The Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s
Janet by Chuck Close
The Final Janet of its series
“I remember Jack Beal once criticized me in print for not having any books on artists before 1945. Jack always felt that being a realist was some king of ‘us against them’ moral crusade. He thought that Frank Stella was the devil or something. It’s true that I don’t have a lot of books on Velasquez and the history of portrait painting and that I was really interested in trying to make art today. I was much more interested in work that was being made today than I was in the art of the past.”1 This quote is from artist Chuck Close, who was a key player in the Photorealist movement. He creates monumental portraits of his friends, family, and fellow artists. A series of the same photograph, all titled Janet, are done in different mediums and show the progression of Chuck Close’s career as an artist. Photorealism began in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The movement itself evolved from Pop Art and countered Abstract Expressionism and Minimalist art movements. Other Photorealists include Malcolm Moreley and Richartd Estes who painted urban and city settings. Close is one of the very few modern realists or Photorealists who focuses on the human face. Close was born into a lower middle class family in Washington State. His father was an unsuccessful inventor who died when Close was eleven. His mother was a trained musician who supported Close’s interest in art. Despite suffering from chronically poor health and severe learning disabilities, Close was a good student. He was selected to attend the Yale Summer School of Music and Art, he returned home to earn his B.A. at the University of Washington, and then went on to Yale University’s graduate program. Upon his graduation in 1964, Close was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Vienna.2 Once he returned, he settled into Manhattan’s SoHo district in 1967.3
Janet Fish was a native of Bermuda, although her parents were originally from Connecticut.4 She was also an artist and had arrived in New York in 1965, two years before Close. Janet first showed her art at the 55 Mercer Street co-op galley, where young artists helped each other and made connections with art dealers. She would have a show up for one month and sit at a desk, and the next month it would rotate to another artist displaying their work for a month. There was no director at this gallery; the artists were in charge of everything when their work was on display.5 She had her first solo exhibition in a real gallery in 1970, at the Kornblee Gallery.6
Chuck Close chose Janet Fish as a subject because she was a friend and Close appreciated her work. “The important thing for me about all my subjects was that one on level or another, we were either family or friends- sometimes old friends and sometimes not. With those who were artists, the thing that was important was that I not only had an ongoing relationship with them as people but their work was also important to me.”7 “I didn’t paint anyone whose work I didn’t like. I was friendlier with some more than others. For all of them, the work had to speak to me as well. It was a celebration of the art world as a kind of family with which I was trying to deal. Sometimes the subjects were people with whom I also happened to be close friends, and sometimes the relationship was through the work, but Janet is an old friend. I’ve known Janet since 1962.”8
Close painted monumental portraits of his subjects using a Polaroid picture that he had taken of them for assistance. He would use a shallow depth of field which blurred the sitter’s traits which were closest to the lens, for example their nose, and removed the furthest details, such as stray hairs on a sitter’s head.9 Close would grid the photograph and paint each square onto his canvas. At first glance, the Polaroids that Close worked with resemble a driver’s license or a passport.10 They were always from the neck up and cropped close to the sitter’s head which eliminated body language and a background.11 “No one is going to want to put one of those suckers over their couch. I didn’t make them to go into people’s homes. I didn’t make them for collectors. If someone had asked, ‘what do you want to make to sell?’ I certainly wouldn’t have made a picture of someone else. Who’s going to buy a picture of someone else and put it over their couch?”12
Chuck Close helped Janet Fish pick out her outfit for her Polariod photo shoot. She had brought several different accessories to wear and asked Close to decide which ones would work best. “I brought two pairs of glasses and two pairs of earrings, and Chuck picked the wildest of both… the dinosaur earrings and the glasses with the things on them.”13
Close’s early portraits were done solely in black and white. “Critics often wrote of those early black and white pictures that they were coldly mechanical, that they were just a direct translation from one medium to another, as if there is a direct translation from a photograph to a painting. A painting is made in such a different way than a photograph. To me, you have to try to understand something in one language really well to be able to translate. If you’re going to translate from German to English, you can’t do a direct one-to-one translation; you have to understand the idiom said in one language in order to translate it into the other. A painting isn’t made, it has to be built. I think the basic misunderstanding was that the early paintings were not as coldly mechanical as they looked, and these are not as free as they look… I don’t want to do the same thing that I did in the previous square.”14
In the 1980s, Close started to experiment with several different mediums for his monumental portraits which were very different from his traditional oil on canvas. Another portrait in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibition on Close is a work titled Jud (Image 1) which was made from different colored paper pulp which was dried into chips and glued down onto the canvas. Other mediums seen in the exhibit include: tapestry, etching, wood cuts, and Close’s thumb print making up an entire portrait. In 1988, Close created the first monumnetal Janet out of linoleum (Image 2) in his Spring Street workshop in New York City. The image is made out of a single block of linoleum; this also meant that there would be no proofing or room for error. It was carved and edition printed at each of its seven steps. A seven page accordion-fold paper illustrated to Close how the final product would be made, layer by layer. The top layer shows the amount of linoleum removed at each step of the print’s development and the color of the ink used at each stage. The bottom layer shows the accumulated seven stages. Close used four ink colors to create a simulation of the original Polaroid: magenta, cyan, yellow, and black.15 Even though there were several colors that made up Janet from 1988, the entire portrait appears black and white to the viewer.
In 1988, Chuck Close developed a blood clot in his spinal column which and left him paralyzed for life. If the clot had been an inch higher he could have died.16 Close was hospitalized for the next seven months.17 His wife Leslie encouraged him to continue painting while in the hospital. At first, Close used his teeth to hold a paintbrush, and as time went on he gained limited movement in his upper arm. Close would paint small two inch paintings and put them together to make his monumental portraits. Over the next year, this style evolved into the blocks with doughnut-like shapes which make up his monumental portraits.18
The next Janet (Image 3), from 1989, is the only colorful version of the Polaroid. In several portraits after his accident, Close returned to a use of colors seen in de Kooning’s palette. “I used a lot of de Kooning color in my early work,” Close said, although he had destroyed all of it.19 His famous boxes with doughnut-like shapes can be seen for the first time in the series of Janet.
Close also paints Janet (Image 4) in 1992 in his boxy style, however he returns to black and white like his early monumental portraits. The boxes are also flow together better than the 1989 version. Image 5 shows a close up of what the boxes around Janet’s eye look like.
Janet in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from 1992 (Image 6) is more naturalistic and Close has lost the boxey effect seen in the previous two paintings. Details of Janet’s face are more in focus than the other three, especially her glasses. In a conversation with Janet Fish, Close said this about the painting: “What I like about the big black and white painting I did of you is it’s kind of formal issues of photography: the straight hair hanging lent itself to be broken down in the grid to a kind of beaded curtain, or jewels, or crystal chandeliers, or something like that. You never known when you take a photograph how it’s directly going to translate. When I made the decisions, laying the plastic grids on top of the photograph in order to see how it would break up, what the scale of the painting should be, how large the grid across the picture would be, the thing that interested me was trying to capture with the strong darks and lights this kind of sparkly, almost liquid effect.”20
Chuck Close’s repetition of subjects from work to work devaluates their identity, however it also focuses our attention on them.21 This is somewhat like Andy Warhol’s repetition of celebrity figures, such as Marilyn Monroe. However, Close chose his friends and family members as subjects. Andy Warhol’s images of Marilyn Monroe are similar to Close’s portraits in the sense that they show the subject from the neck up and have a blank background. However, the subject matter, while both being portraits are different. Close painted close friends and fellow artists while Warhol created screen prints of iconic figures from the media.
When asked to comment on Warhol, Close said this, “The fact that he was working from photographs was important. I wanted to do something very different from the gesture of making an image with one silk-screen squeegee stroke, and I certainly didn’t want to make movie stars. He rally nailed all that down. But Warhol was extremely important for me in terms of building an image that was also a painting… Certainly his life in the art world was different than mine and remained different from mine because he was surrounded by a huge cast of characters who helped him make everything. Even though I have many assistants, I still make the art the old-fashioned way, one stroke at a time, all by myself.”22
Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is made up of several colors; each designated to certain elements of her face, for example her hair, her lips, the shadowing, the background, etc. Close’s Janet (2) from 1992 is done in black and white with shades of grey. This range of colors is put together in each small block that makes up the larger image. However, their process is similar. In screen printing Andy Warhol adds one color to his canvas at a time. Close does the same, he adds each color to his gridded canvas one by one until his final image is complete.
Chuck Close has had a phenomenal career over the last 30 years. He was given a second chance at life after the blood clot on his spinal cord, and even through his painful rehabilitation he continued his passion for making art. The series of Janet Fish portraits portrays great insight into his personal life and how the accident affected his art. The series shows his work as an artist who had just achieved fame experimenting with new material, his rehabilitation in the hospital, and two paintings completed three years after his rehabilitation (one in his square style and one in a more naturalistic portrayal). “I try to make every painting as good as I possibly can, because you never know which one will be the only one that somebody sees, that’s going to be in their mind, that’s going to set their standard for everything that you do.” 23 Works Cited
Close, Chuck. “Janet.” American Art 6 (Spring 1992), 58-59.
Close, Chuck. The Portraits Speak: Chuck Close in conversation with 27 of his subjects. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1997.
“Close Call.” Washington State University Alumni Newsletter. June 1997.
Guare, John. Chuck Close: life and work, 1988-1995. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1995.
Steinter, Wendy. “Post Modernist Portraits.” Art Journal 46 (Autumn 1987), 173-177.
Storr, Robert. Chuck Close. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1998.
Chuck Close, Jud, 1982, paper pulp
Chuck Close, Janet, 1988, reduction block linoleum cut
Chuck Close, Janet, 1989, oil on canvas
Chuck Close, Janet, 1992, oil on canvas
Detail of image 4
Chuck Close, Janet, 1992, oil on canvas