This article originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, I went to see the painter Chuck Close at his beach house on Long Island. The drive there always reminds me of an escape to the Hamptons in reverse. From the aristocratic brownstones of Park Slope, you work your way steadily down the socioeconomic ladder, past the towering Soviet-style apartment complexes of Coney Island, through strips of pawn shops and gimcrack hotels that give way to rowhouses fronted with plaster statuary, until at last the journey comes to an end at the sun-beaten waterfront of Long Beach, a haven for cops and firefighters looking to blow off summer steam, where you pay for access to the sand amid a throng of rented umbrellas and creatine-engorged pectorals, all of which vanish at sundown into a surfeit of bwomp-bwomping nightclubs along the strip.
If all this sounds like an odd place to find one of the world’s most celebrated artists, a master of the modern portrait whose work is displayed in the great museums, all I can tell you is that pretty much every close friend and relative of Close feels the same way. After 30 years of splitting his time between the tony enclaves of Manhattan and Bridgehampton, he has recently set about leaving much of his old life behind: filing for divorce from his wife, Leslie, after 43 years of marriage, disappearing for the winter to live virtually alone in a new apartment on Miami Beach and retreating from his summer friends to the crowded isolation of Long Beach. Even when Close ventures into the city for a gallery opening these days, he will often turn up in some outlandish costume, in fabrics printed with giant starfish and sunflowers, with lipstick smeared across his face and billowing, extravagant scarves.
Over the past year, I have been stopping off to see Close in various homes and apartments up and down the Eastern Seaboard, trying to get a handle on the changes in his life and their connection to his work. On my most recent visit to his beach house, I arrived a few minutes early and one of his assistants let me in, gesturing toward a staircase that leads to his bedroom and studio. I found Close waiting at the top with a gentle smile. At 76, it must be said, he is starting to look run-down. Apart from the obvious fact of his being restricted to a wheelchair since 1988, when an arterial collapse left him mostly paralyzed from the neck down, he is also entering that awkward phase in life when bodies degenerate unevenly, so that even as he’s become a little corpulent at the middle, his cheeks are starting to hollow out and his powerful neck to narrow, giving the impression that his shiny bald head and tufted white goatee are elongating with time. What hasn’t changed, and mercifully so, is that smile. It is the most hopeful, eager, childlike smile a person can imagine. It would not be going too far to say that it can fill and break your heart at once. Another element of lingering beauty about him is the contour of his wrists and hands. Thirty years of muscular atrophy have left them as stretched and sinewy as fine silverwork, and with only the slightest motor control, he tends to hold them perfectly flat, gesturing this way and that with all five fingers at once. The effect is vaguely regal. When he needs to pick something up, he will pinch it between the outer edges of his palms, which gives the impression of a man cupping water from a stream.
On this particular morning, he wore a paint-splattered smock over a white T-shirt and blue pants, swishing a small glass of cappuccino with both hands. After a quick hug and hello, we went outside to a balcony overlooking the water. The morning sun raked over the dune grass, and the beach was just filling with tourists. Close leaned back in his chair to let the light pour onto his face. He looked tan and rested, healthier than I’d seen him in months, and had been working all morning in the studio behind us on a large self-portrait that I knew he was excited about.
“I always have at least one self-portrait in each show,” he said, “but usually no more than one. And then, with the last show, there were a lot of self-portraits, and I’ve only done self-portraits since then. I think I’m having a conversation with myself.” His work was becoming darker and more interior, he said. “Facing death, or whatever the hell it is. I think it comes out of my diagnosis and not knowing how long I have.”
WHAT YOU NEED to understand as we get into this further is that nobody saw it coming. I don’t just mean his recent focus on death or his urge toward self-portraiture, nor do I mean his bewildering decision to remove himself to Long Beach and Miami, or even the trail of late nights and young women he has begun to leave behind. What I mean is the combination of all these things into a period of metamorphic transition here at the end of a legendary life.
I think now of an afternoon we spent together three years back. Maybe the signal was already there. It is so hard to know. This was at his studio on Bond Street. It looked about the same as now: fading black facade of peeling paint, windows papered over, without a sign or even a doorbell to announce the light within — and behind that leaden barrier: him, whirling about in his mechanical chair, his body slumped low in the seat, his chin thrust high as he scrambled to complete the day’s work. I remember there was an old television set in the corner, blaring chatty daytime garbage, and the floor was specked with bits of paint under a bank of skylights, with large photographs of Barack Obama propped against one wall and, at the far end of the room, atop an aluminum easel, an incomplete portrait of the artist Cindy Sherman — eight feet high and wrought in a palette that dissolved from creamy greens and grays into a riot of hot pink at the bottom. At the time, I thought little of this shift on the canvas, or what it might portend. The intrusion of pink at the lower edge was unlike anything I’d seen him paint before. It seemed lurid and garish, not at all to my taste, but it was, after all, an incomplete work, and he was Chuck Close.
He was Chuck Close. Fifty years of paint on canvas, and if there was anything you came to expect, it was the eccentricity of his vision. He arrived in New York in the 1960s from as great a distance as any American kid was likely to be. I mean this not just geographically, though certainly that was true. Raised in Everett, Washington, on the Puget Sound, he was a tall and stocky child but oddly vulnerable, forever wrestling some new illness — a neuromuscular condition that made it difficult to lift his feet, a bout with nephritis that kept him bed-bound for most of sixth grade. When he did attend school, he was a lumbering student who struggled to read and write. Later he would understand these limitations as dyslexia, but in the 1950s, as he told me once, “you weren’t dyslexic, you were stupid.” Year by year, he slipped by, mustering what skills he possessed: He would entertain his family with magic tricks, dressed in vaudevillian garb, and when his teachers assigned a paper on the travels of Lewis and Clark, he drew an expansive map of the expedition instead.
Afternoons he often spent in silence at his grandmother’s house next door, watching as she knit stars to sew together into a tablecloth. He had always known he wanted to be an artist, but it was difficult to define precisely what that meant. After high school, he commuted to art classes at Everett Junior College, then transferred to the University of Washington and completed a master’s at Yale. By the time he reached Manhattan in his 20s, he may have appeared, at 6-foot-3 with a beaming grin and a gravelly baritone, the picture of robust confidence, but the picture belied his childhood struggles and insular experience of life. What he knew was that he possessed a gift for portraiture so lifelike that it seemed like malpractice not to express it.
Take a look at the early stuff, just after his arrival in the city. Start with “Nancy” from 1968 or “Phil” from ’69. You’re looking at nine-foot portraits so filigree-precise that they actually read as black-and-white photographs. In fact, if you’re looking at reproductions of the work, it’s difficult to know whether you are seeing a photograph of his painting or the photo on which his painting was based. The detail is mathematical, mechanical, which is not to say rote. Nothing irritates Close more than referring to his early portraiture as “photorealism,” but setting aside the art-historical baggage of that term, it’s a pretty good description of what you see.
Even as you slip forward a few years and he begins adding color in the early 1970s, you’ll find no painterly style on the canvas, no distinctive brushwork — namely because he had given up brushes to work with a paint sprayer, which he considered a homage to Vermeer. “I can figure out how any painting in the history of art got made, with the exception of Vermeer’s,” he told me. “It’s like a divine wind blew the pigment on.” What you get in those early portraits, then, are paintings in which the viewer’s attention is directed not to the hand of the artist or the texture of the paint, but to the faces themselves — trying to divine, in those mug-shot expressions, a crumb of attitude or emotion. That is to say, your imagination is drawn to the subject of the work, not the object.
Remember that Close was making these portraits at a time of spectacular upheaval in American art, when many of his contemporaries were preoccupied with wild, experimental work — with artists like Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson moving into the desert, where they would trap lightning, build a mile-long city of black stone and extend a huge spiral walkway into the Great Salt Lake. Just a few years earlier, the prominent critic Clement Greenberg effectively banished the kind of work that Close was doing from the ranks of modern art. “With an advanced artist,” Greenberg wrote, “it’s now not possible to make a portrait.” So in the world that Close inhabited, his work presented a strange duality. In one sense, the decision to paint photographic portraiture was almost laughably conventional. In another, it was among the most defiant things a downtown artist could do, or anyway, the thing most likely to catch hell on a Saturday night, when you could find Close a few blocks north of his studio at the bar Max’s Kansas City, surrounded by artistic insurgents like Richard Serra and Dorothea Rockburne and struggling to defend his work against the impression that it wasn’t really art at all — or as Close grumpily described the dynamic to me, “Like I might as well have been a prostitute inviting people up to my room to screw me.”
One of the things you hear people say about Close now, with the supposed benefit of hindsight, is that the medical catastrophe he suffered in 1988, which took his mobility and nearly killed him, also revolutionized his work. The nightmare crashed down on a warm Wednesday afternoon in December. He was attending an awards ceremony for artists at Gracie Mansion when a flattening exhaustion swept through him and he stumbled outside, tripping down the street to Doctors Hospital, where he collapsed inside the doorway and, within an hour, lay paralyzed from the neck down. But losing control of his hands, the story goes, forced him to abandon the conventions of realism and develop a novel way of painting: dividing his canvas into a grid and then filling one square at a time to create a dynamic neo-pointillist effect. This is a tidy, bow-wrapped narrative, which should be the first indication that it’s wrong. Something about Close seems to invite this sort of pop-psych exegesis.
The other great yarn that circulates about his work involves the medical condition prosopagnosia, which is commonly known as “face-blindness.” Because Close has difficulty remembering new people and believes that he suffers from the condition, the temptation has proved irresistible for his fans and critics to draw a link between prosopagnosia and his interest in painting faces. Which makes for a charming story and might be true, but the evidence is pretty shaky. Some of Close’s oldest friends have told me that they never heard him mention face-blindness until he reached an age when forgetting people is common, and anyway, he tends to paint the same familiar people repeatedly — like his ex-wife, Leslie, and his daughters, Maggie and Georgia, and his pals Cindy Sherman and Philip Glass — so it’s not clear in what sense you could argue that he’s using the work to navigate an unfamiliar landscape.
The evidence that quadriplegia revitalized his work is even more slender. You can look pretty closely at the paintings just before his collapse and the ones right after, and at some point you’ve got to admit there’s hardly any difference at all. The truth is that by the time of the collapse, he had been experimenting with grids and fragmented portraiture for more than a decade. Even as his realistic portraits garnered acclaim, selected for shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Biennial, and Close himself gravitated to the center of the New York art scene, he was also, in the relative privacy of his studio, tinkering with the very qualities he was becoming known for. Not to say that the medical catastrophe was anything short of terrorizing for Close, transforming every other aspect of his life, just that weirdly, almost providentially, not so much the work.
Examples. A few months before the collapse, Close opened a show at the Pace Gallery in Manhattan, where he included the paintings “Cindy II” and “Francesco II,” each composed with thousands of irregular dots; the next year, fresh out of the hospital and eager to return to work, he strapped a paintbrush to his failing wrist and completed “Janet” and “Elizabeth.” Anyone who looks at these four paintings and claims to discern a before/after split is talking stuff. Or better yet, compare the paintings “Alex II” and “Lucas II.” One was completed in the year before his collapse and the other one year after — but without looking at wall text or captions, you couldn’t tell which is which.
What’s startling about this emerging style, particularly as it evolved into the formal structure of the grid, is that it doesn’t just approximate the semblance of a human face. From a distance, the squares of the grid actually cohere into a portrait that’s nearly as vivid, in its way, as his early photorealist work. Looking at a painting like “Lyle,” you see minute shades of detail: a gentle furrow in the brow, a wrinkle of amusement at the corner of the eye. This impression of detail, where no actual detail can be found on the canvas, is mesmerizing and confounding. What you are seeing isn’t really there. You are no longer looking at the actual surface of the painting, but some apparition hovering above it, a numinous specter that arises in part from the engagement of your own imagination. Through the painting, Close has accessed the perceptual center of your mind, exploiting the way we process human identity: the gaps of knowledge and the unknown spaces we fill with our own presumptions, the expectations and delusions we layer upon everyone we meet.
Which is why, by the time I made my way out to see the new house in Long Beach for the first time last year, I had come to think of Close not merely as a painter of enormous faces but as someone engaged in thinking about the fragile boundary between identity and perception. So when I entered his studio on a sweltering afternoon last summer and discovered, mounted upon the easel, a looming self-portrait in glaring neon, utterly devoid of depth or detail, as if he had taken the pink bottom of that Cindy Sherman portrait from a few years earlier and, rather than complete the painting, embraced its crude quality as a new technique, I couldn’t help wondering what Close, after 50 years of struggling to capture the human face and human identity, was trying now, at the end of his life, to reveal about his own.
BY THIS TIME, it was clear to everyone around Close that something unusual was going on with him. The mystery was what. With each passing season, he seemed to grow more distant, disappearing to Miami and Long Beach, where few of his friends had gone to visit or even knew where to find him. This was the backdrop against which I drove out to see him that day last summer. I arrived just as he was finishing a daily medical ablution and found myself waiting in his studio, gawping at the new self-portrait in all its coruscant color.
It’s difficult to know how to describe that painting, or the series of new work it was part of, except to say that it was a radical departure from the last 20 years of his art. Gone were all the swoops and swirls that he typically paints into each square of the grid. In their place, he had filled each cell with just one or two predominant colors, creating a clunky digital effect like the graphics of a Commodore 64. The colors themselves were harsh and glaring, blinding pink and gleaming blue, while the face in the portrait — his face — was cleaved right down the middle, with one side of the canvas painted in different shades from the other. To the left, his skin was peach, his shirt deep red and the background mint green; to the right, his skin was pink, his shirt sapphire and the backdrop orange. There was a sea-green splotch hovering over his neck, with a long tail that poked into his nose, and one ear was radioactive yellow; the nose was honking blue.
As I stood there puzzling over the painting, I heard the elevator in the hallway clatter to a stop, and Close wheeled into the room behind me. He was wearing a pair of huge turquoise eyeglasses, a dark blue smock and not much in the way of pants, just his bare legs sticking out from the wheelchair and wrapped in white compression socks. He smiled and, gesturing toward the canvas, said: “It’s almost, what? Fresco-like?”
The painting did not strike me as fresco-like by any divination, but rather than say so, I blurted out, “Interesting that it’s halved.”
Close pursed his lips, and we continued staring at the image in silence. Light poured through the windows and skylights, and the sound of the beach blew through the room in gusts of chatter. After a while, I pulled a heavy wooden chair from the side of the room to the middle, taking a seat beside him.
“So,” I said. “Tell me how you’ve made this place into a home.”
A tiny frown flashed over his face as if he were making some private calculation, then he shrugged and proceeded to answer the question I hadn’t asked.
“I got to the point where I felt it was no longer my art world,” he said. “There’s not a lot of interest in painting.”
By this, I gathered that he meant the renewed emphasis on conceptual art in certain quarters, with its preference for cultural commentary over the old tradition of artistic making. “The dirtiest word in art is the C-word,” Close said. “I can’t even say ‘craft’ without feeling dirty.” He attributed this change in part to the economic eruption of modern New York. “I blame what’s happened in art on how expensive it became to be an artist,” he said. “When I came to New York in ’67, a 2,500-square-foot studio was $85.” Without access to such large private studios, he said, many young artists have developed alternate ways of working, like drawing plans for an installation or a sculpture they hope to make but not actually producing the work until it has been selected for a show.
“It’s post-studio art!” he said. “Sculptors who never see the work before the exhibition. It’s designed on the back of a cocktail napkin at 35,000 feet, and then they build it for the first time in Germany.” For an artist who learns to work this way, he added, a studio can become unnecessary, even when one is available. “I’ve been involved for many years with the American Academy in Rome, the most beautiful studios that anybody will ever be offered, and depending who’s on the jury, some years there won’t be a single person who makes anything,” he said. “They sit in these beautiful studios, they put the work on the wall that they used to get the grant and then they just talk. For a year. It’s criminal. You can talk in any room! Those rooms should be used to make paintings or sculpture. And then out of this post-studio thing came the absolute scariest notion of all, which is de-skilled art. Have you heard that? De-skilled! It’s like — whatever you do, don’t show them you have any facility!”
Close mentioned that after his collapse in 1988, he briefly considered shifting to conceptual work himself. “I’m lying in bed, paralyzed — now what am I going to do?” he said. “I thought: I can make work of a conceptual nature. I can put a level on a shelf as well as someone else! But I was going to miss the activity of pushing paint around. So pretty soon, I thought, I’m going to get the paint on the canvas if I have to spit the paint on the canvas. They found me a room in the basement, an art-therapy room. It was so depressing: unfinished baskets hanging from the ceiling, because the person died before they finished the basket, or they gave them wood-burning...”
His voice trailed off, and he paused for a moment.
“You’re paralyzed, doing wood-burning?” he said quietly.
Then he paused again, and a look of confusion came over him.
“Why am I talking about this?” he asked.
“You were talking about the therapeutic role of process,” I said.
“Right,” he said, and resumed the story. But a minute later, he lost his train of thought once more. Then another few minutes passed, and it happened again.
After half a dozen of these, I suggested we take a break. I was staying in the area for a few days, so it would be easy to return, and we agreed to meet the following afternoon for lunch. I gathered my things and wandered outside to the boardwalk. Toned young couples raced by on Rollerblades, and the shouts of children echoed over the water, and I found myself shuffling through the crowd in a state of bewilderment. I had no idea what to make of the strange forgetfulness that came over Close, or his new style of painting, or whatever had led him to Long Beach, but it seemed to me as I traipsed the boardwalk that I could really only hope to connect with the work through the man. I was reminded of a night a few months earlier, when I was living at an artist colony in upstate New York and attended an evening exhibition of another resident’s work. He was a videographer with a lively sense of humor, and I’d come to enjoy our conversations, but it turned out that he spent his artistic energy shooting footage of himself breaking dinnerware. I mean this literally: His show that evening consisted of more than an hour of film that depicted saucers and cups flying through the air and smashing. As I watched this, I confess, I found little to admire in it, but I was increasingly curious about what in the world inspired him to make it.
It seems to me now, with greater reflection, that the value of experiencing another person’s art is not merely the work itself, but the opportunity it presents to connect with the interior impulse of another. The arts occupy a vanishing space in modern life: They offer one of the last lingering places to seek out empathy for its own sake, and to the extent that an artist’s work is frustrating or difficult, you could say this allows the greater opportunity to try to meet it. I am not saying there is no room for discriminating taste and judgment, just that there is also, I think, this other portal through which to experience creative work and to access a different kind of beauty, which might be called communion.
In any event, as I passed through the clamor of the boardwalk that afternoon, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the new painting, but I was eager to understand what it meant to Close. Removed from his old friends and landscapes, feeling alienated from the New York art world and disconcerted by its inclinations, he was working in this divergent new mode, in a blaring slate of colors, and was painting precisely what he wanted to paint, because he wanted to paint it. In that sense, if no other, it was dazzling to consider the self-portrait and to witness the audacity of an artist working so independently at the end. I thought of the critic William Hazlitt’s fascination, in the early 1800s, with what he called “the old age of artists,” about which he wrote, “One feels that they are not quite mortal, that they have one imperishable part about them,” and I was reminded of the long ruminations by Edward Said on the same phenomenon, which Theodor Adorno had termed “late style” — that period when when an artist approaching the end of life begins to embrace a newfound dissonance. “Each of us can supply evidence of late works which crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor,” Said wrote. “But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?” Thinking of a musician like Beethoven, Said wrote: “Late works constitute a form of exile.”
IN LONG BEACH, exile had the sound of summer, and I spent a few more days with Close, watching the tides roll out. We would sit at the long table on the middle floor, eating Indian takeout and discussing the commercial compromise made by artists who rely on assistants to make their work. “I look at my friend Jeff Koons, and I think, Why in God’s name does he want to do that?” Close said. “Why would he give up the fun part to become the C.E.O. of an art-manufacturing company?”
We drank whiskey overlooking the beach, talking about his relationship with his daughters. “I’ve been in a struggle with my children to see which of us was going to be a grown-up first, and they won,” he said. “I still live entirely in the moment. I don’t think about the past. It drives the people around me crazy.” Then suddenly, in the middle of some wandering thought, often in midsentence, he would stop, and it was clear that he no longer knew where his own voice had taken him. In moments of pique and humor, he trash-talked the critics who savaged his early work. “When Hilton Kramer was the critic at The Times, he reviewed my first big show,” he said. “He took half a page to say how awful it was, and I still remember the quote. He said, What Mr. Close makes is evidence of the kind of crap that washed ashore when the tide of Pop Art went out. Isn’t that great?!”
“It’s brutal,” I said.
“It’s great,” he said again. “If Hilton Kramer liked my work, I’d slit my wrists. John Canaday hated me, too. Deborah Solomon doesn’t speak to me anymore, because I was at a cocktail party and she’d just written a profile of someone that was so nasty, and I said: I don’t know how you live with yourself. It’s like being a meter maid — all you do is bring people misery.” He talked about his late-life affinity for younger women. “It turns out that a wheelchair is some sort of funny babe magnet,” he said. “When I’m going through the Miami Art Fair, thousands of beautiful women are hanging all over me.”
I mentioned that this seemed to trouble his ex-wife and daughters, with whom I was in contact. “They worry whether people are taking advantage of you,” I said.
“They do nothing to keep informed,” he said quickly. “I would be happy to let them know.”
At one point, we slipped out of the house, away from his medical staff, whose constant presence can be overwhelming, and we raced down the street with the jittering energy of a slapstick jailbreak, Close barreling over curbs and around corners, his wheelchair canting to the edge of toppling, while I loped along, trying to keep up, and we settled for lunch at the sidewalk table of a Mexican restaurant, where we fed each other forkfuls of fish tacos, empanadas and arepas.
During this time, several things became clear to me, and others more confusing. For example, I learned — at first in confidence and then with permission to tell you here — that early last year, Close received a mistaken diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and that he spent weeks in a panic over the implications, expecting to have only one or two more years of life and believing that his new phase of work would be his last. A few weeks after he told me this, we had lunch at his usual table in the Manhattan restaurant Il Buco, and I asked him how to handle the misdiagnosis in print. Close leaned back in his chair and studied the ceiling for a moment. “Just say that I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” he said, “and it turned out to be wrong, but there’s another diagnosis that I haven’t made public.” What I can tell you about the new diagnosis is that it does not signal imminent demise and that Close today is, as he has been for much of his life, in the grip of an unrelieved cavalcade of physical setbacks, including bedsores and routine catheterization, but none of these things can be made to explain, at least not fully, the rising eccentricity of his manner.
Many of the things I learned about Close became apparent in oblique ways. During my first few visits to the beach house, I was under the impression that his second marriage, to the artist Sienna Shields, whom he married in 2013, was still going strong and that any additional flings and forays with other women were simply part of their arrangement. Shields would join us for drinks, chatting amiably about Alaska, her home state, where she and Close were building another house. When Close and I drifted off to chat privately, she spent her time rustling through piles of art supplies and boxes stacked in a room at the western end of the second floor, which she and Close at first explained as having something to do with her changing studios. This seemed a little vague, but I didn’t realize how much they left out until one afternoon, when I arrived for lunch and Shields was gone — while an even younger woman named Eve was at Close’s side, joining us at the banquet table, helping Close eat, touching him affectionately and demonstrating with every gesture her position as his girlfriend.
I had arrived that day with the founder of the Pace Gallery, Arne Glimcher, whose renown as the director and producer of movies like “The Mambo Kings” and “Gorillas in the Mist” may at this point approach Close’s own. Glimcher is also a serious sailor who was just about to depart for a journey around the easternmost point of the Iberian Peninsula with his wife, Millie. It was clear that he was just as baffled as I was by the sudden appearance of Eve, whom he confessed to having never met, or heard about, on our drive back to Manhattan a few hours later, his driver inching through traffic on the Belt Parkway while Glimcher, in a trim blue blazer festooned with a red lapel pin to denote his selection for the French Legion of Honor, calmly stroked the back of a little gray terrier asleep on his lap. A few weeks later, I ran into Glimcher at a gallery opening downtown. He was just back from the sail, and he grabbed my arm, pulling me into a coat room.
“So, it’s official,” he said. “Chuck and Sienna are over.”
“O.K.,” I said. “How do you think I should describe the situation with Eve?”
Glimcher frowned. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess just say it’s a fact.”
In between these occasions, I had long and difficult conversations with many people who have been intimate with Close through the years, including both of his daughters, Georgia and Maggie. Although these interviews were on the record, with tape recorders running, each of them later expressed remorse for some of the things they said, and I have chosen to withhold most of it. The takeaway is that Close’s decision to file for divorce from their mother, Leslie, in 2010, seemed to the children like a precipitating event for many of the changes in his life since then, which at various points each of them referred to as an identity crisis in old age. For Georgia and Maggie, tears came readily, and I would characterize their prevailing sentiment as an amalgam of love, heartbreak and longing. Their father’s departure from the family routine and his relocation to, of all places, Long Beach and Miami, left them feeling alienated and displaced. “There’s a social disconnect, an emotional disconnect sometimes,” Georgia told me. “I don’t think any of us, even in our family really, can put our finger on it.” In a conversation with Maggie, she told me: “I worry about my dad to the point that it’s debilitating.”
Awkward in the role of intermediary but beyond the point of choosing, I conveyed these concerns to Close at various times. His reactions ran from sadness to irritation. “You see, I can’t say I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life without saying that my relationship with their mother did not make me happy or my children did not make me happy,” he told me one afternoon. “You would think that by now they would just want me to be happy.”
“The challenge for me,” I responded, “is to write about these things without overstepping boundaries.”
“Yeah,” he said quietly.
“Because I don’t want to paint some phony caricature of you, either.”
Close let out a sigh. “Well, I think you can say that I’ve loved being a father,” he said. “Nothing matters to me more than my children.”
I want to tell you that as he said these words, it was obvious that he meant them, even if they seemed to contradict the sentiment just before. As summer turned to fall, then winter and spring, I found myself gripped by uncertainty about the whole project of writing about Close in a period of such turmoil. He was producing startling new work that I wanted to understand, but it seemed to emerge from a spirit of liberation that left a path of devastation behind. I could not help wondering whether it was right, or fair, or even possible to convey in words the man that Close was becoming, and I also wondered, in a more practical sense, how to write about a person in the midst of transmogrifying flux — what of any certainty could be noted, what insight might be made?
It occurs to me now that what this comes down to is the nature of portraiture itself. Writing and painting, descriptive undertakings both, rise and fall on the same ground. The basic mistake of either is to orchestrate too much. If the great insight of Close’s work has been to make portraiture vivid by removing detail, forcing viewers to contribute their own perception to the process, what I have noticed as a reader and writer is that a similar principle applies. The best you can do is to provide a constellation of individual points, just enough to let the reader form an opinion of her own. This can be challenging when the writer has something certain in mind to say, but it becomes all the more difficult when there is nothing certain to say at all. A written portrait of a portrait painter is recursive from the start, but when you’re trying to get a fix on the identity of an identity fixer whose own identity is coming unfixed, the whole thing goes uroboric.
So, you work with what you have. You mix one color at a time. You think about Close as a child in the timbering Pacific Northwest, a dyslexic kid in a fragile body searching for a way up and out. You find an old photograph of him standing outside his parents’ clapboard home, dressed to perform magic in a towering top hat, an ascot tossed around his neck, one leg cast across the other in calculated nonchalance, as he leans just so on the thick end of a pool cue with his knee-high boots cupped like armor around his feeble legs. You think about how he would perform a trick, then reveal the illusion to his audience — and then perform the trick again, confident that the perception of viewers would enhance the show. You consider his father’s death at 48, the same age his own medical calamity struck, and how his mother went off to work, leaving him to sit with his grandmother before the black-and-white television set, watching the Army-McCarthy hearings while she knitted four-inch stars and sewed them together into a tablecloth or a blanket, these rows and columns of individual elements that merge together in a single work. And from these fragments of what you’ve seen and heard, the details you glean from his past, you hope that like one of his vast grid paintings, something will cohere, that within the noise and contrasting elements, a portrait of Chuck Close will rise.
ON MY LAST VISIT to Long Beach, Close and I wandered into his studio for a look at his latest self-portrait. As we entered the room, I felt something jump in my throat and heard myself whisper, “My god.” The painting was six feet high and rendered in dusky, ominous tones, with one side of his face dissolving into darkness. It was as if, after months of struggling to present himself in sensational color, he was finally settling into a quiet peace with the twilight of his life. I mean to say, there was nothing gloomy about the painting, nothing tragic or diminished or broken, but it was freighted with the necessary weight of time, emanating the unknown.
I had seen the painting once before, six months earlier, when he was beginning it. He had just arrived in South Beach from New York, and I was stuck on a layover at the Miami airport, so I decided to slip out of the terminal for a quick glass of whiskey at his apartment. The sky was heavy with incipient rain, giving the city a wounded air, and we sat beside a bank of windows overlooking the ocean. At the time, the canvas that would become his new painting was mounted on the easel, entirely blank except for a few horizontal streaks of pink and blue squares. Without much thought, I asked, “How is the painting going?” and a strange look washed over his face. He turned to stare out the window for a moment, then said in a low and raspy voice: “I’ve never had an artist’s block before. If I just get to work, it’ll happen. But I worked on a painting in Long Beach after my last show, and I sat there so confused. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. So I quit that painting and backed up, and hoped a change of venue would make it happen.”
“Could you be happy if the block doesn’t go away?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t want to,” he said.
Six months later, he was back in Long Beach with the canvas nearly complete. It was the darkest painting he’d ever composed and, to my eye, one of the most beautiful.
“I was talking to Paul Simon yesterday,” he said. “Did you see the piece in The Times that he’s going to retire?”
Three weeks earlier, Simon had released a new album, “Stranger to Stranger,” with its cover taken from a portrait that Close painted of the musician a few years back. Then, the day before I saw Close, Simon announced that the album would be his last. “I called him up, and I said, ‘Artists don’t retire,’ ” Close told me. “I think I talked him out of it. I said: ‘Don’t deny yourself this late stage, because the late stage can be very interesting. You know everybody hated late de Kooning, but it turned out to be great stuff. Late Picasso, nobody liked it, and it turned out to be great.’ ” Close reminded Simon that Matisse was unable to continue painting late in life. “Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was,” Close said. “Paul said, ‘I don’t have any ideas.’ I said: ‘Well, of course you don’t have any ideas. Sitting around waiting for an idea is the worst thing you can do. All ideas come out of the work itself.’ ”
He pointed out that Simon is 74, the same age he was early last summer. “I told him, ‘When you get to be my age, you’ll see,’ ” he said with a laugh.
As he spoke, I became acutely aware of how much it has meant for Close to continue working this past year, to force himself through the block, to confront the canvas anew each day. He had cleared the gantlet and emerged with a painting that seems to me a masterwork, but the glowering threat of time remained and was unlikely ever to relent. I remembered how I had left him that day in Miami, as it grew late and I had to return to the airport. I was packing my things and glanced at the new canvas one last time on my way out the door. The sprawling white emptiness suddenly felt overwhelming, the horizontal lines of pink and blue insufficient, and I stood there for a moment, wondering where he would take it, whether he would ever complete the painting, or if, as in his deepest fears, he had already finished his final work. The row of pink squares looked to me then like the knuckles on an accusatory finger, pointing through the window to the skein of clouds gathering over a dark, unruly ocean.