Chuck Close’s MoMA Show? You Could Do a Lot Worse

I see that in the bibliography of the catalogue accompanying the Chuck Close exhibition, which Robert Storr has now organized at the Museum of Modern Art, I am on record as having written at least seven reviews of the artist’s work in the decade between December 1971 and April 1981. Most of these pieces were published, of course, in The New York Times , where I was then pulling on the oars, producing two, three or more articles a week about an exhibition scene that was expanding more rapidly than even a paper with The Times ‘ resources could hope to keep up with. So seven pieces in 10 years wasn’t exactly saturation coverage of Mr. Close’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune. On the other hand, it wasn’t a sign of indifference to the stir he was causing, either. Whether one “liked” his work or not, Mr. Close was in those days definitely causing a stir, and so attention had to be paid.

I haven’t consulted the clips of my old articles on Mr. Close’s exhibitions, but if memory doesn’t completely fail me-which, alas, it sometimes does these days-I didn’t much like his paintings when I first saw them. What was to like in those big, overscale blowups of remarkably unattractive heads laboriously transcribed from unremarkable photographs to thin layers of acrylic on canvases the size of a Pollock or a Rothko? I didn’t find the huge magnifications of facial hair or crooked teeth particularly fetching, and the tendency of the eyes in these oversize portrait heads-at least those unadorned with glasses-to resemble the eyes of dead fish I found a little creepy. Above all, I found the unremitting tedium of Mr. Close’s pictorial technique pretty creepy, too.

Seeing these early portraits again in the current show at MoMA, I still find them repellent. But now these images are so familiar that, like a lot of other repellent aspects of contemporary cultural life, they have lost their power to irritate or annoy. They have become part of the codified bad taste of our time. Or should it be called the codified tastelessness of our time? Call it bad taste or tastelessness, it’s really academic taste-the academic taste of a university and museum culture that nurtures allegedly “transgressive” departures from accepted taste with all the piety and pretension that academicians of an earlier era lavished on the practice of drawing from plaster casts.

In this regard, close attention-no pun intended-should be paid to the pages Mr. Storr devotes to Mr. Close’s experience as a graduate student at Yale University in the catalogue accompanying the current exhibition. If one discards the mistaken conclusions that Mr. Storr draws from this story, his is quite the best account I have seen of the way in which the avant-garde legacy of the New York School was turned into the academic modernism of the 1960’s. It is must reading, not only for a comprehension of Mr. Close’s artistic development but for the careers of many other artists of his American generation.

My own interest in Mr. Close’s paintings perked up a bit when, around 1980, he expanded his pictorial technique to include a kind of geometricized pointillism harnessed to a grid. This gave the eye-or my eye, anyway-a painted surface that is almost lively enough to compensate for the unremitting banality of the picture’s subject. And sure enough, the most interesting thing to see in the current show at MoMA is the way Mr. Close has developed a further expansion of his technique to include finger painting, pulp paper collage and, most recently, a species of painted abstraction applied to a diagonal grid that, up close, more and more obscures the picture’s subject and yet still “reads” as a portrait when seen from a distance.

The latter is, to be sure, a remarkable technical feat, yet as painting it still breathes the air of pictorial tedium that afflicted the earlier painted simulations of photorealism. All these accretions of boxed-in painted circles and squiggles are finally just as affectless as the earlier meticulous renderings of facial hair and crooked teeth. The principal exceptions, in my view, are the pulp paper collage on canvas called Jud/Collage (1982), in which the modeling of the head achieves an almost sculptural vitality, and the Self-Portrait/Composite/Nine Parts (1979), which isn’t, of course, a painting at all but a picture composed of nine color-Polaroid photographs mounted on canvas. It may indeed be one of the ironies of Mr. Close’s oeuvre that his photographs are often more powerful than his paintings.

Seeing this exhibition of some 90 paintings, drawings and photographs at MoMA, it occurred to me that what it represented was something that ought to be called “niche art,” using the word “niche” in its ecological meaning-that is, as a “set of functional relationships of an organism or population to the environment it occupies,” as my dictionary has it. In the environment of Yale and the art scene in Manhattan in the early 1960’s, Mr. Close found his “niche,” and it proved to be a “niche” that the art world was ready and eager to admire. And in Mr. Storr, who specializes in contemporary “niche art,” Chuck Close has found his ideal expositor. For like Mr. Close’s paintings, which abound in facile pictorial paradoxes that prove to be empty of meaning, Mr. Storr’s prose is similarly adept at conjuring up intellectual paradoxes that account for very little that can actually be seen in the pictures.

So, these many years later, I am still not a fan. Yet, reading about Josef Albers in Mr. Storr’s account of Chuck Close’s graduate studies at Yale, I was reminded of an encounter I had with Albers that may apply to the present occasion. This would have been back in the 1970’s when I was writing for The Times . I was looking at an exhibition in the Sidney Janis Gallery one morning when Albers suddenly emerged from one of the inner offices. When he saw me, he came over to where I was standing, and asked: “Are you Kramer?” (He pronounced it “Krah-meer.”) I acknowledged that I was. He then said: “You know, I used to dislike you very much. But now, there are so many worse people.” That’s pretty much the way I feel about the art of Chuck Close, which remains on view at MoMA through May 26.

Chuck Close’s MoMA Show? You Could Do a Lot Worse