The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close

After half a dozen of these, I suggested we take a break. I was staying in the area for a few days, so it would be easy to return, and we agreed to meet the following afternoon for lunch. I gathered my things and wandered outside to the boardwalk. Toned young couples raced by on Rollerblades, and the shouts of children echoed over the water, and I found myself shuffling through the crowd in a state of bewilderment. I had no idea what to make of the strange forgetfulness that came over Close, or his new style of painting, or whatever had led him to Long Beach, but it seemed to me as I traipsed the boardwalk that I could really only hope to connect with the work through the man. I was reminded of a night a few months earlier, when I was living at an artist colony in upstate New York and attended an evening exhibition of another resident’s work. He was a videographer with a lively sense of humor, and I’d come to enjoy our conversations, but it turned out that he spent his artistic energy shooting footage of himself breaking dinnerware. I mean this literally: His show that evening consisted of more than an hour of film that depicted saucers and cups flying through the air and smashing. As I watched this, I confess, I found little to admire in it, but I was increasingly curious about what in the world inspired him to make it.

It seems to me now, with greater reflection, that the value of experiencing another person’s art is not merely the work itself, but the opportunity it presents to connect with the interior impulse of another. The arts occupy a vanishing space in modern life: They offer one of the last lingering places to seek out empathy for its own sake, and to the extent that an artist’s work is frustrating or difficult or awful, you could say this allows greater opportunity to try to meet it. I am not saying there is no room for discriminating taste and judgment, just that there is also, I think, this other portal through which to experience creative work and to access a different kind of beauty, which might be called communion.

In any event, as I passed through the clamor of the boardwalk that afternoon, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the new painting, but I was eager to understand what it meant to Close. Removed from his old friends and landscapes, feeling alienated from the New York art world and disconcerted by its inclinations, he was working in this divergent new mode, in a blaring slate of colors, and was painting precisely what he wanted to paint, because he wanted to paint it. In that sense, if no other, it was dazzling to consider the self-­portrait and to witness the audacity of an artist working so independently at the end. I thought of the critic William Hazlitt’s fascination, in the early 1800s, with what he called “the old age of artists,” about which he wrote, “One feels that they are not quite mortal, that they have one imperishable part about them.” I was also reminded of the long ruminations by Edward Said on the same phenomenon, which Theodor Adorno termed “late style,” when an artist approaching the end of life begins to embrace a newfound dissonance. “Each of us can supply evidence of late works which crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor,” Said wrote. “But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?” Thinking of a musician like Beethoven, Said wrote: “Late works constitute a form of exile.”

In Long Beach, exile had the sound of summer, and I spent a few more days with Close, watching the tides roll out. We would sit at the long table on the middle floor, eating Indian takeout and discussing the commercial compromise made by artists who rely on assistants to make their work. “I look at my friend Jeff Koons, and I think, Why in God’s name does he want to do that?” Close said. “Why would he give up the fun part to become the C.E.O. of an art-­manufacturing company?”

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