A Review of Chuck Close: Life by Christopher Finch

This review, my first book review, originally appeared in the November/December 2010 Art New England. 

“All Stuart’s pictorial interest tended to focus on the human face,” writes art historian Robert Hughes of George Washington’s famed American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. “The remarkable thing was that he could fake the sense of direct confrontation between painter and sitter so well that not a few of his Washington replicas, some done years after Washington’s death, seem to preserve it.”

Chuck Close is the only American painter to ever rival Stuart in his candid concentration on the human face. Christopher Finch’s Chuck Close: Life begins with a fleeting reference to Stuart, with the author on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s steps. The instance sets a subtle tone for Finch’s epic biography, a companion to his 2007 Chuck Close: Work. Finch intimately observes Close’s established reputation as a Process artist aligned with the likes of Minimalists such as Brice Marden or Richard Serra, but positions Close’s larger legacy as that of a distinctly American artist.  Like American masters such as Stuart, John Singleton Copley or Thomas Eakins, Close uses the face, or head, as a motif in his larger explorations into Modern and Post-Modern aesthetics. Finch deftly weaves Close’s life and work into that of the mythic American artist as pioneer, rising above provincial beginnings through honest ingenuity and practice in order to contribute to the broader scope of contemporary art history. “Chuck Close is a self-made New Yorker, and a master of the New York School of painting, but beyond that he is an American artist, in the sense that Vermeer is Dutch, and Cezanne French—representative of an entire culture,” writes Finch in his first chapter.

Close’s childhood, typical of post-war America, was marred by the traumatic and untimely death of his father as well as numerous physical and learning disabilities. His father an inventor, his mother an aspiring musician, Close was born on July 5, 1940 in Monroe, Washington. Close as a precocious and determined child and young adult emerges through Finch’s careful study of family photographs and memorabilia, as well as exhaustive interviews with family members and Close himself. Finch conjures young Close diligently memorizing facts in the bathtub to overcome his dyslexia and learning magic tricks to amuse bullies who tease him for his thick glasses. It is this Close, argues Finch, systematic and industrious in his triumph over trouble, who is the archetypical pragmatic American artist.

Close began his career not in a sophisticated atelier in Paris or New York, but at Everett Junior College in his native Washington. Close enrolled at EJC to become a commercial artist, but he soon aspired to become a painter, akin to such contemporary revolutionaries as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Close’s admiration and replication of de Kooning’s loose, bravura style would haunt him for at least a decade, and Finch astutely analyzes de Kooning’s legacy on Close’s student and mature work. At EJC and later at the University of Washington, and ultimately Yale, where Close received an MFA, Close’s aesthetic mimics de Kooning’s bold, broad strokes, but never disregards figuration. Finch’s narrative winds us through Close’s struggle to shake de Kooning’s formal legacy in order to find his meticulous painterly, pixilated style and signature motif, the head.

Like Stuart, Close documents his sitters’ head once. Working from photographs, Close recycles a likeness through various formal and technical concerns. And, just as Stuart did, Close captures a sense of vivid present-ness in his work. However, Close relies on distinctly Modern and Post-Modern methods of art making to achieve an illusion of reality.

 

Finch’s examination of Close’s evolution from Abstract Expressionism to Process Art, and his provocative blend of the two, gracefully positioned within the greater cultural context of post-war America, is the biography’s principal strength. “For the generation that followed, the sense of scale found in Abstract Expressionism fit in well with other concerns, such as an interest in the sheer size of the pictorial content encountered in such archetypically American forms of expression as Times Square billboards and CinemaScope movies,” writes Finch. “In a real sense, this monumental increase in scale tends to make that most figurative of figurative subjects, the human likeness, less representational and more abstract.” In portraying his “heads,” Close summarizes his sitters into intangible particles of color and shape–a delicate Abstractionism conflated with the scrupulousness of Process. Finch argues this hybrid is a product of Close’s over-arching interest in illusionism found in old masters as much as Saturday Evening Post covers.

Finch’s intimate and decades-long friendship with Close is at the core of his biography, and affords us to penetrate deeply private episodes of the artist’s life and career. Descriptions of “The Event,” or Close’s middle-age metamorphosis into a functioning quadriplegic, are the most affecting passages. Finch’s prose can be jolting and verbose at times; however, his understanding of Close’s context and art historical legacy are significant, equivalent to Lloyd Goodrich’s Thomas Eakins

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A Review of Near Andersonville

In honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as the excellent exhibition The Civil War and American Art, I’m reposting my review of Peter Wood’s Near Andersonville. This review’s first appearance was in the March/April 2011 Art New England

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“Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of the earth has the capacity and passion for pictures,” reads the epigraph of Peter H. Wood’s book, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War. From Frederick Douglass’s “Pictures,” circa late 1864, these words are apt for the mysterious, moving story of a painting and its maker. Winslow Homer (1836-1910), one of the most revered and honored nineteenth-century American painters, authored the small, perceptive painting eventually recognized as Near Andersonville (1865-1866); the painting depicts a pensive slave woman at the threshold of a muddied shelter, obscuring the marching prisoners of war behind her. With her arms akimbo, the woman is painted with an affecting sensitivity uncommon in nineteenth-century portrayals of slave life. Perhaps it is unsurprising that such a painting ended up forgotten in a New Jersey attic for almost a century. Douglass’s straightforward words are apposite for the story of this neglected masterpiece, for if man is the only picture making being, his species is the only that collects pictures. In Near Andersonville, Wood engrossingly elucidates Homer’s motivations for making such an iconoclastic painting, and its first owner’s unexplained magnetism toward such a work. 

Wood starts the story of Near Andersonville in the 1960s in New Jersey, just outside of Newark in the affluent home of a recently deceased banker. Horace Kellogg Corbin dies in 1960, leaving the contents of his house to his children and grandchildren. Eager to organize and dispense with their father’s belongings, Kellogg’s children look to sell everything within the attic to a local junk shopkeeper. Something seems suspicious when the shopkeeper presses the family to get the job done, however. On a hunch, the Corbins inspect the family attic further, discovering the hidden treasure: a Homer painting. Eventually a Corbin family friend identifies the picture as not just any Homer, but a Civil War Homer. But there were no buyers for the paintings in 1960s America, and the Corbins decided to gift the painting to the Newark Museum with the title Captured Liberators. This demur name marginalized the painting’s true subject, and speaks to the country’s inability to process such a difficult, fraught image during the Civil Rights Era. Wood navigates the nuanced context of finding such a painting by a hero of the American canon with a refined, dramatic flourish, explaining the continued obscurity around Near Andersonville  as it came out of the Corbin attic and into a public museum.

The Newark Museum kept rough provenance records which helped in eventually identifying Near Andersonville’s true title, as well as its original owner. With a scholar’s curiosity, Wood traces the Corbin family tree back to Elijah Kellogg, a respected figure in nineteenth-century Elizabeth, New Jersey. One of Elijah’s daughters, Sarah Louisa, died young and unexpectedly in 1866, but not before she committed her life’s work to the education and betterment of “freedmen,” or ex-slaves. Just before her death, Sarah Kellogg was in Port Royal, South Carolina, where Union forces had freed masses of slaves at the War’s start. Miss Kellogg was among the progressive teachers who eagerly made their way to Port Royal and the St. Helena, South Carolina area in order to educate the newly free slaves.  Port Royal is just where Homer’s brother Arthur spent time throughout the war while stationed as a crewmember aboard the USS Kingfisher—a boat that the Port Royal teachers were well acquainted with. Is it possible that Sarah met Arthur while they were both in South Carolina, which spurred her to purchase his brother’s painting? Perhaps. At any rate, Sarah Kellogg was so drawn to Near Andersonville to collect it around 1866, soon after its creation. 

Like his brother, Winslow Homer went south for the war, but as a correspondent for Harper’s. The Homers hailed from abolitionist Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Wood supposes that as a sensitive, precocious boy Homer would have recognized and absorbed the era’s racial tensions. Wood parallels Homer’s early career developments with the anxieties of the day, explicating the painter’s cutting talent for burying a meaning within an arresting image. Most poignant is Wood’s understanding of the palpable empathy Homer exhibits for the woman in Near Andersonville, a compassion for the underdog that pervades Homer’s Civil War oeuvre. Wood looks to works such as The Bright Side and Defiance: Inviting a Shot before Petersburg, Virginia to illuminate Homer’s Civil War experience.  Writes Wood, “…much of Homer’s moral and political growth in wartime, like Lincoln’s, centered upon his expanding consciousness of the grim plight and potential liberation of enslaved black Americans….Both men ended up not too far from where Frederick Douglass had started out—just as most white Americans in our own era have eventually drawn closer to where Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders in the civil rights movement began.” 

In Near Andersonville, Wood tells the captivating story of an abandoned painting with the meticulousness of a historian and the panache of a novelist. More than just an enigmatic painting, Near Andersonville is a testament to the passions of abolitionists, and the halting confusion of the slaves that Lincoln freed. This short book is a quick, learned and touching read.