Mental Floss

Getting Close to Chuck

Andréa Fernandes

Chuck Close (born 1940) is one of the most requested artists for "Feel Art Again." Referred to by some as the "rock star of contemporary art," Close is one of the most well-known contemporary portraitists. Shown above are his "Self-Portrait/Pulp" (2001) and his "Lyle" (2002).

1. As a child, Chuck Close was un-athletic and dyslexic, which led to him being considered "lazy and dumb." When he began taking private art lessons at age 8, though, he became the envy of his classmates because he got to draw and paint from nude models.

2. Close's first break at fame came while he was still an undergrad at the University of Washington. A desecrated flag that Close bought at a thrift store, painted, and inscribed with patriotic inscriptions received "substantial media coverage" upon being displayed at the Puyallup Fair. The American Legion was particularly upset by the flag, with some legionnaires even attempting to break down the door to get at it.

3. Most of Close's subjects are family and friends of the artist himself. Close admits he "was intent on painting really anonymous people." Unfortunately for him, "then they managed to become famous," which "kind of screwed up [his] game plan." One such subject was Philip Glass, whom Close painted in 1968. Glass later composed "A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close" for his friend.

4. At age 11, Close was sick with nephritis, "a nasty kidney infection," and spent most of the year in bed, which allowed him to further develop his artistic talents. Thirty-seven years later, Close's painting techniques changed due to another serious illness. On Dec. 7, 1988, Close suffered a collapsed spinal artery that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Through months of rehab and determination, Close eventually recovered enough movement to paint again, first holding a paintbrush in his mouth, then strapping one to his wrist, and finally strapping the brush to his hand.

5. After taking large Polaroid portraits of his subjects, Close then grids the photos and the canvas on which he'll paint, and enlarges the portrait into a pixelated-looking final product. Some have wondered if Close uses a computer to aid in his process, but Close has said, "I absolutely hate technology, and I'm computer illiterate, and I never use any labor-saving devices although I'm not convinced that a computer is a labor-saving device."

Larger versions of "Self-Portrait/Pulp" and "Lyle" are available from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fans should check out the Chuck Close: Process and Collaboration site; Close's oral history interview for the Archives of American Art; the collections of Close's work at the Pace/MacGill Gallery and the Met Museum; Close's portraits of Brad Pitt for W magazine; Chuck Close and Robert Storr in conversation; NPR's 1998 interview with Close; this video of Close at work; and Chuck Close on Sesame Street. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.