The most beloved artwork in the Akron Art Museum’s collection is Linda, a nine-foot tall, unflinchingly realistic painting of a woman’s face. Its creator, Chuck Close (born 1940), happens to be one of the most important American artists of our time.
This fall the museum offers Ohioans a singular opportunity to see Linda in the context of over 35 other works by Close, including paintings, handmade paper pulp pieces, photographs, a tapestry and various types of prints. Many are well over life-sized, but there are also more intimately scaled prints and studies. The images range from colorful, abstracted visages to black and white, realistic self-portraits and from recent works to old favorites.
This is the first time the artist’s works in Ohio public collections can be seen together. They have been sent from all corners of the state—from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Butler Institute of American Art and Akron Art Museum in Northeast Ohio to the Toledo Museum of Art in the west and Wexner Center for the Arts, Wright State University Galleries and Cincinnati Art Museum in the south. These public holdings will be joined by rarely seen pieces from private collections around the state.
Starting in the late 1960s, Close re-invented and reinvigorated portraiture. This genre, then regarded by critics as academic and outdated, was given up-to-the moment relevance by Close’s monumental, painted heads. His meticulously crafted portraits were regarded as being on the cutting-edge of contemporary art, which was focused on concepts, systems and process rather than representation and the skill of the artist’s hand.
Process is clearly central to Close’s way of working. Few artists have experimented with as many different media. Familiar Faces will present works in oil on canvas, acrylic on canvas, ink and graphite on paper, handmade paper with shaded paper pulp, spitbite and aquatint with softground etching, computer-generated printing, linocut, screenprinting, ukiyo-e tradition woodcut, Polaroid photography, traditional color photography and even rubber stamp and tapestry. His works painted using an airbrush are mysterious and reveal little evidence of the artist’s hand or process. In contrast, some of his other paintings and prints, when seen close up, seem to be all about gesture and mark-making. Appearing “pixilated,” they are grids filled with tiny abstract colored shapes, individual brushstrokes or even the artist’s fingerprints. When viewed from a distance, the individual marks miraculously resolve into a surprisingly realistic face.
Close usually depicts only his friends and family and returns over and over again to those familiar faces. Because of that, a survey of his work demonstrates not just how his own aesthetic has developed but also how his subjects’ faces and demeanors have been altered by time and circumstance. The earliest work in the exhibition dates from 1970; the most recent was completed just last year. In Familiar Faces, the painter Alex Katz is seen in 1987, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1996, depicted in Polaroid photography, woodcut, reduction screenprint and computer generated printing. The exhibition also contains multiple images spanning years in the lives of composer Philip Glass, artist Lucas Samaras and Close’s wife Leslie and daughter Georgia. The largest gallery of the exhibition will be filled with self-portraits.
Despite focusing on the portrait, Close has said that he regards his art as predominantly about formal issues. “I leave it to others to read it otherwise.” Many of us do just that. We regard these heads as portraits, depictions that are simultaneously documentary and revealing, dispassionate and intense. Or they can be seen as examinations of photography’s relationship with painting and printmaking in an era when the camera’s view dominates our visual environment, seeming more natural and real than human vision. Familiar Faces will provide us the chance to stand before these canvases, prints and photographs and decide whether the faces in them mirror the soul, or just the body, of the sitters.
This exhibition was organized by the Akron Art Museum and made possible by a generous gift from the Lehner Family Foundation with additional support from Kenneth L. Calhoun, a KeyBank Trust.