(originally published July 6th 2010)

Photos by Francis Chung.

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Currently on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration offers a fascinating glimpse into the working methods of one of America’s foremost living artists.  Featuring over 100 works and artifacts in an impressive variety of media including mezzotint, reduction linoleum, scribble-etching, silk screen, and woodcut, this career-spanning exhibition documents the myriad ways in which printmaking has expanded Close’s ongoing experimentation with techniques and conventions of portraiture.  A few days before the show opened, Close gave me a tour of the galleries (accompanied by curator Terrie Sultan), sharing his insights on a broad range of issues raised by the Corcoran’s captivating retrospective.

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Francis Chung:  This exhibition has been on tour to sixteen different locations since 2003, and I imagine that you’ve been on site at many or all of these iterations.  Have your thoughts on this body of work been changed at all by the experience of seeing the exhibition installed differently, discussing it repeatedly, and monitoring its reception?

Chuck Close: It always looks different depending on where it is, and I think of all the places I’ve seen the show, I think it looks the most handsome here that it’s ever looked.  When I first came to the Corcoran years and years ago, I wanted to show in this space.  These are some of the greatest spaces to show art anywhere.  And Terrie was actually a curator at the Corcoran a million years ago.  Did we talk about doing the show when you were still here?

Terrie Sultan: We talked about doing something together starting in about 1996, I think.  Do you remember how we got started on this project?  I came to visit you in the studio when Alex/Reduction Block was on the wall, and I walked in there and I said, “How in the world did you do that?”  You explained it to me, and I said we should do a show talking about the process of printmaking, and that’s how this came about.

Close: And I had saved all this stuff, ’cause I love it, and was always looking for an opportunity to bring it out.

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Chung:  To me, one of the defining characteristics of your art is the dialectical relation it creates between materiality and illusionism, formalism and portraiture, medium and subject.  How do you see these dualities playing out in these print works in particular?

Close: When I was a kid I wanted to be a magician but I broke the cardinal rule of magicianship, which is you’re never supposed to show people how you do a trick, but every time I did a trick, I wanted to show people how I did it, and I thought it only makes it more interesting, you know?  It doesn’t ruin the illusion to see how it happened, and most people have no idea how art gets made, and how art happens.

I like the idea of on-the-job training.  When I go to a print shop, I want them to be figuring out how to do it at the same time that I’m figuring out how to do it.  I like getting myself into trouble, and maybe getting the printers into trouble, and then the search is on to try and find a route to get where we want.  Each one of these things is sort of like a journey and I really do think getting there is more than half the fun.  It’s very nice to share it with the public.  It’s amazing to see how engaged people are with trying to figure out how it works too.  Notwithstanding the excellent wall text that Terrie wrote, I like people to pretty much ignore the wall text, and look at the work and glean from the work itself how it happened.

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Chung:  Looking at the works on view and at the way they’ve been installed here in a manner that emphasizes serial repetition and variation, I can’t help but think of Warhol.  How much, if at all, was he on your mind during the making of these works or the organization of the exhibition?  Do you find your printmaking processes comparable in any way to Warhol’s Factory methods?

Close: Warhol was certainly a hero of mine.  Our working methods couldn’t be more different.  What I would painstakingly spend months making by hand, he would make in one squeegee stroke.  I think of his Marilyn prints, for instance, where he used the same matrix and changed the colors, but I think the difference is he was just looking for interesting color combinations, which is great.  I love them, what it looks like when it’s got a green face and orange eyes, and whatever.  In the case of my work, I think they’re interesting colors, but they also have to end up making the final image, so it’s all marks in service of image building rather than just looking for and displaying interesting colors.  But I love the way they look.

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Chung:  You’ve stated in the past that certain artists – including Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, etc. – stood out as touchstones for you when you were a young artist in the 1960s, serving as reference points in relation or reaction to which you determined the direction you wanted your own art to take.  Are there any younger artists from more recent years who have had this type of impact on your work?

Close: I’ve made images of artists younger than me, sometimes to get to know them, and I have to have some significant relationship with them through their art, but you know we learn by everything we see and we learn by stuff we don’t like too.  More often you learn by looking at stuff you hate than you do by stuff you love.  In fact, talking about de Kooning and people like that, you’re not reacting necessarily against something because you don’t like it.  You’ve tried to move away from it because you like it too much and it’s already been done and they do it better and whatever.

When I got out of graduate school I went into my studio and I said, “Oh my God, this room is already crowded. It’s already full of my heroes, but where am I in this room?”  I couldn’t find myself in my own studio so I had to purge the room, get everyone else out of my studio, and then sit in this room all by myself and say, “Okay, well what is it that I want to do?”  That’s the dilemma that every artist faces.  That’s why I like processes like this because it’s really on-the-job training.  You give yourself over to a process and see where it goes.  Not only am I pushing myself into unknown territory, I’m getting the printers I’m working with to do things they’ve never done before, and the search is on for both of us to find a solution to the problem.  I always said that inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.  That’s really where every idea comes out of the work itself.

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Chung:  I’m interested in the relationship between process and portraiture in these works.  The woodcuts depicting Lucas Samaras, for instance, were originally based on a photographic source, but the image has in some cases been pushed to a fairly high level of abstraction. In what sense does a picture still function as a portrait if its subject is almost unrecognizable?  Is there any way in which your interest in formal experimentation takes precedence over your interest in making a portrait?

Close: To me, the formal issues and the image are equally important.  The reason I never liked the word “realist” or “new realist” or “photorealist” was I was always as interested in the artificial as I was the real.  I’m as interested in the distribution of color on a flat surface as I am in the image it ends up making.  So it’s that tension as it works back and forth between marks on a flat surface and the image that it’s making that has always interested me.

Chung:  So, in what sense are you interested in Lucas as an image or portrait subject here?

Close: I have prosopagnosia, which is face blindness.  I never recognize people.  In fact, I didn’t recognize a woman I lived with for a year or two years later.  Not a good thing.  Didn’t go over too good.  When I flatten an image out I can commit it to memory, and as I build this image I am embedding that image into my brain, and I have almost photographic memory for anything that is flat.  There’s no question that I was driven to make portraits in an effort to really cement these images and make them something that I could retain.  But nothing gets made without a process.  It’s just a process that you choose.  I’m taking myself on a journey, and this show allows the viewer to pick up the crumbs that I’ve dropped Hansel and Gretel style and follow the route that I took and understand a little better how these things happen and how they get made.

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Chung:  You’ve often entrusted key aspects of fabrication to master printmakers.  Can you say more on how this type of collaboration was pivotal to these works?

Close: They have skills I don’t have and they have patience that I lack.  They are going to spend a year and a half doing something, and I’m not sure I would want to spend a year and a half making a print, ’cause I’m still making paintings and doing other things.  They extend your ideas and things grow out of the process for them as well.  As I say, its not only on-the-job training for me, but it’s on-the-job training for the printer as well, and I want to push them places they’ve never been and find specific points of convergence.

Chung:  How much autonomy do you give the printers in terms of the decision-making that occurs at various stages of the printmaking process?  Do they, for example, decide when a given work is finished?  Is there a degree of uncertainty entailed by collaboration that’s part of its appeal and significance to you?

Close: They’re going to be printing it, so they have to figure out the steps to make it happen.  It’s their job to translate the information into a process that they can follow again and again.  Like in certain cases they determined where the original colors are underneath, I didn’t.  It really is a true collaboration in that they help me figure out how to do it.

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Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from July 3-September 12, 2010.  Admission is free every Saturday through Labor Day weekend.

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