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Chuck Close

Chuck Close’s process for making his airbrush oil on canvas paintings is one of many reasons his work is both Contemporary art and powerful in his time.

Is Earth destined to be ruled by an over-efficient computer system called HAL? Will the president of the machine city banish the human race to the dark depths of the Earth’s caves? It started with wire-tapping, Facebook privacy terms, Siri, then drones. But it ends with terminators destroying their makers. Okay, perhaps the dark side of machines is still generations off, but machines using A.I. have already painted masterpieces without the hand of a Contemporary artist. Soon Contemporary art enthusiasts will have to question if a painter is human. But this sort of thing is not unknown. Changing technologies have forever affected visual language. Cave paintings became frescoes. Tube paints sucked artists out of their studios. Revolutions and coups have changed the subjects of many works. And of course, the camera and later computers have had long-lasting strongholds on the arts. Artists have long questioned both the character of art and the character of the humans who make it. It seems inevitable that Contemporary artist, Chuck Close (b. 1940), would investigate these ideas in his portraits. These portraits are calculated and organized compositions of color, but also likenesses and reflections of the human spirit. Close combines machines and humans and the Contemporary artist is the bond between the two.

Airbrush and the Contemporary Artist

Chuck Close himself is a machine often working months on end on just one portrait with an airbrush. Close is a hardworking and skilled portrait painter having graduated from Yale with an M.F.A. and the University of Washington with a B.A. Close was also a teacher (Walker Art Center). He has many large portraits usually painted in oil with an airbrush in many popular museums and a tight knit network of family, friends, and artists. Close is very respected in the Contemporary art community. Chuck Close is not only incredible at what he makes with an airbrush but a powerful force in the Contemporary art world.

contemporary art

Fate stuck Close in the 1940 slot a few years before the birth of Contemporary art, long after the invention of the camera, but right on the peak of computer technology. Born into the years of Contemporary art, Chuck Close is undoubtedly familiar with Warhol’s hasty screen prints and Liechtenstein’s tedious Ben Day dots but would become more interested in processes that were more precise. Close began to be inspired by Photo-realism and Hyper-realism. This style, while inspired by the process, is focused simply more on giving a canvas painting the accuracy of a photograph. This Contemporary artist and painter also incorporate classic art-making like portraiture into his Contemporary airbrush pieces. Soon paint brushes will be found at excavation sites. Older techniques are being taken over by film, cameras, and computers. But the invention and use of the camera proved not to pulverize Close’s works into anthropology books but inspired him to create more inquisitive and analytical portrait canvas paintings with airbrush and oil paint. Close was plunged into a flurry of cultural shifts that appear in his works as an examination of the art of the 21st Century.

There is a great article about Chuck Close’s life over at the NY Times.

The Portrait Painter

There is no other white cube among the many inside the SFMoMA where one feels so watched by such unique individuals. Walking into the gallery of Chuck Close paintings is like being on the hot seat. Four walls each with a towering portrait and eight eyes stand erect and poised right towards the center bench. One can’t sit or stand in the room for long without feeling intensely scrutinized. Such intensity comes from the subjects. The portraits are powerful works of Contemporary art because the subjects of which they are modeled after are powerful. Success, individuality, intelligence, and struggle that lie beyond the brushstrokes are what make these works truly intense. The unbreakable gazes from these four very unique artists make for an extraordinary human experience.

The character is important to Chuck Close. Even a computer printed driver’s license photo can be a beautiful piece of Contemporary art. A machine rendering of a human is going to inevitably capture traits of human character. A license printer may be cold and unconscious but it will still capture the essence of the human subject. Close is a more intuitive machine. Close uses a fairly strict process, but still, captures the human nature of those that he paints. Like the printer, he is a machine that uses specific instructions, but he is also a painter painting pictures of people. No matter what anyone, even Close, says, these works are about humans and the souls that rest behind their oily eyes.

Contemporary Art and Process

Instead of drawing, Close summons the camera to furnish a mechanical record free of the distorting effects of human sight. close’s photographs emphasize documentation; they are flat, frontal, and explicit. Taken with the assistance of a professional photographer, they server as icons of truth for the next phase of his creative process which involves transferring the image from the photograph to the canvas.” -Weintraub

Close could perhaps enlist one of those robotic Hulk-arms that spray sparks around as they put cars together to paint his Contemporary art that often look like dot-matrix printouts. The instructions might be, “Open tube, pick up brush, dab paint, then stroke canvas.” Chuck Close’s process, however actually starts with him taking a photograph. Then Close transfers the image from the photograph to a grid either of many small or a lesser amount of large squares. Either are sometimes turned at 45 degrees. Then the painter uses machine language to fill in the grid. Circles, squares, crosses, and other shapes become his vocabulary. The conversation fills the grid and lights it up. Sometimes a single cell will be marked with concentric circles or two, side-by-side, creating ellipses. Even three are sometimes filled, creating right angles. These bright colors and shapes in his process are like words or ones and zeros in a computer language. Looking at Close’s work with regard to this process and these tools makes it seem like a mere machine could easily pull off a canvas painting by the painter.

Close’s Contemporary art process may one day become an Instagram or Photoshop filter. This portraitist creates computer renderings because they do not generalize like most painters do. “The computer never proceeds to the generalizing phase” (Weintraub 147). Therefore, while Close does not push and pull space, exaggerate or ignore value, or simply embellish, he is making computerized visual printouts with paint. This inhuman process seems cold for a reason. “His subjects’ faces supply visual information, not human meaning” (Weintraub 150). Close is purposely using this technique to create something more robotic than meaningful, personal, and mortal. This heartless operation is calm, calculated, and fits perfectly within most people’s scope of emotional capacity in contemporary times.

Emotional Canvas Painting in Contemporary Art

Neither man nor a machine could paint the vibrant, creative, and lively Contemporary art by Chuck Close in that room at SFMoMA. It takes a Contemporary artist. Pinks and baby blues dance on top of canvases of brown and blue. Only a Contemporary artist could create these colors that are bright enough to blind a robot. Little slashes of canvas pierce through the small unpainted bits. Only an experienced painter would be innovative enough to leave them intentionally blank. The virtuoso hand-picks the subjects of which he intends to paint. Strokes of paint with such velocity and emotion are signs of a true artisan and craftsman. Close’s canvas painting is human. Close’s canvas painting is mechanical. But these dynamic paintings are not made by man or machine; they are made by a Contemporary artist.

…It is his investment of human effort that directs attention to the computer/human interface, and to the fact that this interface is growing ever more entwined.” -Weintraub

There is a blending of human and inhuman art and its name is Chuck Close. There rages a battle between man and machine even in the world of Contemporary art. But the artist’s hand is still required for a powerful piece of canvas painting made with an airbrush. People argue that computers are more efficient and accurate and some argue that humans are more compassionate, but regardless it is the Contemporary artist who will time after time win the debate. Close wins as a different kind of computer, one capable of crucial artistic decision-making. It was an obvious choice to put the eyes within the bounds of four cells in his grid. Even the black pupils lay outside the confines of the computer-like method as black dots right where the grid lines would intersect. All of his style choices seem computed but are his own artistic judgments. Close becomes an “interface” with human decision-making capabilities that are better than a computer’s. Chuck close presents the themes of humans in the 21st century and of mass produced computers in the same works.


So how can these airbrush paintings on canvas be considered this new elite thing called Contemporary art? Each canvas painting is a new edition in a Contemporary art reference. Chuck Close’s works relate to these theoretical trends of his time such as Photo-realism, abstraction, even works influenced by the camera. There could be an entire book written on how Close influenced and was influenced by each of these. But Close’s works are more than a style or a trend, they are questions. Like Contemporary art, they challenge the very meaning of and the reason for art. The inquisitive nature of these paintings is the very thing that defines Contemporary art. Not only is his canvas painting Contemporary, but it and even its maker are powerful. Close and his canvas painting questions art, of course, but also mankind’s relationship with machines. Close is challenging the future synthesis of man and machine. Artistry, mechanics, and humanity are all present. Though as a Contemporary artist, he is essential to bringing the ideas of machines and humans together in one body of work.


  • “Chuck Close.” Walker Art Center, walkerart.org/collections/artists/chuck-close. Accessed 29 July 2017.
  • Weintraub, Linda. “Chuck Close: Dada Collecting” Art on the Edge and Over, edited by Linda Weintraub, Art Insights, Inc., 1996, pp. 145-151.

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