I was watching The Colbert Report tonight, and his interview guest was portrait artist, Chuck Close. First impression, some artist in a wheelchair. I was waiting until the shoe dropped and Stephen was able to make a pre-approved joke about his handicap, to spice up the boring talk of his drawrings. I didn't think much of him until they flashed his self portrait.
That picture triggered a well-ensconced memory in me.
Oh so many years ago, as a kid on a high school field trip in Minnesota, I saw this self portrait hanging before the beginning of a tour of the Walker Art Center. I remember being enthralled by this incredible piece. It was placed a story above the entrance into the main exhibits, but it still felt so huge… larger than life, as the hacks would say. I could tell that the guides were proud of it, but I was the only one in our group memorized by its depth, its detail, its humanity. It's not much to see from a picture on teh internets, but to see this towering visage made my cynical teenage mind pause and appreciate the craftsmanship, the vision, the raw beauty. I remember everybody entering the hall while I reluctantly followed, staring up all the way in.
I picked up some fun tidbits about him tonight, from the origins of his most obvious handicap (what he calls “The Event”), to a gift from the Gods of Irony, his inability to recognize faces, known as Prosopagnosia. He even threw in a disparaging joke or two about Bush, revealing his personal politics.
I’ve learned two lessons tonight.
First, I went 15 or so years without knowing anything about the artist, even though that one piece has always stuck with me. And, that’s fine. In a week where Steven Slater is really a just a drunken dick, and Jenny didn't really quit her job, even my most cynical self must appreciate the art they created and the visceral emotions evoked in me.
Second, he’s been a man stubbornly, and respectably, in love with the idea of limitations.
As he explained in a 2009 interview with the Cleveland Ohio Plain Dealer, he made a choice in 1967 to make art hard for himself and force a personal artistic breakthrough by abandoning the paintbrush. "I threw away my tools", Close said. "I chose to do things I had no facility with. The choice not to do something is in a funny way more positive than the choice to do something. If you impose a limit to not do something you've done before, it will push you to where you've never gone before."
I think that’s something that appeals to the wanderlust in me, and speaks generally about the rugged, American spirit. To choose the hard path is the most unnatural thing we can do. But, those folks are the people I respect the most.
I looked back on that painting all the way out of the museum, even after seeing all the incredible productions inside. Nothing on display inside hit me so bluntly in the chest as that piece.