Getting some face time, as he gears up for his new fall show
"Lou Reed's got wrinkles in his wrinkles."
Artist Chuck Close and I are in his ground-floor studio on Bond Street. He's describing a giant tapestry of Reed's face that he's hoping to have ready by mid October. The studio is jammed with assistants color-correcting dyes, poring over photographic images, and managing office business. It's an especially busy time for Team Close—the 72-year-old painter is preparing for his long-awaited fall show at Chelsea's Pace Gallery. Arrayed around the walls are some of his closest friends—Roy, Paul, Philip, Laurie, Cindy. In his relaxed company, it's practically immaterial that they're all celebrities. "I always wanted to make paintings of ordinary, undistinguished people," Close says as if reading my thoughts. "It's not my fault they became famous."
There's a certain kind of virtuosity that amplifies its achievements by a million trillion. Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony while deaf. James Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake with a magnifying glass. Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States while black.
For people who love art, young or old, with-it or fusty, Republican or Democrat, the painter Chuck Close has long formed part of this virtuosic pantheon. An artist celebrated like few people in or out of the art world, Close commands not just attention, but also bona fide affection. To see him at huge museum affairs, art-fair openings, or charitable events is to see Moses part waters thick with social climbing, calculation, and envy. His presence—like that of a civil rights leader or sports hero—is mollifying. As he once put it to me, "For the last 14 years, I've not gone a day where I go outside and don't have someone tell me how much they like what I do. I'm really very, very lucky." Never mind that Chuck Close is a partial quadriplegic and largely confined to a wheelchair.
To say that Chuck Close is handicapped is to miss an important part of his gift, if not to significantly misstate facts. A white tornado of activity that pulls together art, politics, education, and just plain socializing, Close has long had what Robert Hughes in 1998 called "a reputation as a stick-to-it, intensely focused, all-around good guy of the American art world." This reputation has gone mainstream in the past few years, as Close's constant civic-mindedness has resulted in his appointment to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, as well as his recruitment to mentor struggling schools for Turnaround Arts—a recent administration-led arts-education initiative that closely echoes the artist's own oft-quoted precepts.
I meet Close for pasta e vino at his favorite neighborhood restaurant, Il Buco, before our killer studio visit. It's a spot Close likes so much he treats it as both caviarteria and canteen. I want him to talk about his art, his life, his devotion to arts education, but also what compels him to be a "good art-world citizen." That phrase, which is his, speaks volumes about him. Not for the last time, though, he turns the subject back to children's learning.
"Some people say we need art in school because playing violin is good for your math skills," the National Medal of Arts winner tells me after the first glass of wine is poured. "But I believe it solves an even bigger problem than test scores, and that's the dropout rate. When I was in school, as learning disabled as I was, we had art and music several times a week. Had I not had that, I would have dropped out of school."
Arts education is a subject extremely dear to Chuck Close's heart. As an official portraitist, he recently got to bend Obama's ear on the subject as the president sat down for his Polaroid picture. "I photographed him last week for an hour and a half," Close relays, "and boy, did I take the opportunity to lobby him."
The memory of that conversation shifts quickly to a less friendly encounter with Mayor Bloomberg and former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein. At a small dinner party—"10 or 12 people, no more"—Close shared his thinking about why the two powerful city politicians remained flummoxed by New York's high dropout rates.
"It's because you have such a narrow definition of what success is," he told them. "If you're not good at math and science, you're not a successful person." Close proceeded to illustrate his case with his own biography and to chastise the two for shifting funds from the arts to remedial education. Bloomberg's response was casually condescending: "Oh, Chuck, you would have been all right because you're a genius." Angered, Close shot back, "I suppose I should be flattered, but how would I know that I had any abilities if I'd had next to no exposure to art and music." (According to Close, the scrappy colloquy's final chapter came days later, when Klein rang to tell him that the city had restored "a couple of million dollars" to school arts funding.)
Charles Thomas Close was born severely dyslexic. "I still can't add or subtract in my head," he says, "and never learned my multiplication tables, which meant no algebra, geometry, physics, or chemistry." He knew nothing about the disorder until he attended a lecture on the subject with his eight-year-old daughter in the 1970s. Close also suffered from neuromuscular problems as a child. This meant, despite his height and build (he's six feet three inches), that he "couldn't run, couldn't throw a ball, and couldn't keep up with the other kids physically." Art gave Close a competitive edge—it offered him pure learning beyond the understanding of most adults. Close still grimaces when recalling the advice he got from educators: "My high school counselor told me that I would never get into college, but that I should consider body and fender school."