Walker Art Center

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An Artist’s Museum

By Siri Engberg

Chuck Close recently characterized the Walker Art Center as an “artist’s museum,” a place with “a tremendous record of incredible engagement with the people who make this stuff.” His relationship with the Walker goes back to 1969, when then-director Martin Friedman purchased Big Self-Portrait out of the artist’s studio. Close’s first self-portrait, the work was also his first sold to a museum and became a showcase of his first-ever traveling retrospective, organized by the Walker and debuted here in 1980. Since then, the Walker has continued to acquire his work, including a large painting portraying artist Kiki Smith and a broad selection of Close’s prints, most of them self-portraits.

In 2001, this rich history led me to propose that the Walker assemble an exhibition of Close’s self-portraits. When we realized that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which owns a remarkable recent painting and a host of other self-portraits by Close, was in the process of organizing a similar presentation, we arranged a collaborative partnership.

As SFMOMA curator Madeleine Grynsztejn and I approached Close’s Soho studio for the first time, I had the same anxiety that many curators have when embarking on a project with an art-world “heavy”: Will I say the right things? Will he be interested in this exhibition? Will we meet his expectations? Close answered the door himself, and within seconds, we were at ease, in the company, we realized, of an old friend. Paintings-in-progress lined the walls of the studio, recent photographic projects were arrayed on a table, a pile of prints was stacked in the corner awaiting the artist’s signature, and the desk was piled with exhibition catalogues, correspondence, and books. This was someone very much at work. Close, it turns out, had questions of his own. “Will it be interesting to people to see room after room of my head?” he asked, with genuine concern. We both answered, without hesitation, that it would. As we sat in the studio poring over binders filled with images of the self-portraits, we became all the more certain that this was an exhibition that must happen, a group of works that must be gathered and shown together.

As our exhibition grew in scope, we came to realize that Close’s self-portraits are a touchstone, something he regularly returns to as a testing ground for his work at large. In almost every medium he has explored—painting, drawing, photography, paper pulp, and printmaking—he has made self-portraits. These form a complex and compelling body of work, in which one not only witnesses a face changing over time, but sees the startling visual possibilities a familiar image can engender. Starting out with photographs, Close overlays his source images with grids that he then uses to transpose the subject to another source, be it canvas, paper, or printing plate. His system of working is rigorous and consistent. His approach, he says, is to “make it all happen within the rectangle, instead of on the palette and in context.”

Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967–2005 will be the first temporary exhibition to be presented in the Walker’s new expansion designed by Herzog & de Meuron. “I hadn’t even shown in New York City when Martin purchased the first painting,” Close remarked recently, “and I think the first time it was shown at the Walker was about the first time that I was in the Whitney Biennial, so it may have been concurrent with that that I first got museum exposure. And now to have the opportunity to be one of the first shows when the new Walker opens is something that gives me a great, great thrill and much pleasure, and I can’t think of any institution where I’d rather have it happen.”

Chuck Close installing the Walker exhibition Close Portraits, 1980

Photo: Walker Art Center Archives