Face, the final frontier

When Chuck Close began painting portraits in the late 1960s, there were few more unfashionable subjects. Today his monumental canvases inspire widespread admiration and imitation. By Jane Burton

According to Chuck Close, his airbrushed paintings inspired the inkjet printer. "It came out of this Japanese guy who saw an exhibition of mine in LA in 1970 or `71," he explains. "I was spraying just three colours, different amounts and intensities of red over yellow over blue. He went back and invented ink jet printing."

Manipulating modern technologies is a favourite game of contemporary art, and the dots and dabs from which Close builds his works have frequently been compared to pixilated computer imagery, or to the static buzz of a television screen, but this must be the first time that technology has evolved from a painting.

The works in question are Close's hyperrealist heads. Monumental portraits for the information age, in which one looming face after the other is anatomised inch by inch into a craterous landscape of pores, wrinkles, veins, stubble. A magnified fleshy geography that, as Close says, we rarely experience except in the intimate act of making love. But intimacy, in the sense of emotional engagement, is conspicuously absent from Close's work, and why his methods can be easily compared to the systematic processes of a machine.

His heads are an exercise in minute transcription. A photograph is gridded up, enlarged and copied with cool precision on to canvases eight or nine feet high. It's a non-hierarchical approach in which the collar of a shirt carries as much weight as an eye or a mouth, turning his sitters into deadpan mug shots, with the psychological opacity of Easter Island statues.

Close, 59, is not well-known in this country - this exhibition at the Hayward is his first here - though his influence has filtered through to the work of young British artists, from Marcus Harvey's controversial hand-print painting of Myra Hindley, to the impassive portraits of NatWest prizewinner Jason Brooks. In America, by contrast, he is something of an art-world legend, admired for his dogged pursuit of a single subject since he emerged on the scene at the end of the Sixties, and recently rewarded with a retrospective at New York's MOMA - "I think I've aspired to be the Morandi of heads," he says.

His focus is all the more remarkable given that, since 1988, when a blood clot in his spinal artery paralysed him from the neck down, he has had to relearn how to paint from a wheelchair. Gritted determination to keep at it seems to underline Close's attitude to both his life and art, though he is keen to separate appreciation of his work from any kind of sympathy vote. "I don't want to be seen as a poster boy for quadriplegia. And I don't think there's anything heroic about my getting back to work. I had a lot of options open to me because I was a very successful artist and had made a lot of money - that allowed me to hire the help to get to where I want to go, to get in and out of galleries, to get on aeroplanes - all of that stuff," he says candidly.

While he used to sit in a forklift truck to reach his massive canvases, these days he has a trap door in the floor of his New York studio through which paintings are raised or lowered on an electronic easel, and he wears a hand brace to allow him to grip a brush.

"What happened to me truncated certain possibilities but I think I would have been doing pretty much what I'm doing now anyway," he says. "Frankly, I would much prefer not to have these particular rocks in my shoes. But I'm somebody who's been used to severe limitations throughout my career, though self-imposed. These just happen to be imposed from above, or whatever. I'm a good problem solver and I always find my own way to skin the cat."

Close began setting limits for himself in the late Sixties, as a way of forcing himself out of imitative habits: "I was very good at knowing what art looked like and once you know that, it's not too hard to make some of it. But it kind of looked like someone else's - when I met De Kooning I said it was nice to find someone who had made a few more De Koonings than I had. I wanted to do something as different as possible, to back myself into my own idiosyncratic corner where no one else's answers would work."

He chose the then deeply unfashionable genre of portraiture, restricting himself at first to black and white, and using an airbrush, the least gesturally expressive tool he could muster: "I had no facility with an airbrush, no personal history. I wanted to get something very specific for my hand to do so it wouldn't just make De Kooning shapes."

His subjects were his family and friends, including the composer Philip Glass, the sculptor Richard Serra and the painter Joe Zucker, all unknowns at the time. "Originally I wanted the most anonymous people I could get. They just got famous on me, the bastards."

Having established his rules, Close began to bend them. First he introduced three colours, overlaying magenta, cyan (a shade of blue) and yellow - the minimum required to construct a full chromatic range. Then he allowed a sense of touch to creep back in, experimenting with thousands of fingerprints, or blobs of oil paint in place of airbrushed dots, incremental marks which he pieced together like a mosaic, according to his strict controlling grid.

The sensual surfaces and succulent hues of the work he had begun just before his paralysis, and which he has continued to develop since his partial recovery, are a long way from the austerity of his photo-realist, black and white beginnings - though, 30 years on, the blueprint remains the same. Now the staring, Brobdingnagian heads are pushed right to the brink where illusion begins to dissolve. Dots and pixels have metamorphosed into larger, lushly brushed squares, each a miniature abstract.

Step up close and the squares collide like jitterbugging atoms, move far back and they fuse into the blurred contours of a face, seen almost as if reflected in a puddle. They are still obsessively methodical - he compares his painstaking progress across the canvas to knitting - but the painterly, intuitive pleasures that drew him to De Kooning as a student are no longer suppressed.

Close hasn't much time for tenuous connections between his physical condition, and the (paradoxical) freedom of his later paintings - in fact, what's surprising is just how little the "incident", as he calls it, has deflected him from a course he had already set out on. He concedes, however, to a newfound "celebratory" aspect in the work: "Of all the things I haven't been able to get back to, luckily painting is one that I have," he says, "and there's a sense of celebration in that. I've always been lucky."

The Chuck Close exhibition is at the Hayward Gallery, on the South Bank, London SE1 (0171 928 3144), until 19 September

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