Franklin Einspruch

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Close to Perfection: Chuck Close Prints highlights the famed artist's exacting attention to detail

Street Miami, May 21, 2004

For four decades, Chuck Close has been using photographs as the basis of meticulously executed paintings and prints that are at once mechanical and lyrical. Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration, currently on display at the Miami Art Museum through August 22, shows an exciting sampling of more than 100 of these works spanning 30 years.

This exhibition, curated by Terrie Sultan of the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston (where the show originated last year), presents the ephemera of the manufacturing processes -- woodblocks, templates, diagrams, stencils, and so on -- alongside the completed works. The result is simultaneously edifying and inspiring.

The same could be said about the artist himself. Close was already established art-world royalty when 16 years ago, at the age of 48, he suffered an aneurysm that left him partially quadriplegic -- able to move his limbs, but with no strength in them. A man who had once been one of the seminal photorealists of the '70s found himself in a hospital, tearfully learning how to use a paintbrush again. Today, working with brushes strapped to his hand in front of a motorized easel that can position any part of the canvas directly in front of him, he is making the best paintings of his career.

He has also continued his work as a printmaker. Close started collaborating with print studios early on, and it was printmaking, not his physical limitations, that led him from the photorealism for which he had become acclaimed to a new style of painting in which a grid of abstract shapes would coalesce into a realist image when viewed from a distance.

The print that inspired the transition is in the show, a 1972 mezzotint entitled Keith. Mezzotint involves burnishing flat areas into a textured copper plate, and is a labor-intensive process even by printmaking standards. At 51 inches high, this work is believed to be the largest mezzotint ever made.

Keith is full of velvety blacks inherent to the medium and of passages of stunning realism, but the grid used to transfer the image to the plate is still discernible. That grid made Close aware of what he calls the incremental unit of the work, and the possibilities inside each square beyond simple transcription.

''Ease is the enemy of the artist,'' said Close during a lecture at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables this past Saturday. And, indeed, the exhibition showcases the artist's Herculean, sometimes Sisyphean, efforts as he explores the whole gamut of printmaking techniques. There's a 1977 etching gridded into countless tiny squares depicting a nervous self-portrait. Another self-portrait from 1997 is executed as a spitbite aquatint, in which marks are made by allowing drops of acid to eat into a metal plate for varying lengths of time, depending on the depth of tone desired. A 126-color silk screen from 1998, a portrait of artist John Chamberlain, hums with bristling energy.

A 2002 painting of a smiling baby, Emma, is built on a diagonal grid using thousands of looping shapes, as if someone had loaded a tabletop with a tidy arrangement of psychedelically colored eclairs. Across the room, both the painting and the print (under Close's supervision, master printer Yasu Shibata rendered it as a 113-color Japanese-style woodcut; several of the blocks are on display) look like pixelated photographs. They are technical marvels, but they're also loving portraits, and they recapitulate several movements of art history including Pop Art, Op Art, and post-painterly abstraction.

Chuck Close's work is a triumph of inspired labor, and this exhibition makes a convincing case for it as a lasting contribution to art history. Close is one of the most important artists alive, and this show must be seen.

Word count: 618

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