Huge, photographically exact paintings of faces that signify what?

To anyone interested in contemporary art, the name Chuck Close will conjure up an image of a huge, frontal, photographically exact painting of a human head complete down to every pore, facial wrinkle, hair, and whisker.

This painting could easily be mistaken for an oversize photograph, for it will lack any painterly touch, sentiment, or idealization, and will be a precise duplicate -- in its tonalities and color effects -- of a black-and-white or color photograph.

It will also be startling and bit awe-inspiring, for the idea that anyone would spend so much time -- in some cases 14 months -- transferring a photograph to canvas by hand seems unreal and more than a little mind-boggling. "Why do it?" we want to know, once the initial shock of seeing something so real made so huge has begun to wear off. And then, "Now that he's done it, what does it signify?"

What it signifies may not as yet be quite clear, for Close seems intent on pursuing the numerous conceptual and technical aspects of his original idea. What is clear, however, is that he is now at a point in his career when enough works --and variations of those works -- have accrued for us to get a toehold on his intentions and on the work itself.

Sixty-five of his creations are now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art here in an exhibition originally organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and subsequently seen also in St. Louis and Chicago. It's an impressive but in some ways a disturbing show, for Close confronts us with paintings, watercolors, pastels, drawings, and prints that should be easily dismissible as mere copies of photographs, but which yet, somehow, get under our skin.

There is never any doubt that a Chuck Close painting is based on a photograph. As a matter of fact, Close is so anxious to retain the precise quality of a photograph for his painting that he first overlays whatever photograph he uses with a grid, and then transfers that image square by square onto a similarly gridded canvas.

In his full-color paintings he goes even one step further. In a method analogous to the photomechanical process, a color photograph is separated into its component colors. This then serves as a working drawing from which Close systematically paints three single-color portraits, one on top of the other: first in red, then blue, and then yellow. When completed, the effect is remarkably similar to that of a glossy photographic magazine illustration.

Throughout, his attitude remains detached and unemotional. He is not interested in the psychological or personal characteristics of his subjects, only in the process of transferring the colors, shapes, and textures of each tiny square of the grid from photograph to canvas as faithfully as possible. He has said that in making a painting, he is usually "not conscious of making a nose or an eye, but only of distributing pigment on a flat surface."

But why take paintings produced by such a mechanical process seriously? Where in all this painstaking copying of photographic effects is there any room for individual creativity -- for the sort of personal expressiveness we have traditionally assumed was so central to the creation of art? At best, doesn't this whole process turn the maker of such work into a blind duplicator of photographic images? And what's worse, images chosen in the first place for their bland, deadpan ordinariness?

Not only that, there's also the question of size. Would his heads be as effective if they weren't so huge? If they were painted to human scale rather than blown up to nine by seven feet?

I've been wrestling with these and similar questions about Close's work since my first introduction to it in 1970. (At that point I advised an aquaintance against buying a Close painting because I felt interest in his work would blow over in two or three years.) And I must admit that I still can't come to any satisfactory conclusion about it -- very possibly, I suspect, because Close always manages to reopen the issue every time I think it closed.

The fact of the matter is that he is highly innovative within the narrow confines of his stated premise and theme, and has, in recent years, produced some extremely interesting images. These, while still intrinsically photographic, also partake of some of the attributes of abstract and minimal art.

These are heads whose identity is determined by a complex series of dots or squares by varying darkness or color, or by the controlled application of his own ink-padded fingerprints to the canvas or paper.

But his most dramatic -- and to my mind most successful --painterly approach with his traditional dependency upon a photographic image. In his just-completed "Stanley," each square of the grid not only contributes toward the photographic "likeness," but exists as a tiny abstract painting in its own right as well. It's a stunning and totally successful painting, and revives hope that my still-nagging doubts about Close as an artist may soon be put to rest.

This stimulating and intriguing show at the W hitney Museum will run through June 21.

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