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Seeing Things Differently: Artist Chuck Close

Mar 18, 2011

Chuck Close is famous for painting unusual, large-scale portraits of faces that retain extraordinary realism even when broken down into almost Pointillist grids. While the artist's perfect renditions may look like they come easily, Close has actually overcome incredible obstacles, including both learning and physical disabilities, to become the painter he is today.

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By Megan Driscoll

Chuck Close Gap ad campaign

Portraits by an Artist

President Bill Clinton. The Dalai Lama. Philip Glass. Himself.

These are just a few of the famous people whom artist Chuck Close has portrayed alongside many lesser-known artists, critics and friends in over 40 years of painting and photography. Working in both black and white and vivid color, as well as in both seamless brush strokes and pixilated, quasi-Pointillist grids, Close has developed a remarkable oeuvre of large-scale, startlingly realistic portraits.

Close is widely considered one of the canonical artists of our time. His work is in the permanent collections of such places as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney. By the late 1970s he had already exhibited at MoMA and in the Whitney Biennial, and in 2000 he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Arts by then-President Bill Clinton. More recently, Close captured the hearts and minds of the younger generation during an appearance on the popular TV show The Colbert Report.

Given all of these achievements, you would never know that Close has struggled his whole life with a host of learning and physical disabilities.

face blindness

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Overcoming Disability

Perhaps the most surprising of Close's disabilities is prosopagnosia, or face blindness. This unusual disorder causes people to be unable to identify human faces - they know they're looking at a face, but they simply cannot recognize to whom it belongs. For the worst sufferers, even their own reflections are totally unfamiliar.

Close says that his prosopagnosia isn't quite that severe, but he still struggles to recognize new faces. Even the familiar faces of his loved ones fade away and become difficult to recognize if he hasn't seen them in a while.

This disorder seems at odds with the portraits of faces that make up the vast majority of Close's work. But in an interview with NPR, Close commented that he feels that his disability 'drove' him to make portraits. He has a near-photographic memory for two dimensional images, so he works from photos of his subjects and makes 'flat' portraits in the form of paintings and photographs, creating faces that only exist in two dimensions and are therefore recognizable to him.

Overcoming prosopagnosia to become a world-class portrait artist is in itself a remarkable achievement. But Close's disabilities don't end there. He has also struggled his whole life with a common learning disability that wasn't nearly as well known when he was a child: Dyslexia.

Much like the prosopagnosia, Close struggles the most with his dyslexia when he tries to comprehend a text or concept as a whole. It's much easier for him to understand and remember ideas when he breaks them down into parts. Christopher Finch, Close's biographer, illustrates this point in the same NPR interview, telling the story of how Close would study the night before an exam in college. The artist would climb into a bath, surround himself with index cards that each covered one main point that might be on the test and read them aloud all night. Through this arduous process he forced the information into his memory.

This incremental method for overcoming his learning disability is reflected in the way that Close paints. Rather than approach his subject as a whole, he grids the picture plane into tiny sections so that each area is an abstracted piece of the final image. He then paints each section individually, emerging with a stunningly realistic final portrait.

art class

Education and the Arts

At the end of his interview with NPR, Close offers a passionate plea for the preservation of arts education in public schools. He points out that for students like him, those with learning disabilities or those who simply don't excel in math or science or reading, art and music class give them 'a chance to feel special.' The arts made it possible for Close to connect with the classroom in spite of his struggles, and to excel all the way through Yale.

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