Chuck Close on Race

Chuck Close is an American artist noted for his highly inventive techniques used to paint the human face. He is best known for his large-scale, Photo-Realist portraits.

In 1988 a spinal blood clot left Close almost completely paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. A brush-holding device strapped to his wrist and forearm, however, allowed him to continue working. In the 1990s he replaced the minute detail of his earlier paintings with a grid of tiles daubed with colourful elliptical and ovoid shapes. Viewed up close, each tile was in itself an abstract painting; when seen from a distance, the tiles came together to form a dynamic deconstruction of the human face. In 1998 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City mounted a major retrospective of Close's portraits. Close has been called a Photo-Realist, a Minimalist, and an Abstract Expressionist but, as the 1998 retrospective proved, his commitment to his unique vision and his evolving techniques defy any easy categorization.

  • Transcript


Chuck Close: There are two events in my lifetime that are markers in that respect.

I was in my loft on the southern end of Green Street when Martin Luther Kind was assassinated. This was ’68, and the SoHo was not SoHo yet. Which is rags and rats and there were no streetlights and there were only like 20 people who lived between Canal Street and Houston Street. So my wife was in a loft at the other end of the Green and Houston.

So, I left my loft at Canal Street and I started walking towards Houston. As I was walking the street, it was very dark, there were almost no lights, I saw a man approach me, a big man, and he was sort of lumbering along and walking quite fast. All of a sudden he came into a street light and I saw the man look at me – a black man – and I saw him look at me and it was the first time that I ever felt that a black man hated me just because I was white. I didn’t think that with Martin Luther King dying, but I was being held responsible, and I absolutely understand that.

And that was a seachange in America. I just find it so moving that from ’68 until now, in my lifetime, I was able to see this change, and to see America embrace the black man. It’s very moving.

Chuck Close: I was at Yale, in graduate school, and Malcolm X was standing in a corner handing a leaflets and he was easy to recognize because he had red hair. The only black man with red hair you’ve ever seen. And it was not dyed; it was actually red. I went up to him and I – white liberal boy, I said what can I do? And he said, “Get out of the way.” So, I thought, well.

Recorded on: February 5, 2009