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Chuck Close is less accessible than you think. He’s an immensely popular artist who places most of his paintings in public collections and can draw overflow crowds to his public appearances. But most of the bones his pictures throw to the casual viewer are beside the point, as far as the hard-core art crowd is concerned.

Check it out: The works display recognizable subject matter, obvious labor, and technique that occasions how’d-he-do-that gee-whizzing. But get past his pyrotechnics, and though you’re likely to find Close attractive, you may feel as if you’ve made a date with a sphinx. You’ll be the one asking the questions, however: Are you really a realist? Why nothing but heads? Why so big? Do these things really work as portraits? Why are you still doing them 30 years later?

The party line is a blend of personal history and art history that makes a lot of sense. By the late ’60s, Close had established himself as a talented but reluctant manufacturer of baby de Koonings. He had painted himself into a corner with this ostensibly free and expressive work, and he got out of it, paradoxically, by imposing a system of rules on himself, constraining his work to be everything it wasn’t. He switched from abstraction to figuration, brush to airbrush, color to grisaille, impulse to premeditation, comfortably large to outlandishly huge. He began painting a reclining nude but abandoned it. He painted another. It’s 21 feet long and called Big Nude. Even though the model had tan lines, a Caesarean scar, and stretch marks, Close thought it owed too much to art history. He wanted something less precedented.

He launched the work of his maturity, now represented in a retrospective at the Hirshhorn, with the 9-foot-tall head-and-shoulders Big Self-Portrait, painted left-to-right, top-to-bottom from a gridded-off photograph. He started painting his friends and family. Since 1968, he has tweaked his format in various ways and branched out into virtually every two-dimensional medium imaginable. But he still depicts only people, and only people he knows, never having found the need to abandon them.

This account better answers the how than the why, and many discussions of Close devolve into the how, precisely because there is so much of it. Close has such great natural technical facility that the only way he can prevent himself from taking it for granted is by throwing it curve balls. Hence watercolors, fingerpaintings, mezzotints, pulp-paper collages, spit-bite aquatints, reduction-block linocuts, holograms, daguerreotypes.

The why? The short version is that Chuck Close just may be the most visual person on earth—and, um, he’s a people person.

In the New York Times Magazine, Deborah Solomon said Close makes “Friendly Art.” He doesn’t. But he is a friendly guy. It rings from every page of The Portraits Speak: Chuck Close in Conversation With 27 of His Subjects, an A.R.T. Press book about the size of the Montgomery County White Pages and roughly two pounds heavier. There is much talk in the book’s 700-odd pages, surprisingly little of it about Close himself. What is there, however, is revealing.

The artist is clearly on speaking terms with language, but that’s about it. Dyslexic, he has little truck with the written word. He can’t remember the names of characters in novels, ignores titles on paintings, and eschews heavy reading. “Maybe if Pascal had been in classic comic book form,” he confesses to Dorothea Rockburne, “I might possibly have had some idea what the hell he was talking about. I’ve literally never read anything like that.” He later claims that he maintains a full social calendar “because I’m trying to glean information from everyone. Really, I’m interviewing everybody.”

Talking with Kiki Smith, who, like Rockburne, is learning-disabled, Close gets into his weird mental faults and fortes: “I cannot remember things that are in three dimensions because they move, or I move around them, and they’re elusive. I have to get everything made in two dimensions and then I can remember it. That’s why I ended up being a painter.”

In fact, the portraitist is thrown by his subjects. “Even people with whom I lived I don’t recognize on the street, but once I have reduced someone to a flat surface…then I can remember them much better….I’m sure that I ended up doing what I’m doing largely to compensate for those defects and to try to really commit the images of people who mattered to me to memory in a very personal way.”

It really isn’t all that bizarre for a painter, or anyone dedicated to painting, to feel this way. I’ve got analogous complaints myself. I’ve long maintained that my allegiance to visual art and pop music is due to the fact that both are easily made indelible through repetition. There are people who can see a movie or read a book once and recount plots, exchanges, performances years later. Plots pass through me like dreams. I’m usually left with a few isolated images: wild urban mushrooms from Calvino, a minnow-jar in a creek from Proust, a freshly laid table on a speeding train from Kluge, a puzzle piece from Perec. Close gets it right; devotion is largely a matter of retention.

Visual types are usually entranced by things. But there are strong taboos in the West against even spiritual materialism. Testaments emphasizing that “In the beginning was the Word…” and prohibitions of graven images resonate today in a form of pro-verbal puritanism that takes note of the unverbalizability of the visual and persists in identifying muteness with dumbness. In no small way is this view responsible for theory’s usurpation of contemporary art, a campaign that has suffered setbacks only recently. In addition, there’s a more mainstream backlash under way against the burgeoning visuality of popular culture, but the guardians of the word needn’t worry. The popular fascination, channeled by movies, video games, and the Internet, is for speed and action; images just happen to be efficient couriers of these qualities. To the new generation, slo-mo is a change of pace; no-mo is a change of kind.

Close is old-school visual. He attempts to hold on to people by turning them into things, and unless you have a visual romance with things that don’t move, you may find his pictures bewildering. Close’s portraiture is not psychological but perceptual. He aims not for the time-averaged essence of a personality that a conventional portraitist arrives at over a series of sittings but for an amalgam of the varieties of visual information impinging on a face in a single instant. This aim differs from the cubist intention of uniting disparate, simultaneous points of view in an explosion of facets. Close doesn’t struggle against the stillness of pictures, he embraces it; the motion he exalts is that of the eye as it reanimates the image.

Though Close’s method guarantees a likeness, it’s never an uncomplicated one. And it’s only incidentally an “expressive” one. A few of his subjects readily approach conventional expression—the slow-burning, lazy-lidded cockiness of the Close of Big Self-Portrait, the wild goneness of early-doomed Nancy Graves, the fiery fixity of glaring Lucas Samaras, the blunt anger of Alex Katz—but these are the exceptions.

The emotional pull of Close’s other pictures is tied directly to the squirrely dance of perception. In some of the ’70s heads, Close explodes the compressed space in which he immobilizes the sitter by accurately reproducing a shallow focus fixed on the subject’s cheeks. The nose juts into blurriness, the ears recede into it, and picture-plane stability goes critical. In later works, you’ll find color passages that’ll win you over: the taquería hues of Samaras’ beard in Lucas Woodcut, the riot of purple in the 1994 Paul’s—what?—throat? cravat? In the most recent works, such as 1997’s Mark, arrangements of concentric loops spread across the surface—germinating, growing, and either folding in on themselves or reaching stasis—like the abstract creatures in the games of Life that Sun workstations used to play with themselves.

For a detour from the big stuff, run past the row of hologram self-portraits several times. As you pass right to left, watch them open up, curtainlike, left to right, revealing the slow, slight swivel of the artist inside. Run through the visual spectrum, violet to red, as you rise up from below them. If you’re tall enough, run down from the top, and they appear as ghost images, underwater death masks. Like the other pieces, they’re a little exhausting. They wear you out before you wear them down, and in this way are they faithful representatives of reality. They may have nothing but heads in them, but they’re elaborate homages to the world outside.CP