I want to ask you, since your studio is below 14th Street, were you here on September 11th?

Yes, I watched it. As I came down in the car on FDR Drive and turned onto Houston Street, I saw the first building was burning. Then I came in and watched on television and saw the second plane and came back out and watched that. And then they [the World Trade Center towers] went down, and people started pouring up the street covered with dust. It was really a horrific experience.

Did you have to evacuate?

Yeah. And it's had obviously a much more profound influence Downtown. There's a real disconnect Uptown I think. You might as well be in the Midwest. But down here you can really feel it and smell it. I was profoundly affected by it. I was very very upset and I think I cried every day for about 5 or 6 weeks.

I know you attended the "Arts on the Highwire" fundraiser on January 11th, in support of the arts community's needs in the aftermath of September 11th. What were your impressions?

It was a very nice evening, actually. Originally they wanted me to read a poem or something like that, and the things they suggested were all 50 years old. But I felt, as the only visual artist on the program that I really wanted to try and talk about what it's like to confront a painting, and how embedded in the work itself is all the information you need to sort of decode how it happened. I used Robert Storr's essay on the late de Kooning paintings from the exhibition at the Modern, because his verbiage is specific and so beautiful, describing the process. And then at the end of this really wonderful description of how de Kooning made the painting, I said to the audience: Now Rob didn't see him paint this painting, in fact he's never seen him paint any paintings. Part of the joy of looking at art is getting in sync in some ways with the decisionmaking process that the artist used and the record that's embedded in the work which allows you to deconstruct and then kind of reconstruct in your mind, and have a very physical experience, vicariously. Very few people have written about what a work really looks like, especially once there were photographic reproductions of works and so they felt that the photograph would carry the information, and, of course, it does a piss poor job of letting someone know of the scale of the work and of the physicality and how thick the paint was and what the touch was. So Rob happens to be an unusual critic. And he's actually a painter which probably makes his text different from regular art historians, who are more interested in iconography or biography or social history. You know, the way art history is taught, often there's nothing that tells you why the painting is great. The description of a lousy painting and the description of a great painting will very much sound the same. Or the description of the Arnolfini Wedding by van Eyck - one would think from the way historians write about it that it's a great painting because of what the convex mirror means, what the shoes mean, [laughter] what the dog is doing there, and all this stuff. And in fact it's not a great painting because of that, it's a great painting despite all of that.

Because of how it's actually made.

Yeah, I mean, they're just great apparitions. I always thought that one of the reasons why a painter likes especially to have other painters look at his or her work is the shared experience of having pushed paint around. And I've said it's a little bit like a magician performing for a convention of magicians. All the magicians in the audience watching this illusion - Do they see the illusion or do they see the device that made the illusion? Probably they see a little of both. I think a painter looking at a painting sees the image, but they also see how the image was constructed. And I think, you know, painters drop crumbs along the trail, Hansel and Gretel style, for people to pick up if they want to.

You've done teaching off and on?

Not in a long time, since I made a living from the work.

Have you ever thought about teaching art history?

No. I do on occasion give lectures and I just did something at the Frick about their collection. I did a piece with Michael Kimmelman for the Times on works in the Metropolitan Museum's collection. I mean, it's always a pleasure to talk about someone else's work.

Robert Storr, in his essay for the 1998 retrospective of your work at MoMA, suggested that your work is close to minimal and process art.

When you come up in the art world, whatever's in the air, the issues of the moment, end up becoming part of the working method or modus operandi of how you think about doing a painting. And I came up at a time when--actually painting was dead when I came up. Sculpture sort of ruled. And of all the things, the only thing stupider than making a painting was making a representational painting, and of all the genres the most dead and seemingly bankrupt was portraiture. In fact, the reigning critic, Clement Greenberg, had said that there's only one thing you can't do and that's make a portrait. And I thought, Well that's interesting. I backed myself into a corner, which gave me a lot of elbow room. I didn't have a lot of other people around. And so there's a greater chance my response would be personal, rather than, you know, what's going on. But definitely the minimalism, post-minimal process-oriented stuff; you know, a sculptor like Richard Serra...he didn't want to make bronze sculpture and carve in marble. He went down to Canal Street and he got rubber and lead and stuff like that. And he wanted materials that didn't have historical baggage associated with them and then just tried to see what the material would do. And so, in a similar sort of way, to sort of purge the gods from my studio, the people looking over my shoulder whose work I cared so much about, I tried to, with a series of self-imposed limitations, back myself into my own personal corner where nobody else's answers would fit. I've always thought that problem-solving is highly overrated and that problem creation is far more interesting. If you ask yourself a personal enough question, your response is more likely to be personal, and that means that if you get yourself into trouble, no one else's answers are going to be applicable and you'll be flying by the seat of your pants and you'll have to come up with something.

In your book with William Bartman, The Portraits Speak: Chuck Close in Conversation With 27 of His Subjects, you joked to Richard Serra: "Some of us make art the way God meant us to make art. We go indoors and up on the wall, not out there where people bump into it." What is it that draws you to the flat surface?

I love sculpture and minimal sculpture is really my favorite stuff, but I wasn't very good at it and I don't think in a 3 dimensional way. I'm very learning disabled and I think it drove me to what I'm doing. And I didn't want to work from life because the person is in 3 dimensions and if they move a little...so I wanted to translate from one flat surface to another. In fact my learning disabilities controlled a lot of things. I don't recognize faces so I'm sure it's what drove me to portraits in the first place. But also painting is the most magical of mediums. The transcendence is truly amazing to me every time I go to a museum and I see how somebody figured another way to rub colored dirt on a flat surface and make space where there is no space or make you think of a life experience. Sculpture occupies real space like we do...you walk around it and relate to it almost as another person or another object. But a painting has this remarkable ability to become more than the sum of its parts.

And working with painting you are essentially working with light?

Yeah. That's interesting too, if you saw the Vermeer and the other Dutch painters show that the Met Museum did this last year. Here you had almost identical situations painted by de Hooch and painted by Vermeer, and de Hooch was painting things, he was painting bricks, he was painting speckled buildings...and Vermeer was painting light. And so when you walk into a room where the other Dutch painters are, his paintings just sing. And they're an entirely different experience. And I'm sure it's because he was using a camera obscura and he was in fact looking at light while he was painting rather than looking at stuff.

I know you attended the symposium, "Art and Optics: Toward an Evaluation of David Hockney's New Theory of Opticality", at New York University in December. What did you think?

Well...I think it's clear. It doesn't upset artists to find out that artists used lenses or mirrors or other aids, but it certainly does upset the art historians. Susan Sontag said something really funny...she said to find out that all her art heroes cheated and used aids, lenses and things like that, is like finding out all the great lovers in history used Viagra. And you know that doesn't bother me. I don't care what they used to make whatever they wanted to make. But art historians would say things like that if it turns out that Ingres used a camera lucida then they might have to reassess his body of work and obviously downgrade it. I don't care. Anyone who can make a magical image like that...I don't care what they used. I remember I once had a group of 3rd graders in my studio and this kid said, "Can you really draw or do you just copy photographs?" And I thought, oh my god, they're already believing this crap that if you're looking at a photograph you're not looking. What difference does it make whether you're looking at a photograph or looking at a still life in front of you? You still have to look.

How long have you been using the big camera with the 20x24 inch focusing screen?

I think I started in about 1975. I had made large blow-ups before. But the big difference was, I never knew what I had till I developed the film and made a print to work from. Once I started working with the Polaroid I would take a shot and if that shot was good then I'd move the model and change the lighting or whatever...slowly sneaking up on what I wanted rather than having to predetermine what it was. I usually take 10 or 12 black and whites, and 10 or 12 color. And then the sitter gets to see each photograph as it's taken too...so you're immediately involved in a kind of dialogue instead of capturing their image while they're unsuspecting of what you might want. They get a chance to see, so together you sort of fashion an image that you want.

It makes me think again of the idea of looking at what colors are already there, always working with the context.

And moving from somewhere to somewhere else...it's a very different way than conceptualizing what it is you want.

And this way your portrait subjects get to participate in that?

Yeah...they can lobby for what they want; I won't always listen to them. But I would like to say that I don't do commissioned portraits and I don't paint college presidents. I can't imagine what kind of ego it would take to want to have a 9 foot high picture of yourself. [laughter] So when someone lends me their image, it's an act of extreme generosity, because they don't know what I'm going to do with it, they have no control over it, they're not paying for it, so they can't ask for their nose to be straightened. It requires some bravery and generosity on their part.

gallery design by Mike McCaffrey © 2002 Artzar - All Rights Reserved