The Self-Proclaimed Elitist

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


Question: How do you define elitism?

Chuck Close: I am an elitist, proudly and elitist.

I think it’s real interesting, in the [2008 US] presidential campaigns that it was not possible to suggest that even though all the candidates were Harvard educated and had gone through the most prestigious private schools; that they had to identify themselves as strictly populist.

I would like to know why, to be a real American, you have to be a bible-thumping, rifle-toting, shot in the beer American, to be really considered an American.

The thing I love about our country is that you have the opportunity to be an equal opportunity elitist. We don’t have a class system or something that doesn’t allow someone to move from one set of issues to another freely. Anybody who wants to become part of the elite, that is the intelligentsia, the people who are concerned with the most rarified kinds of issues, has an opportunity to do it. We’re not stuck in a cast system.

For me, a kid from a poor white trash mill town, I had the opportunity to better myself and there were no barriers or restrictions in my way, other than my abilities and my ability to navigate the system. So, if you get scholarships, and you do well, and you prove yourself, you can move from here to there and end up in the most elite circles and go through the institutions.

It’s the opportunity that’s important. I do think that there are things that are more noble activities, things that are move important to society than some other things.

I’m not saying that people who don’t do these things, that there is something wrong with them or they’re deficient, or they’re not valuable to our society.

I identify with the worker, and I am a worker. I get up every morning and I go into the studio and I work 365 days of the year.

I love the energy level of the people walking in the streets, people are schlepping stuff, and tearing things down, and building it back up. I’m very much part of that world and that mentality. But I’m also interested in trying to transcend my entrance into this society and have experiences that put me some place else.

I didn’t want to say that it elevated me, because there’s a presumption that you are better than you were elevated above. I don’t think of it as – I just think of movement. You move from where you are to someplace else and you have other experiences; and you can change the kinds of experiences you have and lead a different kind of life.

But it’s not a big “E” elitism, I am better than you; it’s an opportunity to do more than you were originally exposed to.

Recorded on: February 5, 2009