Chuck Close, one of the most highly regarded painters of our times, is also almost universally well liked—a rarity among art-world celebrities. The burly, bearded artist, tooling around in his motorized wheelchair, is a familiar sight at New York openings large and small, a gregarious soul who gives generously to worthy causes and makes himself accessible to all and sundry.
He is also a frankly heroic figure. More than once in his lifetime, Close has overcome spectacular odds. Ultimately he has emerged as the foremost portraitist of our day, “perhaps the only artist of his generation who has really extended the meaning of portraiture,” as critic Robert Hughes remarked on the occasion of Close’s first show at Pace Gallery, in 1977. The spinal trauma that left him a partial quadriplegic more than two decades ago still seems like recent history, but as Christopher Finch makes clear in his deeply sympathetic and engaging biography, Close’s beginnings should have ruled out his ever becoming an artist in the first place. Born in 1940 in a small mill town in Washington State, Charles Thomas Close was a well-loved only child who early on suffered from both dyslexia and prosopagnosia (a perceptual disability that, curiously, impairs the ability to recognize faces). He was also nearsighted and astigmatic, and had a neuromuscular condition that made walking difficult. And as if those hardships weren’t enough for any child, he lost his father when he was 12.
A talent for art offered a way out of his miseries and eventually led to his acceptance into the prestigious graduate program at Yale. There his classmates included Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Nancy Graves, Robert Mangold, and Jennifer Bartlett, and the faculty boasted such luminaries as Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, and Al Held, who was in the habit of offering to repaint student work, as Close recalls. By the late ’60s, Close landed in SoHo and produced the first of his trademark monumental portraits.
Among the many strengths of Finch’s biography is his vivid account of the birth of a new bohemia in New York, when artists moved into the vast, vermin-infested, illegal loft spaces below Houston Street, and Max’s Kansas City became the raucous hangout of choice for up-and-coming artists and musicians. He is also adept at analyzing the impact and strengths of Close’s paintings, and at describing the labor-intensive processes behind the creation of these works, which can take months, even years, to finish.
Some of the most gripping passages in the book, not surprisingly, belong to Finch’s reconstruction of what Close and his family and friends refer to as the Event, the massive spinal stroke that felled Close at an awards ceremony in 1988. Again the artist beat the odds—with superhuman support from his wife at the time, Leslie Rose; a few gifted therapists; and professional associates—and discovered a way to paint even with arms that are deadweight below the elbows. It seems no overstatement to describe this “late” style as miraculous; the luminous portraits work on so many levels—as abstractions, likenesses, and character studies.
Despite a 40-year friendship with his subject, the multi-talented Finch (he is also a painter) manages for the most part to skirt the hazards of hagiography, and to offer a balanced and at times suspenseful account of the artist’s life.