Visual Art: Up close and impersonal

Chuck Close Hayward Gallery, London Chuck Close White Cube, London

Chuck Close is one of the most famous and influential American artists alive, yet in Britain he has never yet had a solo show. Until now, when he has two: a large retrospective of his paintings from the last 30 years at the Hayward, and a small selection of his recent photographs in the minuscule space at White Cube.

Close specialises in very large heads. He paints them, photographs them, digitalises them, and even makes them out of paper pulp in bas-relief. Most of them stand eight or nine feet high; they stare out from the wall directly at you. The artist does not care to call these pieces portraits - there are no captains of industry here, though Close did once take a photograph of President Clinton (and very bland and boring it was too). These are artworks that use the human head as their subject-matter; they are not for hanging in the boardroom. "They are what bottles are to Morandi," Close explained in a talk at the Hayward last week, suggesting that he at least has no problem with the repetitiveness of his basic image.

Over a period of more than 30 years (he is nearing 60), Close has done several different things with his heads, using several different techniques. (A major change of direction in the mid-1980s preceded the life-threatening heart condition which has left him using a wheelchair with his brush strapped to his hand - he has overcome these difficulties while continuing to produce his work in much the same way as before.) His early work, grey and gritty and monotone, is usually described as photorealist: Close starts by taking photographs of his subject, one of which he then transfers to canvas by making blobs on a grid. Each hair on the head, each individual piece of stubble, is painted with the extreme exactitude of the camera lens, and constructed within the unbreakable discipline of a rigid framework.

His later heads are built up with the same mathematical precision, still in the same stern vise, but the works of the last 15 years or so seem to be executed with apparent abandon, using dots and flourishes and squiggles with astonishing exuberance. The heads also appear to have got larger, as the background fades away to the edges and an exploration of the face becomes the artist's principal preoccupation. Ravishing colour replaces the grey tones, with pastel purples and greens of the most lurid and outrageous hue. These paintings have a wonderful tactile quality that has to be relished in the flesh. The flavour and thickness of painting that has the apparent texture of embroidery or patchwork or tapestry is not really available in reproduction.

The essential grid is there in all Close's paintings, but in the more recent works it may be diamond-shaped as well as square, and even, in one dramatic small portrait of Lucas Samaras, circular. The portrait of Samaras, with his hair electrically akimbo like the famous drawing of Struwwelpeter, appears to have been created with all the movement and drama of a spin painting, yet is the result of the most painstaking work. On display at White Cube is an even more startling photograph of Samaras - himself an artist, and no stranger to special effects - in which each individual strand of his backlit hair can be counted.

Discipline and control, of tone and colour as well as design, are essential elements in Close's work, for he is an academic painter by training, schooled at Yale in the 1960s. Comparisons have sometimes been made with Gerhard Richter, that consummate European artist who can wield a brush as though it were a camera and vice versa. Richter is the more significant figure, with a larger range of method and subject. Close, in spite of his artistic and political radicalism, remains recognisably rooted in a local and romantic American tradition into which he might easily fit alongside Frederic Remington and Andrew Wyeth.

The only trace of the year Close spent studying in Vienna in the 1960s, apart from a regard for classical painting and an appreciation of how it was constructed, is a memory of the work of Arcimboldo, whose fantastic portraits are revealed, in close-up, to be made from vegetables. Close's heads often have the same magical quality, with the myriad dots and squiggles, apparently constructed without rhyme or reason, forming an iconic image that never slips from his control.

Close sometimes calls himself a "junior Abstract Impressionist," and his work has all the technique and discipline of abstract painting. Up close to the canvas you see nothing but a gorgeous splash of colour. Take two steps back and the portrait emerges from the apparent abstraction.

The captions on the heads have simple, monosyllabic names like Roy and Phil and Jud, but soon it emerges that several are of the same person, and many are of the artist himself. The sitters are Close's family and friends, and many of these friends have, over the years, become famous. So the numerous heads of Roy turn out to be Roy Lichtenstein, and those labelled Phil are of Philip Glass. Cindy, of course, is Cindy Sherman, while Robert is Robert Rauschenberg.

In the early days, Close was content for the fame of the sitters to be unrecognised, but now he seems to accept that there is an intrinsic interest in who these people actually are. Last year a book was published in which he interviews the people whose heads he once took pictures of. All this may be anecdotally amusing to people familiar with the New York art world, but his work, which is not lacking in a sense of humour of its own, has a more serious purpose. In the years when it was said that painting and portraiture were dead, he has been an isolated but hugely talented voice proclaiming that they are very much alive.

Chuck Close: Hayward Gallery, SE1 (0171 960 5226) to 19 September and White Cube, SW1 (0171 930 5373) to 4 September. 'The Portraits Speak: Chuck Close in Conversation With 27 of His Subjects' is published by Art Resources Transfer (pounds 32)

Charles Darwent returns next week

EXHIBITIONS CHOICE

REMBRANDT BY HIMSELF

NATIONAL GALLERY

WC2 (0171 747 2885)

to 5 Sept

Sixty self-portraits by the Dutch 17th-century master.

NOTORIOUS: HITCHCOCK AND CONTEMPORARY ART

MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, Oxford (01865 722733)

Today to 3 October

Artists respond to Hitch.

OPENING THIS WEEK

DISASTERS OF WAR: CALLOT, GOYA, DIX

Imperial War Museum, SE1 (0171 416 5000) Thurs to 26 Sept

The realities of conflict.

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