The piece of art I examined at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was “Frank” by Chuck Close. Painted with acrylic on canvas in 1969 the piece is a gigantic 9 feet tall and 7 feet wide and boasts a portrait of a lifelike human head that takes up most of the space. Close (1940 –) is an American artist from Tacoma, Washington who is considered to be a “photorealist,” a painter who excels in painting photographs. His talent is matched by his persistence in that he overcame severe learning disabilities as a child and a potentially career ending spine injury that now confines him to a wheel chair. Friendships were particularly special to Close as he resolved to paint them as his subjects rather than celebrities or models he “didn’t care about” (Greenburg & Jordan, 1998 p. 22). For Close, Frank was one such friend.
The large smooth surface of Frank is full of precise lines and meticulous shades that help to capture the full range of features a human head can have. Whirling lines arrest the swirls of Frank’s curly hair while thick and unyielding black streaks define the outline of his glasses. His eyes are darkened, yet visible, hidden behind the lenses. Unlike Close’s self-portrait, Frank’s photograph does not have any glare off the lenses, except for a highlight on the left frame. The light is coming from the top-right corner highlighting the right side of his face, particularly his right cheek bone and the upper right part of his lip. A shadow draws behind the left stem of the glasses frames back behind his ear. The light dances in each whisker of his beard making the painting vibrant and full of life even though the subject look to be standing perfectly still. There is no implied motion in the painting. Only our eyes do the moving.
Close’s style is very much tied to the process he uses in capturing the natural look of his work. He did not paint his personal subjects off of their willingness to model for him but rather off of a two-dimensional photograph he took of them at a particular time. In the same way a road map works, he would take the photograph and divide it up into a series of horizontal and vertical lines forming a grid over the picture. He would then transpose the grid on to the much larger canvas and focus on each square of the grid in exquisite detail. When we move closer to Frank we can see the faint lines Close used to draw his grid.
By discarding the traditional brushes of painting for an airbrush, sponges, rags, and an eraser fastened to the end of an electric drill he was able to be much more precise in his application of the gray acrylic paint. He even used a razor blade to apply the fine details of the hairs and whiskers to the canvas (Greenburg & Jordan, 1998).
His use of the paint was so sparring that the seven huge portraits he made between 1967 and 1970 (of which Frank is one), he used only “one sixty-cent tube of Mars liquid paint” (Greenburg & Jordan, 1998 p. 18). He could water it down so much that he was able to extract every conceivable shade of gray from its contents.
The unity and variety of the piece is best observed in the contrast between the smooth shapes of the human face and the bristling facial hair that sprouts from not only his beard and mustache, but also near his nose and eyes. The stunning detail grabs our eyes and makes them crawl over the painting looking for a place to rest, a focal point to find, but it is hard to say where that might be. At first glace we look above Frank’s glasses to the enlightened corner of his forehead, then through the ruffled curls of his hair circling down through his beard. We notice his symmetrical lips as they are closed and expressionless. The collar of his shirt sneaks into our vision as it casts a shadow on his rough-shaven neck. It is a balanced picture that preserves the asymmetry of shadows and light in a thoroughly objective way.
The mood of the painting is stoic, but Frank is not as depressed looking as Close’s Self-Portrait (1967-68) or as Nancy (1968), Richard (1969), Phil (1969), or Keith (1970). He is not caught off-guard, though he makes no pose for the camera. He simply is, and does not mind being the sole subject of the lens. Frank’s looks is one of a disheveled sophisticate, handsome and unassuming. The painting is relaxing to look at until one focuses on Frank’s eyes. Only then do you realize a 7-foot tall head is staring right through you.
The style’s unflinching realism is its most salient virtue. It does not shrink back from portraying those “blemishes” and “imperfections” modeling agencies and advertisers beware of when marketing their doctored up pictures of people. The viewer is left responding and questioning, “Is that what we look like?” While contemplating how breathlessly we observe others and our own faces we might wonder how well we know the people we know the best. This ironic beauty of the portrait and the value of the reflection it causes is its own reward and is precisely what makes the art not just good, but great.