Artists do not make objects. They create experiences,
wonderful and moving, not just a colour spread across the
canvas. RANVIR SHAH, in his second and concluding
article tells us how a museum could be a data bank
NEW YORK in winter. The icy chill of the winds cutting through the grid of Manhattan’s streets goes straight for the jugular. Muffing up, I approach the Museum of Modern Art, a pilgrimage, planned many years ago and as I enter the museum, the bright winter sunlight cascades in through the sheer glass sheet overlooking and enclosing the sculpture courtyard. After the preliminary homage to all the shows I wait to see — Artists Choice — a show put together by artist Chuck Close called — Head on, The Modern Portrait. At the entrance, Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’ welcomes you. In his typical style. the Portrait has the postmaster’s
Chuck Close — A self-portrait moustache mingling into his beard which gently unfurls over his coat with flowers ‘in curlicue’ filling up the canvas. Moving in, one enters the gallery — a small room about the size of an average urban drawing room crammed with over 170 paintings, prints, drawings, photographs and sculptures in a dense and provocative installation — exhibition. The portraits are mostly in black and white with touches of colour in a few paintings and sculptures. The show is a part of a series initiated by Kirk Varendoe, the museum’s director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture. There is a feeling of being in a storehouse — image bank where the art has been stocked. It is a completely different feeling from the large virgin spaces usually allotted to each piece in the museums. There is a reminder of a salon-style presentation but within the camp of modernism. A pioneer among artists who began using photographs as a source of imagery in the mid-1960s, Chuck Close has produced an extraordinary body of work dedicated to a single theme, the human face. He is best known as the painter of monumental portraits in which photographically accurate likenesses are constructed from modular, abstract units.
Born in 1940 in Monroe, Washington, Close received his B.A. (1962) from the University of Washington, Seattle and his B.F.A. (1963) and M.F.A. (1964) from Yale University. He studied at the Akademie der Bildenen Kunste in Vienna on a Fulbright Fellowship and taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, before moving to New York in 1967. Close’s work has been exhibited widely in the United States and abroad. A major retrospective of his paintings, drawings, prints and photographs was organised in 1980 by Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The exhibition was also held at the ‘St. Louis Art Museum,’ the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. His work has also been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Kunstraum in Munich and the Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Close is represented in several prestigious public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Australian National Gallery in Canberra and the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna. Close who curated the show and who arbitrated on the choice of work shown says of the intensity of the presentation: “For the purposes of this particular exhibition, I’m against what the Museum of Modern Art is known for which is giving these art works room and space and making each one a contemplative object you can go and stand in front of and reverently pay homage to, without anything else in your peripheral vision. In a funny way I try to subvert what I like about the Museum. And I am sure a lot of people will think there’s something almost sacrilegious about stacking the art up in this way and feel that it’s not showing the proper respect for the work. But it’s another aspect that I’m after. I’m treating these works in a way that’s similar to the way I treat my own collection at home. I lean a lot of pictures against walls or shelves, and I’m always rearranging them. When something goes up on the wall and just stays there, it becomes expected, and it calcifies.
I hate when art becomes invisible in that way; it just becomes meaningless background for cocktail chitchat — it’s just decorative. So, I’m always shoving my pictures around, putting something next to something else to try to get new mileage out of it — to make it not be a tired experience, which it can tend to become. It’s almost like having books in a library; you know all that’s trapped in there, but it isn’t until you go over and reach out and take a book off the shelf and start to leaf through it that you release that material. A painting hanging on a wall can be almost as invisible as information closed in a book, if you don’t do something to change its context — sometimes just by moving it, or even by putting it next to something else, you can make yourself confront a work in a different way.” Marcel Duchamp was a major figure of the Dada movement. There is a self-portrait in silhouette in profile. A gelatin silver print of his by Man Ray and a fine Silver point by Joseph
Stella. Elsewhere lurks a portrait of his by jean Grotti where he is long and extended like a starved Somalian of today’s magazine covers. Chuck Close has purposely stuck to portraiture, more specifically head and shoulder portraits because he believes in the setting of limits and finds that when he sets severe limitations on himself and the work, he does he seems to find “something always liberating about limitations.” Physically, Chuck Close’s recovery from the collapse of a spinal artery that suddenly paralyzed him two years ago has been close to miraculous. Even his doctors could not predict the recovery that Close, 50 has determined for himself besides being quadriplegic after the problem. Close spent nearly two intensive weeks at the museum going through the various
departments of paintings, prints, drawings and photography making his choice for the show. Portraits are what he does, and portraiture was his natural choice. “It must be that I feel tagged-on to a long series of conventions and traditions of portraiture whether I want to be or not. As an artist you may want to feel like you were formed out of thin air with no precursors, just sort of spontaneously happened; but at some point there is an acknowledgement that, yes indeed, there were people who were pushing these issues around all these centuries and, in a way, they kicked the door open for you. That sense of continuity, of things passed on, is in fact one of the wonderful things about being an artist. Artists don’t just make objects — we orchestrate experiences for the viewer. We go into the studio and we do this dance, but nobody watches the dance. Instead there are just these hints, this evidence in the art that this ritual dance took place; and long after you have gone, other people can come along and re-engage in this, and dance along with it.” There is an early self-portrait done by him and another large piece of a friend’s face —Elizabeth.
The paintings look like photo —realist portraits. Thousands of small marks cohese over a grid to form a whole. On closer inspection, the tight, meticulously rendered portraits have to be seen as a field of flickering colours that slowly transform the ambiguous patterns into the face. Viewed from a distance of less than three feet, the paintings are almost abstract. “All the work I’ve done has that building-block, incremental nature,” he says. “There are reasons why I paint like this. I’ve always been overwhelmed by problems of the whole — ‘How am I going to make this thing?’ Not only that, I’m plagued by indecision, so it’s liberating to turn this formidable series of decisions into little yes/no choices. For me, the real joy is in putting conveys of these silly little marks together. Some of them look like hot dogs, some of them look like doughnuts, but they’re pictorial syntax. I build a painting by putting those marks together, just the way a writer makes a novel by slamming words together.” Working with a fierce will and the high technical support of therapists, Close has recovered to a point where he can paint exactly as he did before his attack. An orthotic device is now fixed on his hand and an assistant helps him into a forklift that takes him all over the wall, accessing his large canvasses that have been sold for over a million dollars sometimes.
Though Close tears around New York in his wheelchair, he champions actively art causes and handicap issues. Growing up — dyslexic, this has simply become one more obstacle to surmount, one more problem to solve. “I’m a fighter and I’ve always been a fighter,” he says, “these are just limitations that no one would have picked.” Even now Close has a problem with numbers and over the years he has developed a theory of verbal and visual syntax which forms a philosophy of his life, his work and in many ways the thread of the show he has curated. “With words, we have agreed-upon definitions: once you have a dictionary everybody knows what a given word means. And then you put larger meanings together out of such words. The difference between that and visual communication is that in the latter, we have ways to think about larger issues, but-we do not have any way to discuss the basic building-block marks: the dots, the spots, the lines. So, we don’t tend to talk about that aspect of the work, because there’s no agreed upon jargon for it that everybody understands. So, these basic means of describing tend to become less important than the thing described. The only thing that’s repeatable and definable in writing is the individual word, whereas the only thing that can be agreed upon and defined in art is the whole thing. “Yet as an artist I’m incredibly aware that drawings don’t just happen, and paintings don’t just happen — they don’t just emerge as a whole. Some works seem to be more systematic
city transvestite by Diane Arbus. “Faces, faces, faces. They set themselves in my retinal screen. Close’s theory of syntax seems to slowly make sense but what about photographs? Says he, “I’ve also included photographs, which might seem to have no “syntax” in this sense. A photograph is complete in an instant, but a painting is incomplete until it is finished: with a painting, each thing you, add changes what is already there. Since a photograph is made all at once, you’re not so aware of the importance that various component parts play in the overall experience. But a really great photographer is somehow involved on this level of particulars and makes all these judgments even though it has to be done in an instant. It seems to me that, while photography may be a medium in which you can be competent most easily —virtually anyone can pick up a camera and make a competent image, but no one who first picks up a brush makes a competent painting on their first attempt — it may be the hardest medium in which to develop a personal, idiosyncratic point of view, because there is no evident handwriting, no “signature” style. But there really is a syntactical element to choices made with the camera, and certainly to choices made in the darkroom, or with materials. Here it is fascinating for me to see photographs set next to things that are painted and drawn — as they are in my collection at home — because, with a common denominator of iconography, we’re allowed to see just how much of the experience we’re having is due to various
Left to Right: Marcel Duchamp by Man Ray; Paul Klee’s `The Crooked Mouth and Light Green Eyes of Mrs. B’; and Isamu Noguchi’s ‘Portrait of my uncle.’
about their process or technique than others, but no work of art ever got made without being built from dumb marks. Clusters of dumb marks stack up to make something which stands for something in a life experience. And then when we see the finished thing, we tend to go instantly to the life experience and sort of bypass the lite? dumb marks something which has life experience in it.” This is evident in a way in an honest self-portrait diptych of Frida Kahlo’s where she bares herself, moustache and all with her pet monkey Fulang-Chang. The image haunts me and I go back to the warm, sensuous latin colours several times at the show. From here there are personal connections to the pieces in the show. Gertrude Stein — a bronze sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz, sits with empty yet contemplative eyes thinking about the theory of nothingness! Close by a terracotta head — “Portrait of my uncle” by the modern sculptor — Isamu Noguchi. His eyes shut in meditative silence, the features made sensitively real and tactile in the medium of clay. A brass wire construction by Alexander Calder of Marion Greenwood’s face could easily have passed off as a child’s playing but the wire is drawn in a precise manner creating the impressions of the face. There is a fun piece in brush, pen and India ink by Paul Klee — “The Crooked Mouth and Light Green Eyes of Mrs. B.” from whom my eyes rest upon a photograph of a New York
syntactical choices made.” Those c hoices, in any work of art, orchestrate the experience that we’re moved by, without Our knowing that it took place, almost the way a magician contrives an illusion. A magician can’t just say. “Oh, I want this rabbit to hop out of a hat.” The only way he can make that happen is by making the device that produces that illusion. I’ve always wondered if, at a convention of magicians, when a bunch of them are in an audience watching a performance, they see the illusion, the device that makes the illusion, or perhaps a little bit of both. I guess artists probably look at art in that way because they’ve had the shared experience with the artists they’re looking at; they see both the device that makes the illusion and the illusion itself.” Towards the end, there is a portrait that he has made using his fingers of his daughter and later he discovered a similar piece by Picasso who has used the same method to do a piece of his children. This is not a convenient connection and Close feels very strongly about it and explains: “All paintings are distributions of coloured dirt. You take a stick with hairs glued to the end of it and you drag it around in the coloured dirt and you distribute this across a piece of cloth wrapped around some sticks — and the fact that they make space. and that certain
colours or things make you think about experiences you’ve had, or places you’ve been, is truly amazing. The same material is available to (wry artist, and it always remains amazing to me that you can stock this stuff up one way and build one. thing, and stack it up another way and build something else — that there’s nothing about the unit, the individual unit, that determines its outcome. To use another metaphor. if you think of an architect choosing a particular brick, there’s nothing about the brick that determines what kind of building will be made from it; stack it up one way and you build a cathedral; stack it up another way and you build a slaughterhouse. There’s nothing about the brick that says anything about what’s going to he made out of it. For example, I’ve chosen for this show one of the pictures Picasso made of his children, using his own fingerprints. And I’ve also included a portrait, I did (without knowing about those picassos at that time) of one of my children, using my fingerprints. Looking at those two together makes you realize that the choice of a particular building block to begin with — no matter how distinctive or unusual that choice may seem — doesn’t necessarily determine what the personality or originality of the final. complete work will be. It’s only through the particular, personal manipulations of these basic units that you can build a transcendent experience that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This is the illusion that the magician is finally able, through a lot of practice and manipulation, to build — something that’s an apparition, that’s wonderful that’s moving, that takes you someplace else, that’s not just coloured dirt spread across the canvas.” Andy Warhols’ self-portrait. Alfred Steiglitz’s portrait of wife Georgia O’Keefe. A bronze of Baudelaire by Raymond Duchamp-Villon, another etching of him by Jacques Villon.
Contrasts, similarities, connections that make one’s head whirr around. Says Close of the pleasure he has derived from curating the show: “It’s very difficult to describe an experience: there are not words that describe what it feels like to stand in front of a work of art. If it would be done with reproduction. then you could close all the museums, and a book could literally be a museum without walls. But it doesn’t work that way. The recombination of an exhibition like this one is simply an effort to get people to stand in front of a work of art again, one more time, and, looking at it, think something different from the last time they stood in front of it. That brings us to the question of the endless interaction events like this could have for us in India. Imagine a dancer given the choice to curate a show with pieces from the National Museum or the Madras Museum where she/he could access ancient stone sculpture to bronzes to contemporary art. Multimedia inter-faces with critics and artists could turn many new directions in the world of curating. Art galleries, private collections and museums can all open their wealth of storehouses to create shows and exhibitions that would release tremendous energies. In the words of Kirk Varendoe of MOMA, whose idea it was to start the series: “The role of the museum is not as a selective arbitor of value, but as a data bank of accumulated units of information — each of which may inform, in different, unpredictable ways, the working imaginations of artists who come here. By abandoning the normal conventions of selective, well-spaced hanging, by which museums focus special attention on particular works shows like this free — and challenge — viewers to form their own hierarchies of choice and patterns of attention.” There is no dearth of museums and collections in India, nor is there a shortage of sensitive and dynamic minds that could use this simple yet effective idea to turn our museums from warehouses of art to institutions that are a link with the rich tapestries of the past to the renaissance of the future.