Close to Kandinsky?

Chuck Close, “Self Portrait,” 2000, oil on canvas

All artists trawl the art historical waters, appropriating consciously or subconsciously concepts, images, and techniques from the net  It’s a natural part of developing a unique and, if one is gifted, a progressive artistic voice.  All artists are linked thus linked in a long, unbroken line.

In past eras the trawling process was facilitated by the teacher/disciple, atelier, and guild traditions.  Today a good art school performs the function (though often it doesn’t). Without a good working knowledge of the work of previous generations of artists, or more importantly, without a strong sense of the work that is personally meaningful,  how can an artist develop a truly unique style?   Sometimes the connection between artists is obvious (e.g. Matisse/Dufy); other times, a legitimate connection is buried, perhaps even in the mind of the artist.

In the 1970s, Chuck Close began to develop his signature style—thousands of individual marks harnessed in the production of gigantic and commanding highly-realistic portraits. Beginning in the early 90s, his debuted a brilliant technique—cell-bound millefiori, each of which operated as its own abstract painting, but ensemble morphed into a stunning portrait.  It’s a clever contemporary twist on the Impressionist concept of thousands of colored strokes defining patterns of light and shadow.

Close has always been tied to the grid—larger or smaller cells—as the starting point for his paintings.  But where did these colored circles as painterly mark originate?

(detail) “Self Portrait”

As influences on his own work, Close acknowledges de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt’, in particular the latter’s writings. He has said that Vermeer is his favorite painter, describing the works as “magical apparitions” blown onto the canvas like “divine breath of air.”  He’s said that his marks have no symbolic meaning. I suspect, if asked about the circles, Close would say they just happened while he was working. And he’d be right. Those transformational moments tend to happen while an artist is at work, not thinking about it.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Farbstudie Quadrate,” 1913, oil on canvas

Close’s circles may be entirely accidental, spontaneous. Or he could have appropriated them from anywhere—afterall targets as a human “mark” are found on even the most primitive of artifacts. And Kandinsky’s abstract circles, completed early in his career, served a different function from Close’s (i.e. abstractions in themselves). Still, I can’t help but wonder whether Kandinksy’s work and these images in particular sneaked into Close’s subconsciousness at one point through a back door. And whether the hand cracking open the door belonged to de Kooning.

Wider Connections

Chuck Close on Charlie Rose

Laura Cumming, UK Observer: “What Drove Kandinsky to Abstractiion?”

The critic who made de Kooning—Harold Rosenberg: The Tradition Of The New

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One Response to “Close to Kandinsky?”

  1. Denise Laurin Says:

    Your analogy between Chuck Close’s technique and Impressionism is not as sound as a comparison with Pointillism, a scientific approach to painting sparked by George Seurat, categorized as a “Post-Impressionist”. Both invoke optical mixture and simultaneous contrast in their approach to painting. Upon looking at La Grande Jatte up close, for example, we see a barrage of meaningless dots and dashes. As we get further away, the composition pulls together magically. Close’s paintings have the same effect. He has also used complementary colors to enliven the overall brilliance of the image. Your comparison with Kandinsky’s images is amazing and I would agree, somewhere he must have been familiar with these studies. Knowing that Close’s technique emerged after becoming paralyzed by the collapse of his spinal artery is inspirational for all of us who think our circumstances are not “perfect” for pursuing our art.

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