewicz’s project is surprisingly like Close’s in its irony: the sheer mechanical complexity of his approach exposes the ridiculousness of thinking a person can be represented at all. But in these photographs, made early in his tumultuous career, Witkiewicz throws his weight on the other side of the question, asking under what circumstances his cumbersome glass-plate camera might capture a human soul? Like the title character in the novel The Man Without Qualities, written by Witkiewicz’s Austrian contemporary Robert Musil, Witkiewicz seems to say, “I am studying the path of the mystics, to see if it can be driven in a motor-car,” demanding much the same of his camera, the tool of his secular seances.

Like Close, Witkiewicz made frequent self-portraits, among his most daring works: he seems to be staring into the camera with desperate urgency. Will it show him who he is? The “mirror with a memory” was perfectly suited to a man who described himself as a schizophrenic and believed he had several alter egos. The camera was an audience for these rival selves oddly like the stage–Witkiewicz’s better-known artistic venue. He seems to demand a response from the camera as an actor does from his audience. But even more than an audience at a play, the camera is shrouded in darkness, mute.

Witkiewicz is best known for his absurdist dramas and novels and for his aesthetic philosophy of pure form. His father, Stanislaw Witkiewicz, was Poland’s leading impressionist painter, and the younger Witkiewicz–or Witkacy, as he often signed himself–remained a visual artist throughout his life. In 1928, after most of these photographic portraits were made, he founded the S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Company, appointing himself to every position in the firm. Under this farcical heading he painted portraits on commission, distorting the sitters’ features to varying degrees depending on what they’d paid. Portraits he made under the influence of select narcotics were free, and alongside his signature Witkiewicz included the chemical formula of the drug he’d taken. In certain writings he implies that drugs allowed him to see the darkness in his sitter’s subconscious mind. He also suggests he had to lose his mind to paint a world spinning out of control between the world wars and in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, which he observed from the vantage point of an officer in the czar’s World War I army.

Using the camera like a truth drug in his early photographic portraits of family and friends, he aspired to record each person’s metaphysical essence–a goal few contemporary portraitists, including Close, would even articulate. The impossibility of this goal may have contributed to Witkiewicz’s abandonment of what he considered serious art in 1924; he also felt art to be in such disfavor that it was no longer possible to create it.

Witkiewicz’s photography and his portrait company alike emulate the theater, his ultimate vehicle. By report he also assembled composite photographic portraits of himself and of those dear to him from dozens of contact prints off his glass negatives, mounting them together to arrive at an individual’s likeness: a single photograph was never sufficient given the rapid metamorphoses of personality. Could the camera ever record a person to Witkiewicz’s satisfaction, or was the dramatist merely creating a cast of characters from a single real-life person? Only a portion of Witkiewicz’s photographic work survives, so it’s difficult to reconstruct any plans he might have had. He never exhibited his prints but entrusted several friends with albums of them for safekeeping, most of which were destroyed in Warsaw during World War II.

Among the friends depicted in the surviving images are ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski and Polish artists Tadeusz Langier, Arthur Rubinstein, and Witkiewicz’s own father. A series of portraits of the two girls who were Langier’s wards rivals Lewis Carroll’s poignant exploration of the outer boundary of childhood. Experimenting with many of the photographic processes of his day, including carbon, gum-bichromate, and silver-gelatin printing, Witkiewicz also made a striking pair of albumen prints of his fiancee, Jadwiga Janczewska, shortly before she committed suicide in 1914. The first is splattered with chemical stains, the second faded almost to the point of disappearance. Whether these were accidents he embraced or his intentional efforts to make her image vanish as she had done, these prints reveal the symbolic use Witkiewicz made of photography’s tools. Several of his portraits are cracked–perhaps intentionally–and printed cracks and all, announcing the medium’s transparency and materiality all at once. In a gesture even more striking than Close’s recent innovations, Witkiewicz assaults his process and his subject simultaneously.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Lucas II” by Chuck Close; “Helena Czerwijoska” by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz.