Return to Articles


January 28 - April 22, 2007 at Orange County Museum of Art [OCMA], Orange County

by Nancy Kay Turner

"Alex/Reduction Print," 1993.

"Emma," 2002.

"Self-Portrait," 2002.

"Lyle, 2002.

Chuck Close, Prints: Process and Collaboration,” brings together more than 100 prints, accompanied by the original plates, as well as multiple artist’s proofs.  Such depth affords viewers an exceptional and intimate look at the artist’s working methods.  It’s almost as good as visiting the artist’s studio.  Close, known for his monumental photo-realistic self-portraits and portraits of friends, colleagues, and family, was approached in the early seventies by the owner of a prestigious press to create a print alongside a master printmaker.  Although he was skeptical at first, Close (who was an assistant to master printer Gabor Peterdi as a student at Yale) finally agreed to this collaboration.  The results, as can be seen here, justify the wisdom of that decision.

He decided to work in mezzotint, an obscure, out-of-date printmaking technique that permitted unusual tonal effects.  Close deliberately chose this method because “nobody knew how to make a mezzotint. . .I would learn, the printer would learn, and the work would be a real collaboration.”  The resulting print, “Keith” (1972), is from the same photograph as his 1970 painting by the same name, and was the largest mezzotint ever printed at the time.  It also allowed the grid structure to show through the image, which is a technique that Close later adapted to his paintings.

Close uses photographs of his models — sometimes over a period of decades — and re-works them as paintings, drawings (both traditional and non-traditional), and in a variety of printmaking techniques.  These run the gambit from silkscreen, lithography, mezzotint, aquatint, reduction linoleum cut, to elaborate woodcuts.  He and his collaborators - too numerous to list here - print on many unusual surfaces, including aluminum, copper, handmade paper, plastic waffle grill and maple plywood.

During the seventies, Close extended the vocabulary of printmaking by setting impossible goals and then finding unique ways to resolve these issues.  This was the beginning of a golden age for artist-printmaker collaboration, with Jasper Johns, David Hockney, and others pushing the printmaking medium in terms of technique and especially scale.  Close’s work, whether painted, printed or drawn, has always seemed difficult to categorize. Though often photorealistic, his paintings, prints and drawings can be highly abstracted as well.

In the early ‘80s, Close started to explore creating prints with handmade paper, working with Pace Editions director, Joe Wilfer (who Close says is a “very creative guy”).  Together, they often capitalized on mistakes and accidents and incorporated them into the work.  While making the paper pulp multiples, Close discovered that spilled paper pulp pools into little chips, which then can be used to develop other images.  Eventually, Wilfer began to manufacture these chips purposely for other pieces, among them “Self-Portrait” (2001).  Close and Wilfer produced fourteen editions in eighteen months.

One of the most monumental collaborations, which took two years, is the 113-color Japanese style ukiyo-e woodcut print “Emma” (2002), which he created in collaboration with Yasu Shibata.  It is instructive and dazzling to see each of the intricate maple plywood blocks inked and ready to print.  Seeing the innovative and labor-intensive process allows viewers to go “behind the scenes” and witness both the actual plates, linocuts, wood blocks (with pencil markings, and notations) and the proofs leading up to the finished print.  “Alex” (1993) is based on an image of Close’s friend, the painter Alex Katz.  The 14 proofs on display each expose another layer.  The final image is powerful, direct and warm, focusing us on Katz’s intensity and humanity.

Close’s work has always hovered between figuration and abstraction.  With his continuous and obsessive reworking of images by using accretion of dots, fingerprints, crosshatching, or what he calls “inappropriate color” in a grid, the key is that he makes ordinary visages extraordinary.  He never tires of faces and, thanks in part to Close, neither do we.  As a kid with learning disabilities, Close spent his childhood entertaining his friends with magic.  This exhibit proves that he still can magically entertain.