It's rare that a renowned artist best-known for his paintings would jump at the chance to mount a museum exhibition devoted exclusively to his photographs.
But that's the case with "Chuck Close Photography," the first comprehensive survey of photographic work spanning Close's four-decade career. The show opens Sunday at the Parrish Art Museum.
"Most people know Chuck as a painter of large-scale portraits," says Terrie Sultan, Parrish director and co-curator of the show with Colin Westerbeck. "But photography has always been key to his work" -- or at least since he abandoned Abstract Expressionism upon graduating from Yale in 1964.
This is not the first time Sultan has collaborated on an exhibit focusing on another aspect of Close's career besides painting. In 2003, she organized "Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration," a survey of the artist's printmaking, at the University of Houston's Blaffer Museum.
Close turned to photography as source material for his photorealist paintings, such as the 21-foot-wide "Big Nude" (1967). "Big Self-Portrait" (1968), based on photos taken with a standard-format Polaroid, was the first of what Close called "monumental heads." By 1977, he was experimenting with a 20-by-40-inch Polaroid at the corporation's research center and later was introduced to its 40-by-80-inch "museum camera." These life-size lenses helped him create such works as the 82-by-68 "Self-Portrait / Composite / Nine Parts" (1979) featured in the Parrish show.
Following what he euphemistically refers to as "The Event" -- a 1988 spinal artery collapse that left him paralyzed -- Close painted by strapping brushes to his wrists while seated in a motorized wheelchair. Later, he destroyed his paintbrushes to force himself to work with new tools. "Ease of repetition becomes the enemy of the artist," Close said in an interview with Sultan preparing for this exhibit. "When you find yourself doing the same thing that you're good at, you have to increase the degree of difficulty."
His adaptive use of photography may have resulted, in part, from a cognitive disorder that would seem -- for a portraitist -- to be a bigger challenge than paralysis. Prosopagnosia, or "face blindness," makes it difficult for him to recognize faces. The process Close developed divides a subject's face by sectioning the photo into grids from which he paints, cell by cell. Many of the 90 photos at the Parrish reflect his composite approach. Some are studies for paintings. Others are finished artworks.
For years, Close split his time between Bridgehampton and Greenwich Village. He now lives and works in SoHo. He's expected to attend Sunday's members-only reception at the Parrish.
"What appeals to me about this project is that there's still something to learn about how his mind works. I think you'll find some surprises here," Sultan says of "Chuck Close Photography."
"Without it, I'd still make art," Close told Sultan, "but it wouldn't be the same at all."
WHEN | WHERE Sunday-July 26, Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Hwy., Water Mill. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays, until 8 p.m. Fridays
ADMISSION $10, seniors $8, students free; 631-218-2118, parrishart.org