Reviews | Chuck Close: the conversation I never had with him
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In early 2020, at the start of the Covid pandemic, I started an art project whose goal was to create a portrait of intimacy by superimposing memories of former lovers on my diary. My assumption was that the perfect understanding that we all aspire to in relationships is elusive – that no matter how close we come, we are still confined to our separate inner worlds. By mapping out what privacy was not, I hoped to define the contours of what it was.
This involved contacting artist Chuck Close, with whom I was in a relationship almost 20 years earlier. He first became known in the 1970s for his monumental and photorealistic portraits. But Chuck, who died this year, was perhaps best known for having adapted his process after one of his spinal arteries collapsed in 1988 when he was 48 years old, crippling him from neck to toe. He regained some movement in his arms and was able to paint with brushes attached to his hands, resulting in a new type of portraiture.
I met Chuck in 2001 when I was 20 or 21 studying Comparative Art and Religion in Columbia. He was 61 years old. I spotted him from a cab window and impulsively jumped up and ran to where I saw him. The street was empty, but I came across a door leading to a large studio apartment with a massive, unfinished portrait on the wall. There, in the foreground, in his electric wheelchair, stood Chuck Close.
I stood shamelessly on the doorstep until he finally zoomed in and asked in a neutral tone, “May I help you?” I don’t remember what I said, but he invited me in. After showing me around, he gave me his phone number and invited me again.
After graduating, we started meeting for lunch most days after our separate work mornings. I was starting out as a painter, and he supported and encouraged me. He bought me my first suitable oil painting – the exact brands and colors he used (particular marks for particular colors) – and taught me to configure my palette like his. He showed me how to mix beautiful blacks without using black. He asked me to treat each area of the canvas equally, not to paint the hair differently from the skin just because it was hair, not to paint the background with less attention than the subject. , to erase the hierarchy. This insistent integrity has never left my approach to artistic creation.
Very early on, Chuck asked me to pose nude for him. Although Anais Nin’s erotic stories about artist and model were a mainstay in my fantasy life, I felt uncomfortable with just one person doing the whole look. I offered this offer: if you pose nude for me, I will pose nude for you. That ended the conversation. If he mentioned it again, it was a childish plea, easily brushed aside. Even though it was more of an instinct than a conscious thought at the time, I believe I was trying to maintain a balance in our relationship.
I realized he was attracted to me, but his desire was at a volume that didn’t sound threatening. In this tender period of my young adulthood, what he offered me was validation. It just seemed like there were things we wanted from each other in the relationship and that, with our 40-year gap (and in so many other ways), those things wouldn’t be the same. .
Over time and over many lunches, a love between us developed and our relationship became romantic. He told me that he and his wife at the time had not had any physical contact since his paralysis and that she didn’t blame him. It may or may not be true, but I believed it at the time.
Years later, a handful of women would accuse Chuck of sexually harassing them when they walked into his studio to pose for him. In 2017, he told The Times: “If I embarrassed someone or made them feel uncomfortable, I’m so sorry. I did not want. I admit having a dirty mouth, but we are all adults. It was a brutal fall from grace: the shows were canceled, his legacy reconsidered.
When I read these stories, I felt a complex sadness. It hurt to think that someone I loved had made other women feel raped. The details were familiar enough that I didn’t doubt it at all. With a prick, I recognized similar tropes and felt like I had unwittingly been a part of a pattern. But I was also confused: why didn’t I feel their anger? Should I have?
But I never felt unsafe with Chuck. If anything, I felt I was the one in control. I always felt I could say no. I was aware that it was up to me to create my limits, although it is true that there were times when I found my limits by going beyond them and having to renegotiate.
As an artist and as a person, my interest is in intimacy. I don’t want the people in my life to hide their desires from me. I want to be asked. I want to be offered the choice.
There are some well-meaning people who would tell me that as a young woman in a relationship with an older, powerful man, I have been a victim whether I know it or not. Although I remained open to the possibility, it was not how I felt.
The truth is, while feeling attractive can be a red herring in the pursuit of deeper self-esteem, it can also be a power. I used this power as much as I was frustrated with it.
Seeing the image of Chuck reduced to the charges against him in recent years has inspired me to tell my story, not as a defense or rebuttal – I believe and honor the women who have come forward – but to add perspective to the way we see Chuck Close, even though this portrait is more cubist than photorealistic.
Last spring, when I contacted him by phone to tell him about my project, he was depressed and difficult to understand. A sports station was playing loudly in the background. I told him that I would visit him as soon as the pandemic was over so that we could talk about such sensitive issues in person.
As I hung up I wondered if shame was the best vehicle for the cultural changes we want to see. I wondered where Chuck might find an opening for understanding or redemption, and I hoped that sharing our experiences with each other might provide some clarity. He died last August, before we could get together.
I have my memories, my diary and his approach to painting, which has permeated my practice. I also have my knowledge of its best and its worst aspects, as is the privilege of any intimate relationship. Even though we had been able to talk, it is as difficult to convey your experience of a relationship as it is to really know what is going on inside another person.
Trying, however, is what privacy is all about.
It may also be the purpose of s. Is there a better definition of art than effort, pain, to explain one’s inner experience and make oneself understood? As elusive as perfect human understanding is, when we approach it we can call it a masterpiece.
In the 19th century, Édouard Manet shocked the world with his painting of Olympia, that famous nude that looked back, becoming an active participant. No longer an allegory of idealized femininity, as the previous nudes had been, Olympia is a real woman, a courtesan. With just one glance, she created a new possibility: a woman who is the guardian of her sexuality, who lets herself be watched and enjoyed – if, when, how and as much as she wants. I am inspired by his gaze. I see its limits expressed there; she calls the shots.
Ms. Silverstein, a contemporary artist based in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, New Mexico, was in a relationship with artist Chuck Close 20 years ago.
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