In this recent suite of pictures the great serial self-portraitist Chuck Close returns to a technique he first employed in the 1970s. He divides his canvas into a grid, then fills each square with a monochrome wash in red, yellow, or blue, essentially imitating the color-printing process. By reducing the canvas to uniform squares he eliminates the possibility of gestural expression so highly prized in the tradition of self-portraiture. In a lesser painter’s hands, the results could fall flat.
For Close, however, structure signals a kind of freedom. While always adhering to the basic process of filling in blocks with color, he chooses which colors go where. His squares, visible from a great distance in these monumental canvases, do not adhere to the realist system of describing; they jump significantly out of line. In the brightest and boldest canvas, the four quadrants are interrupted by a green line that snakes up the artist’s face and grabs his eyeball.
The balance between mathematical precision and unnatural color produces a kind of neo-Fauve aesthetic, returning us to spaces of discovery that remain exciting, even when painting has no rules left to break. Visual proofs of the complexity of the relationship between eye and mind, these portraits fascinate both. Here’s what painting can do that nothing else can, they seem to say. To sum up: the mechanics are simple; the results are anything but.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 92.