This is the first comprehensive survey of American artist Chuck Close's (b. 1940) groundbreaking innovations in the field of printmaking, featuring approximately one hundred prints, working proofs, and objects. Together they document the creative and often highly experimental ways in which Close has reinterpreted the signature subject of his paintings and photographs—monumentally scaled images of the human head—into the artistic language of various print mediums.
The works on view date from his first print, Keith/Mezzotint, made in 1972 and believed to be the largest mezzotint ever produced, to Emma, a 113-color Japanese-style woodblock print, completed in 2002. Encompassing the full scope of Close's printing activities, the exhibition demonstrates how the artist—in collaboration with his master printers—has consistently challenged the traditional boundaries of such diverse printing techniques as aquatint, etching, lithography, silkscreen, linoleum cut, and Japanese and European woodcut. Visitors also have an opportunity to visualize the artist's creative processes through the display of progressive and state proofs for a number of his prints, as well as actual woodblocks, etching plates, and other print matrices.
Raised in the state of Washington, Close demonstrated a precocious talent as a draftsman from an early age. In 1964, he received his M.F.A. from Yale University, where he served as an assistant to the master printer, Gabor Peterdi. By 1970 he had captured the attention of the art world with a series of nine-foot-high, hyper-realistically painted canvases of himself and his friends. Since then his art has focused on larger-than-life images of the human face. Reflecting the artist's fascination with reality, illusion, and forms of visual perception, these "heads"—as Close calls them—are typically conceived as a series of gridded abstractions that, when assembled in the eye of the viewer, coalesce into a representational whole.
Since 1972 printmaking has been an integral part of Close's artistic output. However, far from serving as a mechanical means to replicate his painted work, his prints—even more labor-intensive and time-consuming than his canvases—have been an important proving ground for his artistic activity as a whole. As Close has asserted, "Virtually everything that has happened in my unique work can be traced back to the prints."
The exhibition was organized by Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston.
The exhibition and publication have been generously underwritten by the Neuberger Berman Foundation. Additional support was made possible by the Lannan Foundation, Jon and Mary Shirley, The Eleanor and Frank Freed Foundation and Houston Endowment Inc., Jonathan and Marita Fairbanks, Dorene and Frank Herzog, Andrew and Gretchen McFarland, Carey Shuart, The Wortham Foundation, Inc., Karen and Eric Pulaski, Suzanne Slesin and Michael Steinberg, and Texas Commission on the Arts.
In New York, the exhibition is made possible in part by Jane and Robert Carroll.
The exhibition is organized by medium, beginning with the artist's exploration of various forms of intaglio printing. A defining work in this category is Keith/Mezzotint (1972), the artist's first print since graduate school and the first of his monumental heads in which he allowed the grid system used in their construction to remain visible, a practice subsequently continued in his painted works. Widely used during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the mezzotint utilizes a toothed rocker applied to the etching plate to create infinite gradations in tone. Remarkable for its coloristic range, from velvety blacks to pearly whites, Keith not only reprises a nearly obsolete technique, but—measuring approximately 56 x 46 inches—does so on an unprecedented scale.
A self-portrait of 1988 is the earliest in a series of spitbite etchings, a technique in which acid, mixed with saliva to give it greater viscosity, is painted on to the etching plate, rather than immersing the plate in an acid bath. The resulting image appears on the verge of dissolving into a series of fuzzy-edged dots.
In Scribble/Etching/Self-Portrait (2000) the grid system is abandoned and the artist uses layers of doodle-like marks that, when superimposed, come together to create a representational image. The final print is displayed along with a series of progressive proofs (trial prints showing each color separately) and state proofs (trial prints made at each stage of the printing process).
Georgia (1984) and Self-Portrait/Pulp (2001) are among the examples of pulp paper multiples on view, a technique in which an image is created by squeezing pulp in a range of varying tints through a multi-part, metal matrix or into a mylar stencil.
Close's silkscreens are exceptional for their chromatic brilliance, colossal scale—often measuring more than five feet tall—and his insistence on creating the stenciled image by hand, rather than by the photomechanical process commonly used. Notable examples on view include Lyle (2002), a 149-color silkscreen, and John (1998) a 126-color silkscreen that is displayed along with a series of proofs for the final print.
An enormous 1993 print of the artist Alex Katz is a prime example of the often improvisational and experimental nature of Close's printmaking. Originally intended as reduction linoleum cut, a form of relief printing, the project was plagued by a series of technical setbacks, ingeniously solved by transforming the image into a multi-toned silkscreen. Close considers the result—startling in its corporeal verisimilitude—superior to anything he could have achieved through relief printing.
Close's fascination with process and his innovative use of traditional printing methods are nowhere more apparent than in his ukiyo-e prints, a 300-year-old Japanese woodblock technique in which numerous separately carved blocks are fitted together to create a single image. The exhibition includes what is perhaps his most spectacular achievement in this medium, Emma (2002), the smiling face of his infant niece, conceived as a gridded abstraction of brilliantly colored loops, dots, and lozenges. Two years in the making, this 113-color ukiyo-e print was created from twenty-seven individual blocks, some of which are also on display.