Out of focus with Chuck Close

Out of focus: "Chuck Close Photographs" show spotlights artist's intimate, experimental images @NSUArtMuseum.

Imagine a Chuck Close photograph so monumental in height it dwarfs your size, a color portrait built from a mosaic of Polaroids that are stitched together to form one distinctive face: his own. Now, imagine Chuck Close's face on a big tapestry.

Measuring 6 feet tall and 15 feet wide, the woven Jacquard loom tapestry, this week being stretched out at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, is one of many experimental visions featured in the new "Chuck Close Photographs" exhibit opening Sunday, March 20. To make it, Close collaborated with Oakland, Calif.-based master printmaker Donald Farnsworth, who wrote computer code to make the loom reproduce a 19th century daguerreotype of the artist's face on cloth using punch-card technology.

"It's extraordinary. Chuck loves the process and the challenge of a new idea as much as he does the photograph itself," says Terrie Sultan, director of New York's Parrish Art Museum, where the show originated in 2015. "He loves when people come to him with an idea when even he doesn't think it's possible."

Sultan, who curated the show with photography scholar Colin Westerbeck, will deliver an art talk on Saturday, March 19, at the museum (during a 5-8 p.m. opening reception; $12). She bills the 86-image showcase as the "first comprehensive survey" of the New York artist's career. The show begins in 1964 with Close's early fascination with photography, which inspired his paintings, and ends with his present-day nudes and Woodbury-type prints. But the collection dwells in the pivotal late-1960s moment when he moved away from painting toward his most-popular muse, the instant Polaroid camera.

"Viewing the full range of Chuck's career in photography," Sultan says of Close's career, "shows how something that started out as a tool for making a painting gradually changed into an important creative media in and of itself for him."

There is "Big Nude," a 1967 photograph of a woman lying on her side, accompanied by contact sheets and maquettes (or black-and-white images scored with ink and masking tape), which he used for his eventual painting. The 1970s brought familiar Close territory: large-format Polaroid portraits of himself, family and, later, celebrities such as Hillary and Bill Clinton, painter Jasper Johns, actors Alec Baldwin and Brad Pitt, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and supermodel Kate Moss.

The close-up, warts-and-all portraits – a hallmark of Close's style – appear detailed and intimate, revealing the sitter's crow's feet and stress lines, Sultan says. More recent experiments use old-fashioned daguerreotype, created with help from printmakers after Close, now 72, suffered a seizure that rendered him paralyzed from the neck down. Daguerreotypes play with depth of field, blurring out the photo's peripheral edges, an effect that Close had struggled to duplicate in his own paintings.

"It's very hard to see blur with your eyes, so how do you paint it? That's why photographs are so important to him," Sultan says. "Once the picture shows blur, it enables him to paint what he couldn't register with his eyes."

Sultan reckons that, for Chuck Close fans, a surprising subject in these images will be his flowers. Featured here are two massive Polaroids: a heart-shaped "Anthurium," in full bloom, and "Chrysanthemum," a three-paneled display of two violet plants.

"[Flowers] are not a very well-known aspect of his career, but they're huge and unbelievably magnificent," Sultan says. "That's why I love them so much. They're outside of what people think they know about Chuck."

"Chuck Close Photographs" will open Sunday, March 20, at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale. The exhibit will close on Oct. 2. Admission costs $5-$12. Call 954-525-5500, or go to NSUArtMuseum.org.

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