Close Encounters Roman Portraiture

By Michael Pratt

Chuck Close's art is a personal one, so it is natural that biographical analysis has traditionally shaped our understanding of his work. In imitation of the artist himself, we reproduce and amplify the fine details of Close's life in order to better comprehend our subject. The artist's inability to remember faces, connection to Minimalism, education at the Yale School of Art, and partial quadriplegia have all informed our readings of his work with varying effectiveness. But like the monumental heads against blank walls for which the artist is most famous, our portrait of Close and his art lacks context.

In particular, little work has been done to situate him in the broader history of portraiture, and the artist himself is partly to blame. For the majority of his career, Close denied any interest in subject matter and has even refused to categorize his work as portraiture. Process, he claimed, was more meaningful than the final artistic product, and he simply used faces as vehicles for exploring that idea. "The first heads," he says in an interview with Robert Storr, "You know I didn't call them portraits, I referred to them as heads. I denied any tradition of portraiture."1 His use of the past tense is significant; around the time of this interview, Close came "'out of the closet as a portraitist,' as he puts it, to pay homage to a long line of predecessors."2 Though art historians have long aligned Close with his postwar contemporaries, this clear desire to be judged against historical portraitists invites us to make freer associations. Because of their shared psychological intensity and ability to communicate the social role and personality of their subjects, Roman art provides some of the richest visual comparisons with which to better understand each body of work and assess Close's place in the pantheon of great portraitists.

1 Robert Storr and Chuck Close, “Interview with Chuck Close,” in Chuck Close (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 86.
2 Michael Kimmelman and Chuck Close, “Chuck Close,” in Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere (New York: Random House, 1998), 236.

Chuck Close Self-Portrait Maquette, 1968 Chuck Close, Self-Portrait/String, 1983
handmade paper in 24 gray values and string
37 x 27" (94 x 68.6 cm)
Photograph by Ellen Page Wilson, courtesy Pace Gallery
© Chuck Close, courtesy Pace Gallery

About the Curator

Michael portrait

Michael Pratt is a recent graduate of the Art History program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. His primary research interests lie in the history of photography and early twentieth-century American art. Michael's project was largely based on his final paper for Professor Laetitia La Follette's seminar on Roman Portraiture. Currently, he is putting his degree to work as a barista in Easthampton, Massachusetts.