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Interview with Chuck Close on how his grandma’s crochet inspired his artistic vision

On the eve of a show at PaceWildenstein in New York, the veteran US artist discusses the importance of the year he spent with his grandmother when he was eleven

Chuck Close’s monumental paintings of his friends, family and himself are instantly recognisable. Photographically realistic from a distance, upon closer inspection the portraits reveal themselves as the accumulation of hundreds of geometric shapes—circles and triangles of different colours inside diamonds and rectangles. Over the years critics have wondered if Close has devised these elaborate compositions using computer technology, something the artist has always refuted.

Now, in an interview to mark the opening of an exhibition at his New York gallery next month, Close discusses how his distinctive method was inspired by the hours he spent as a child watching his grandmother create complicated crochet patterns.

We met him in his downtown studio and asked him about his paintings, his tapestries, art fairs and President Obama.

The Art Newspaper: What influenced your painting technique?

Chuck Close: I just recently had a Eureka moment. When I was 11, my father died and we moved to be closer to my grandparents in Everett, Washington, DC. I spent a year in bed with a kidney disease. I’d go over to my grandmother’s after school. It was 1951 or 1952, something like that. We’d watch the McCarthy hearings on TV and play Canasta. She would sit and crochet without a pattern book. She’d make one kind of star and then cast it off and begin another, a completely different kind of star. One star was purple, green, yellow and blue. The next star was pink and all different colours. I watched her make them and then put them all together. These huge afghans were big complicated things and hers were like Josef Albers. They’re not unlike my paintings.

She was like me, a total nervous wreck. I’m so nervous, a total slob, so it would seem to preclude my doing this. I watched the calming effect making them had on her.

Once, I watched her make a cable sweater and each cable was different. She ripped one out. I got the sense that there is value in what you make and no sense in making something bad…I recently abandoned a self-portrait.

TAN: So craft is at the heart of your painting technique?

CC: The worst word in the art world is the “C” word. Craft. But nothing gets made without craft and process. I build a painting the same way she made afghans. The value is up close. If I’m working on a diagonal axis, I’ll have the painting turned. I’ll put four or five correcting colours on top of each other. I’ll build up. I never stand back…

TAN: Tell us about your tapestries.

CC: I began with tapestry 37 years ago. Now the technology has changed and I draw on a computer screen colour-keyed to a loom. It’s the best way to talk to the loom. They send test stripes, sometimes the file of information is not appropriate: too contrasty, too monochromatic. Some I totally reject.

They have a certain psychological presence. Think of all the images of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy on cloth, velvet paintings. People put their heroes up. The Shroud of Turin was hung on a wall.

People think it’s [the image] printed on. But when sucked up to the surface, they have a different kind of relationship with it. I consider them to be major pieces.

TAN: With the global economic downturn, what changes do you see in the auction world?

CC: The recent downturn in sales at auction seems to be a little self-correction of the wretched excess. Do we really need 500 galleries in New York?

TAN: Despite the downturn, fairs continue to draw crowds…

CC: I have strong feelings about art fairs. Taking artists to fairs is like taking a cow on a crowded tour of a slaughterhouse. But the big culprit is the auction houses, the force of evil.

They have no long-term commitment to the artists; they’re the worst aspect of the art world. There’s a degree to which art fairs mimic the auctions (in terms of hype). You’re given 30 seconds to buy the damn things. People are running around with walkie talkies. Having said that, I do like Frieze.

TAN: What are your thoughts on speculation in contemporary art?

CC: It doesn’t affect me. I only make three paintings a year and it takes me three years to make enough for an exhibition. The way I work saves me from being buffeted. So far, it hasn’t been that hard to sell three paintings a year. Scarcity has helped me.

TAN: To what extent are you in touch with other artists and the philanthropic community?

CC: The art world is my other family and that was brought home to me when I spent eight months in the hospital. All those faces at the foot of my bed. I felt a real brotherhood.

I possibly see more art than any other artist of my generation with the exception of Alex Katz. Also, I serve on 11 boards including those of Studio in A School [a non-profit founded by Agnes Gund in 1977 which brings artists into New York City public schools, day care and community centres], Sickle Cell, Spinal Cord…

TAN: You have many collectors around the world. Are you in contact with them?

CC: In the first 20 years of my career, I used not to want to meet my collectors; I was afraid they would be jerks. I began to meet them and realised I was worried about nothing. Where would we be without them? We wouldn’t have art in museums if not for collectors. Look at Aggie Gund and the Studio in A School and her efforts at MoMA [Close recently honoured Agnes Gund by donating three of his inkjet print portraits of fellow artists in her name to the museum, one of Robert Rauschenberg, one of Jasper Johns and one of Kara Walker].

TAN: What role do you think President Obama and the new government should play in the arts?

CC: If you want to define a culture, you largely do it through the arts. I doubt if we will get a cabinet position, but what a message that would send.

The most important thing President Obama could do is to allow artists to deduct fair market value of their donations to museums.

I like his policy of putting art into schools. The government could pay artists, who don’t have teacher certification, to perform in schools.  It would be such a great way to get arts into the school system.

I’m for changing the National Endowment for the Arts back into what it was conceived to do—make individual artists grants. In the 70s, I was on a (NEA) jury and looked at 60,000 (artist) slides (for grant selection) and gave grants. I never felt better about anything I’ve done; it should be restored.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'How grandma’s crochet inspired my artistic vision'