Close Examination: A Chuck Close Portrait on Film

“Chucky Fat Face,” artist Chuck Close admits to being called by fellow artist Richard Serra during their graduate school days together at Yale early on in the film Chuck Close, Marion Cajori’s lauded documentary now available on DVD for the first time from New Video. In Cajori’s film, we see Close full face—both while painting one of his signature self-portraits and through the eyes of his fellow artists and his family. It is this combination of intimate close examination and wide-angle perspective that makes Chuck Close not only an unforgettable study of an individual artist, but also a thought-provoking examination of twentieth-century art and how modern artists mentally approach their art.


Cajori passed away in 2006 after finishing production of the film, which was released theatrically in 2007. In 1998, she won an Emmy for “Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress,” which aired on PBS. The success of that short film spurred her to expand on Close as a subject and bring in more of the material she gathered in interviews with Close’s closest friends, who just happen to be some of the most intriguing American artists of the last half century.

We see the process of Close creating his supersized, super-close-up portraits from the initial photography to finished product—a portrait composed of a grid of tiny abstract paintings that gel at a distance into a non-portrait portrait that denies the illusion of photography while creating a new kind of living illusion. Cajori intersperses shots of Close at work with brief interviews with other artists who discuss Close’s work in the context of their own vision. Many of the insights linger with you well after the film ends. Brice Marden expounds on the tension of abstraction versus figuration in Close’s work, arriving at the final judgment that Close uses “the image as a convenience” to move beyond illusion into the realm of pure energy. Dorothea Rockburne, a total abstractionist, praises Close as one of the “few people who have gotten past Matisse.” Those are just a couple of the many gems that fall from the lips of artists such as Janet Fish, Robert Rauschenberg, Alex Katz, Elizabeth Murray, Lucas Samaras, and Kiki Smith. Serra seems conspicuous by his absence, but classical composer Philip Glass, who assisted Serra and met Close through Serra, more than makes up for Serra by giving a cross-disciplinary perspective on Close’s art as an art of “process,” much like Glass’ own music.

This is a heady film in many ways. Close and his circle think through their art deeply. Fortunately, they are as gifted with words as they are with images and sculpture. And, yet, the human element never gets swamped by the intellectual. Watching Close paint while whistling and humming along to Nina Simone in the background, you share in his pure joy in the work. At one point Cajori mounted a camera onto Close’s brush, providing a dizzying trip inside the creative process itself. When the film explores the 1988 spinal artery collapse that left Close paralyzed in a wheelchair through the words of his wife, Leslie, and his daughters, Maggie and Georgia, you initially experience the anguish of that cataclysm, but the triumph of how they rebounded and flourished through Close’s art quickly brings you back to a better place.

At one point, Brice Marden quotes the classical music author Maynard Solomon talking about Beethoven’s music (and, by extension, all great art) as a “self-renewable energy source.” Chuck Close is a self-renewing source of creative energy in that it inspires you to see the world in a different way while simultaneously renewing your faith in the human spirit through Close’s refusal to stop working as an artist when his legs stopped working. Now that it is available on DVD, Chuck Close can be close at hand, ready to view whenever you need a recharge.

[Many thanks to New Video for providing me with a review copy of Chuck Close.]

Compelling speakers do these 4 things every single time

The ability to speak clearly, succinctly, and powerfully is easier than you think

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rally at the Anaheim Convention Center on September 8, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Barbara Davidson/Getty Images)
Personal Growth

The ability to communicate effectively can make or break a person's assessment of your intelligence, competence, and authenticity.

Keep reading Show less

This 5-minute neck scan can spot dementia 10 years before it emerges

The results come from a 15-year study that used ultrasound scans to track blood vessels in middle-aged adults starting in 2002.

Mikhail Kalinin via Wikipedia
Mind & Brain
  • The study measured the stiffness of blood vessels in middle-aged patients over time.
  • Stiff blood vessels can lead to the destruction of delicate blood vessels in the brain, which can contribute to cognitive decline.
  • The scans could someday become a widely used tool to identify people at high risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's.
Keep reading Show less

How 'dark horses' flip the script of success and happiness

What defines a dark horse? The all-important decision to pursue fulfillment and excellence.

Big Think Books

When we first set the Dark Horse Project in motion, fulfillment was the last thing on our minds. We were hoping to uncover specific and possibly idiosyncratic study methods, learning techniques, and rehearsal regimes that dark horses used to attain excellence. Our training made us resistant to ambiguous variables that were difficult to quantify, and personal fulfillment seemed downright foggy. But our training also taught us never to ignore the evidence, no matter how much it violated our expectations.

Keep reading Show less