How painting 'saved' a man with paralysis

Self-portrait of Chuck made up of tiny squares Image copyright Chuck Close/Pace Gallery
Image caption Self portrait of Chuck Close from 2013

Artist Chuck Close has produced widely recognisable contemporary art, but after becoming paralysed in 1988, he had to devise a new way to carry on creating.

When one of Chuck Close's arteries burst and caused permanent paralysis, his first thought was how to begin painting again. Such was his determination to continue making art that he told friends: "I'll spit on the canvas if I have to."

Continuing seemed like a tall order - Close had lost all feeling from the neck down - and as he began occupational therapy, in a room decorated with unfinished baskets woven by terminal cancer patients, he remembers it was one of the only times he cried in those early days after becoming disabled.

"I remember saying 'you see, I told you I can't do it' with tears running down my cheeks," he explains. But as he began to get back some strength through daily rehabilitation, Close was able to put his hands together, clamp them around a paintbrush and literally fall on to a canvas, hoping the brush landed in the right place. "It was good enough, even with the first attempt to know that I could do it eventually," he says.

Image copyright Chuck Close/Pace Gallery

By the time Close left hospital he was creating paintings of a similar quality to those from before he was paralysed. This is no mean feat - his paintings are notoriously detailed and require fine brush strokes and methodical control. Psychologically it was important for Close to produce work of exactly the same quality as before so that if he moved forward artistically he knew it was because he wanted to, and not that he had to.

With the help of a brace to keep his hands tightly gripped around the paintbrush, Close left hospital ready to return to work.

At 74 and still producing art, the thing that irritates him most is when people try to make comparisons of his work from before and after the paralysis.

Image copyright Chuck Close/Pace Gallery
Image caption A 2011 portrait

"Everyone seems very invested in seeing the work as different," he says, "but it's not." He gives credit to curator Rob Storr for creating a retrospective of his work in 1998 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York which reflected these feelings. He intentionally mixed up pieces from Close's last show before hospitalisation, with those from the first show he did afterwards. "He was asking people to see the difference, and I think people couldn't," he says.

Although he was a middle-aged man by the time he became paralysed, it wasn't the first occasion Close had been forced to devise techniques to help him work around a disability - he had also had to do this when he was much younger.

Growing up with un-diagnosed dyslexia, he found school incredibly difficult. All his reports read similarly: "Charles is absent-mindedly looking out the window". What he was actually doing, he explains, was avoiding visual stimulation from inside the room so he could properly process what the teacher was saying.

Image copyright Chuck Close/Pace Gallery
Image caption A 1970 portrait

While he had no problem writing backwards and upside down, many people hadn't heard of dyslexia in 1940s America, so he received no formal help with the disorder. Instead he came up with techniques that seemed to help him - temporarily at least.

"I filled a bath with hot water and put a plank across the tub with a book rack holding a book, all in the dark," he says. "I shone a light just on the book and read each page out loud four times. Then I'd hurl myself out of the water after staying in there all night."

If within a few moments somebody asked him a question about the book, he was able to access the information, otherwise it was gone.

Close also has a condition called prosopagnosia, more commonly known as "face blindness", and as a result can't recognise people solely by looking at their faces. It continues to be a problem for him but he says he doesn't care now.

Image copyright Chuck Close / Pace Gallery
Image caption A number of Close's paintings are made up of smaller square paintings

The condition affects how he sees the world but it's this difference which has prompted critics to say he paints faces with great realism, flattening out features so they are easier to recognise. In his studio, in downtown Manhattan, there are portraits everywhere: composer Philip Glass, Kate Moss, Lou Reed, President Barack Obama, and Close himself. They're all created in the same way, by drawing a grid over photographs in order to recreate the image on canvas or print. Some are painted with brushstrokes, others made with thumb prints, or millions of tiny black and white airbrushed dots. Often each square on the grid is a tiny abstract painting in itself, made up of coloured loops and shapes.


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Chuck Close spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service

Listen to the interview on iPlayer


He realised early on in life that he had a fascination with art. He distinctly remembers his mother taking him to an exhibition where a Jackson Pollock painting was on display. The young Close, with his conservative education, was outraged by the messy creativeness of it and thought simply: "This isn't art".

It wasn't until later, when he couldn't get the image out of his mind that he realised he actually loved it. "It gnawed at me," he says. He found it exciting, and the other works he looked at just didn't excite him.

What followed was an experimentation process, as Close began to drip paint over huge representational paintings.

Image copyright Chuck Close / Pace Gallery
Image caption Chuck Close in his studio during the 70s © Chuck Close/Pace Gallery

Although his parents were poor, they bought him a set of oils and sent him to art lessons every weekend. He thinks the house was also used as a brothel at night.

He gained a place to study art at the University of Washington, and then Yale, where his classmates included other artists such as Richard Serra, Janet Fish, and Nancy Graves. After graduating, they all moved to New York "to produce fresh art that looked like nothing else".

His breakthrough painting came in 1968. Called Big Self-Portrait it is 3m (10ft) high and almost as wide. From a distance it looks like a photo, but on closer inspection the artistry is apparent. Taking three months to paint, it was formed using an airbrush filled with diluted acrylic paint, applied in layers then scratched off with a razor blade and an electric eraser.

Close says art has saved him twice, the first time being when his father died when he was 11. "It was the absolute worst thing that's ever happened to me in my life," he says of that event, "but there was an odd gift in it as well." Experiencing overwhelming grief at such a young age made it easier when he became quadriplegic, he says, as he knew he could get through it.

His undying faith in the artistic process has undoubtedly played a role in this optimism, he says.

Chuck Close spoke to Andrew Purcell for Outlook on the BBC World Service. Listen again here.

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