Oral history interviews with Chuck Close, 1987 May 14 – Sept. 30, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Interview with Chuck Close
Conducted by Judd Tully
At the artist’s studio in New York City
May 14, 1987
JUDD TULLY: According to published information, you were born in the state of Washington in 1940. What was your actual birthdate and tell me a little bit about Monroe, Washington?
CHUCK CLOSE: July 5, 1940. Monroe, Washington, was a smelly little town halfway up the Cascade Mountains, northeast of Seattle. I didn’t live there very long, actually. I was born at home — not in a hospital — of humble beginnings. Actually, I want to go back and photograph the house, because if I were a politician it would be great to have a picture of the shack that I was born in. [They laugh.]
MR. TULLY: Was it really a shack?
MR. CLOSE: Well, it wasn’t a real shack, but it was a very modest little cottage. “Cottage” is giving it all the benefit of the doubt. It was definitely on the wrong side of the tracks — about thirty five feet from the tracks. My father at the time was a sheet metal man and was also working in a hardware store. He was sort of an itinerant inventor, a jack of all trades. Probably basically unemployable. He had a lot of skills and seemed to — coming out of the Depression — had just had a whole string of handyman kind of jobs. My mother was a trained pianist, but the Depression pretty much screwed up her chances of any kind of a career, although she did teach piano at home.
MR. TULLY: So what were their names?
MR. CLOSE: My father was Leslie Durward Close and my mother was Mildred Wagner Close.
MR. TULLY: About how old were your parents when you were born?
MR. CLOSE: My father was born in 1903 so in 1940 he would have been 37. My mother was 10 years younger so she was 27. I was an only child. I recently found out that my father had been previously married and had another child, but I didn’t find that out until I was 40 years old.
MR. TULLY: How did that come up?
MR. CLOSE: I got a call on the phone. My mother never told me. Even on her deathbed she never told me.
MR. TULLY: She obviously knew?
MR. CLOSE: Yes. It’s strange. I guess there was tremendous embarrassment about all that stuff. My aunt claims that my father didn’t really think the child was his, and married her because it was a small town and somebody had to or something like that. But I don’t know. I’ve since met the man. He says he’s my half brother and I assume he is. But I was raised my whole life as an only child and my mother was an only child and my father was virtually an only child. He had a half brother who was much older. So it’s like a lot of solitary souls.
MR. TULLY: And you said you weren’t there very long in Monroe?
MR. CLOSE: No. I think when I was just a year or so old we moved to Everett, Washington, which is an even smellier town. It’s on the bay. It’s a poor, whitetrash mill town. It is the smelliest city in the world, I think. It was all paper mills with that process where they break down the wood and it produces an incredible smell. I lived there until I was in the first grade and we moved to Carmel. My father started working for the Army Air Corps. First he worked in the air force base in Everett, and then was transferred to one in Tacoma, so we moved there. I stayed there until he died when I was 11.
MR. TULLY: So he died very young.
MR. CLOSE: He was 47 when he died — almost 48. My mother and I moved back to Everett. My grandparents were living in the house that I had grown up in and then we bought the house next door to them, so my grandparents could help take care of me. My mother who had never worked — other than teach piano — had to go to work.
MR. TULLY: So by that time when you moved back you were –
MR. CLOSE: I guess I was 12 when we moved back.
MR. TULLY: I meant to ask you before — you were Charles?
MR. CLOSE: Yes. There were only a few names in my family. People were not too inventive. Everybody was Charles Thomas or Thomas Charles or whatever — my grandfather was Charles — so all the names were taken. I was little Charlie. There was Big Charlie and Little Charlie. To my relatives I’m always still Charles, although I have only one relative left. I guess it was some attempt at individuation that in high school I started to go by Chuck. I always hated the name. But it’s a total accident that Chuck is my professional name. I didn’t intend that to happen which, skipping ahead, but it’s anecdotal. Everybody knew me as Chuck, but I had intended to use Charles as a more formal name. Very early in my career Cindy Nemser did an interview which was used in ArtForum. Actually she did two. She did an article for Art in America which says, “Introducing Charles Close,” she titled that. Then in the interview she didn’t title it and it just said “Chuck Close” and “CM.” The photographer, who was a student of mine, took the photographs for ArtForum and he’d just written “Chuck Close” on the envelope, so it went down as an interview with Chuck Close. I don’t know if a similar thing happened with Red Grooms or not, but the whole kind of informality of it was not — I regret it. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t regret having that as my professional name.
MR. TULLY: When did this ArtForum piece and Art in America piece come out?
MR. CLOSE: That must have been about 1968 or 1969, I guess.
MR. TULLY: So when you said one of your students you were teaching–
MR. CLOSE: I was teaching at the School of Visual Arts.
MR. TULLY: Okay.
MR. CLOSE: Now do you want to go back to the early years?
MR. TULLY: Yes. You had moved back to Everett. You were living at home with your mother and she was working and your grandparents were next door. What was the school atmosphere like? What was going on around then?
MR. CLOSE: Now I realize — or I found out later in life–that I am dyslexic. In the ’40s and ’50s of course nobody knew from or gave a shit about something like that, so I had a lot of difficulty in school. I don’t have a typical kind of learning disability. Although I did just find a drawing that I made when I must have been about three or four — I was already writing, so I was probably around four — in which I wrote my name all in mirror writing so probably there were indications that now somebody would see immediately as an indication of something, but at the time it didn’t. I still can write mirror writing as fast as I can write forward. I can write backwards and upside down as fast as I can write forward.
MR. TULLY: That sounds quite something. And then you can read it also as easily?
MR. CLOSE: Yes. And, also, making prints was very easy for me. I immediately have no trouble imaging what something looks like the other way. I did a self-portrait etching a while ago in which it was reversed — of course — and it was a negative because the bright copper plate had a dark ground. As I was sketching the lines they were going to be black and I was white, so in a sense I made the equivalent of a photographic negative reversed and negative. Everyone seemed to think that was kind of amazing that I could do it and it seemed not at all a difficult problem to me. [Laughs.] But at any rate, one of the characteristics of the kind of learning disability I have is a problem with facial recognition. Everyone I’ve ever seen or people I look at all look immediately familiar to me, but I have tremendous difficulty figuring out who it is and where I’ve seen them before. I never can memorize. To memorize something was unbelievably complicated and I developed my own systems to be able to remember which are now are very similar to the kinds of things that they try to teach learning-disabled children. It’s something I evolved on my own, which I guess is probably the basis for–I’m sure I’m not the only person to have evolved systems like this. These systems have probably become the basis for how to teach other people.
MR. TULLY: Like what though? What did you do to prompt you? What is an example?
MR. CLOSE: There was no sense in trying to memorize anything very far in advance because I could only — I used sensory deprivation. I would go into the bathroom where I would — in the dark — put a strong light on a plank that I had across the bathtub with a book stand to hold the book and in hot water — in total silence in the dark — I would go over, and over, and over whatever it was I was supposed to be memorizing all night long before an exam. Just the very last minute that I possible could go over the stuff. I was a virtual prune I was so wrinkled from studying. But it was like I had to get rid of all the other distractions and everything else that was going on in order to focus and concentrate and stare at these things. Then in order to remember it I would take a word and I would break it down into letters. Then I would make a sentence. If I had to remember the name of a biological species or something like that– say the word was — I don’t know what it would be–now, of course, I can’t think of anything. [Laughs.] But if it were “plankton” or something like that, then I would put “please leave” da, da, da, and I would have a sentence. Then I would have a visual image of that sentence or it would be pink, long, or something that would be visual. So then when I’d need to recall this I would get the mental image, the mental image would feed me the sentence, then I would extract from the sentence the appropriate letters and rebuild the word. This worked reasonably well, but it of course ate up a lot of time. So typically on my exams if there were 20 questions, I would have the first 15 questions correct and then of course the last five I didn’t have time to do. Now if you are a learning disabled person you can choose to take exams in an untimed way. For instance, you can take SATs and things untimed for people who have this kind of a problem.
MR. TULLY: When you are giving this example of that board in the bathroom–when did that start?
MR. CLOSE: I remember it around that time that exams started. I guess probably in junior high school. What I really would like to explain is how art really saved my life because art is how I proved that I wasn’t a malingerer and how I proved that I was interested in the course material. Even in grade school, when I had trouble memorizing names and dates and anything that would be an indication that I had paid attention in class or read the material I had trouble recalling it and I was immediately seen as a malingerer. Art was the thing that I used. I remember making a 10-foot-long map of the Lewis and Clark expedition, all illustrated–as an extra credit project–it showed my junior high school history teacher that I was interested in the material. And if I had a sympathetic teacher, that would make up for other things. English class I would make poetry books in which every poem was illustrated, et cetera. So I think early on my art ability was something that separated me from everybody else. It was an area in which I felt competent and it was something that I could fall back on. Similarly, I also have a neurological condition which does not allow me to run or to use my arms in certain ways. So not only was I a screwed up student, but I wasn’t able to excel in sports or even to just participate. So as a kid when we were playing tag and everybody would run, they would run off and leave me. I’d run 25 or 30 feet and my legs would lock up and I would fall down.
So I think I learned early on that if I was going to have friendships — and as an only child I had no built-in playmates — that I was going to have to find a reason to get them to stay with me because I was not going to be able to keep up with them. So I got into what I would call sort of entertaining the troops and I became very theatrical. I’d make puppets. I’d do magic acts. I did everything that I could do and I became very skilled at organization. I would convince the other children that what we should be doing was something that I could do. Art was definitely –or things that might be considered artistic or something about manipulation of materials in some way — became–and my parents were also very sympathetic and also helped in that. They helped me make puppet stages and helped me make magic. My father, as an inventor, would make all kinds of magic props, as he made almost all my toys from scratch. So I definitely had an unusual childhood.
MR. TULLY: You were mentioning your father. So you would be around him when he would be working?
MR. CLOSE: Yes. My father was very sickly — had been sick his whole life. My mother was told several times before he actually died that he was going to die of something else, so there was a lot of role reversal stuff, which was for the ’40s very unusual. My mother mowed the lawn and my father would bake. I remember my mother overhauling the car — putting in rings and valves, et cetera. My father would tell her how to do it and she would. He was very skilled at that sort of thing, but he was unable to do a lot of it. She would keep running into the house and say, “What’s this?” And he’d say, “You’ve got to do–” And she’d go back out and do it. So he was around a lot. He was home a lot, which most fathers weren’t.
MR. TULLY: I just think of this image when you said this “10 foot-long map of Lewis and Clark.” So in other words you blew up –
MR. CLOSE: Oh, yes. Somehow, visual stuff — It’s like nature or God or whoever if you believe in God. It’s a convenient metaphor. It seems almost like if they take something away from you over here they give you something else over there. Or nature does. I am more comfortable with that. But at any rate, certain skills seem to have come easily for me and of course the more I depended on them, probably the more I developed them. But I knew at a very early age how to read things. I remember it must have been somewhere between the first and third grades I lived in a housing project and everybody in the school lived in the same housing project. We made a map of the housing project in which everybody made a drawing of their own house and colored it the color their house was, et cetera. I made a drawing of our house in perspective. The teacher wanted it to be like wrong. She didn’t know how to draw in perspective, so she kept telling me that mine was wrong and wanted me to make the ends of the house straight instead of sloped to be in perspective. I had the sense of outrage even as a very small child. I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight. The fact that here is something which is unbelievably clear and that I knew that I could do it and I knew that I was right and that somebody else who did not understand the system could force me to do it the wrong way.
MR. TULLY: So what happened then? Were you rebellious in a sense or resistant to–
MR. CLOSE: I couldn’t be too rebellious, because they already thought — mostly, I was trying not to draw too much attention to myself. Although I always was articulate, I think. And I think that I made up by participating a lot in class. My daughter is also dyslexic and she’s been that way. When somebody asks a question, she’s the first one to raise her hand and to show that you care — that you’re interested. As soon as I got into college, I could do a little research into what each instructor would require and try never to take a course that would require me to do something that I wasn’t good at. So I’d find things where I could write a paper. Of course I can’t spell or do anything like that, but I could take it to a typist who could. So I could — in my own way, at my own speed –write a research paper, have the spelling and stuff corrected and I was an excellent student –finally. In junior high school I had an 8th grade homeroom teacher who was a stickler for doing it by the book. If I could get this woman in an alley, I would murder her today. I had her for English, history, math. I had her for, like, four of the subjects. I had always managed to do pretty well. Oh, I had nephritis and I was in bed for nine months so I missed most of a year of school. It was the year my father died.
MR. TULLY: What’s nephritis?
MR. CLOSE: It’s a kidney disease. So I missed a year of school. My father died and we moved to Everett. My seventh grade was fine. Coming out of the disease, I couldn’t do a lot. I stayed in the classroom. I couldn’t go to gym or anything. I had a very good relationship with my seventh grade teacher and she was pleased with my work and I got good grades. Then in the eighth grade I had this stickler for doing it by the book.
MR. TULLY: Do you remember her name?
MR. CLOSE: Ruth Packard. I would love to get my hands on her throat. At any rate, she gave me like straight Ds. She couldn’t fail me because I did enough extra credit stuff to keep from failing, but I never could please her. She became my advisor for high school, and she so totally trashed me, and through the course of the year of failing me on this and failing me on that, I was just destroyed. She told me that I would never get into any college and I might as well not take any college preparatory courses. I should think about going to body and fender school or something, and that I wouldn’t be able to take algebra and geometry, and I wouldn’t be able to take physics and chemistry, so I’d better take general math and general science and whatever, which is what I did. Then when I was getting out of high school, I realized that I could not get into any college because I didn’t have the stuff. After I had gotten out of her class I had done very well and good decent grades, but I was taking basically bonehead kinds of courses and I was in there with all the troubled kids. But I always did the yearbook and the art and all that kind of stuff. I had things which made me feel good about myself, art always made me feel good about myself. When I did graduate from high school, luckily, in my hometown there was a junior college that had to take any taxpayer’s child who was a high school graduate. They could not not take them. So I got in to this college and made up all the — I had to make up an extra 15 hours in the way of science — algebra and geometry– for no credit. But at least I was able to do it and I distinguished myself in college very quickly. I was an excellent student. I ended up with the highest average when I transferred to the University of Washington. But I still had this image of myself as a failure and as not an academic. As I graduated, I was shocked to find that I had the highest grade point average of anyone in the art school and they gave me an award. I graduated summi cum laude and all that stuff without realizing it.
MR. TULLY: You were still driven by this Mrs. Packard?
MR. CLOSE: That’s right. To make an analogy, I was very late in maturing. I was very short. I’m now 6’3″, but then I was — I kept growing in college. My mental image of myself is still as a short person, because all through the formative years I was the shortest of all my friends. So even though I know I’m tall I think of myself as short. In the same way that while I distinguished myself academically, it was like I ignored it all and still had an image of myself as being a failure as an academic.
MR. TULLY: When all this stuff was going on — I was just trying to think about that — you were on the one hand being persecuted in a way by this teacher, but you were getting some positive things from your mother?
MR. CLOSE: Oh, yes. Actually, I left out that when I was about eight my parents enrolled me in a private art class with a person that I later figured out probably supported herself as a prostitute. So it was sort of an art class in a brothel, which is kind of amazing, too.
MR. TULLY: It sounds exciting.
MR. CLOSE: Yes. But the nude models were probably other women of the night. At any rate, I was at age eight or nine studying drawing from live models and painting with professional oil paints and all that stuff. Again it was something that I had tremendous support in from my family. Thank God they were not particularly concerned with me being successful at things I couldn’t be successful at like sports. They were very supportive. Considering the kind of poor whitetrash environment in which we lived and the very humble things — we were always lower, lower middle class I guess — it was unusual, I think, for them as parents to be supportive of that sort of thing. They were always very supportive of me. My mother was very active. Too much so. She was always head of the Parent Teachers Association. She was always there at school fighting for me, which was an embarrassment. I felt wimpish sometimes, because my mother was there taking on the administration. But I’m sure she made it possible for me to be as successful as I was. She was a little too involved. In Cub Scouts she was a den mother. Whatever it was, she was always there.
MR. TULLY: Was it your mother who found this private art–we’re not talking about Everett?
MR. CLOSE: No, this is Tacoma. My father stopped at a restaurant on the way to work and it was across the street from where this woman lived. She was a trained painter. She was very skilled.
MR. TULLY: What was her name?
MR. CLOSE: I don’t remember. He had breakfast there every morning. He may have very well done more than have breakfast. [They laugh.] At any rate, he knew her. How her knew her I don’t know. Somehow she had paintings hanging in this restaurant or whatever and he made arrangements for her to teach me privately. I have some of the paintings that I did.
MR. TULLY: That would be great. So you went there would it be after school or on the weekends?
MR. CLOSE: I don’t remember what it was. I suppose it must have been on weekends. I know I went every week. I’ve lost all the drawing notebooks and things that I did then. She had me doing very interesting stuff. It was academic. It was how many heads high people were, et cetera, but she taught me a lot about the conventions — perspective and all that sort of stuff. Also I painted directly in the landscape. We would go out and set up an easel in front of a church or something and we would paint it — or in the mountains. Also I guess we probably also worked with photographs come to think of it. Still lifes and stuff and from models.
MR. TULLY: And it was just you?
MR. CLOSE: Yes.
MR. TULLY: That is amazing. Your parents — was it a sacrifice for them?
MR. CLOSE: I suppose it was. But you know the thing is that my father was not — if I’d wanted to go out in the front yard and throw the ball around they would have done that, and I didn’t want to do that. They always got me lots of art materials and all I did was draw. I think because my mother was a pianist and my father was interested in — they had both followed very quirky routes to where they were.
MR. TULLY: Did you pick up anything from the piano?
MR. CLOSE: I couldn’t let my mother teach me anything. That was a big problem. I think I learned one piece which I can still play and that’s that. Then I wanted to do something she couldn’t do, so I started studying the saxophone. I played a sax all the way through college in dance bands and stuff. I was always first chair. It was another area in which I excelled and made up for the fact that I was having so much trouble in other areas.
MR. TULLY: So it doesn’t sound to me like you spent a lot of time say at home watching television.
MR. CLOSE: We had no television. No one in my neighborhood had one until I was probably — I think the first television that showed up in our area was 1951 or so so I would have been 11. But I didn’t have a television until I went to college. My grandparents had a television.
MR. TULLY: But I mean it sounds like you were working all the time. Not working, but you were –
MR. CLOSE: Radio was very good. Radio fantasy stuff was very good and I can still tell you the exact order of shows as they came on the radio. Especially the year that I spent in bed, I listened to all the radio soap operas too. “Young Dr. Malone” and “Helen Trent” and all of those radio soaps — “One Man’s Family” and all that stuff. And then of course all the evening ones. “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”, and “Inner Sanctum”, and “FBI”, and “Kings of War”, and all those. I was really into them. And I drew. I had the professional 80-color Mongol colored pencil set, that I loved.
MR. TULLY: And this again was something that you had picked up in terms of mixing colors, learning how to do it?
MR. CLOSE: Yes. I don’t know. I think I had that stuff very early. But I remember the Sears Roebuck catalogue. Everybody looked through the Sears Roebuck catalogue. The first thing that I can ever remember asking for out of the catalogue was a professional oil paint set that they sold. Not only that, I can still smell those paints. In fact, I opened a tube of paint recently that had the same smell that that Sears Roebuck paint had. I guess maybe it was cheap oil. God! A sort of waft of this smell hit me and it was the smell of my childhood. But I had also very elaborate puppet show things where we made our own puppets and staging and backgrounds. My father helped me. I had a model railroad thing — first a Lionel and then HO — in which I made all the mountains. My mother sewed costumes. I did a lot of theatre stuff. I had a top hat and tails that they got at the Salvation Army for my magic act. So they were very supportive of anything that I wanted to do that — a lot of it was the kind of fantasy play– all the children get into.
MR. TULLY: So mixed in with this was there occasion for you to go to a museum?
MR. CLOSE: We would go to the Tacoma Museum, which was pretty much a historical museum. I remember I loved the Saturday Evening Post covers and I really was very interested in illustration. I don’t think I discriminated that much between — there was a lot of illustration that was painting at the time. Whether it was Boy’s Life covers or Saturday Evening Post covers. I remember the Jack the Dripper issue of Life.
MR. TULLY: Jack the Dripper is Pollock?
MR. CLOSE: It was on the New York School and what an outrage it was. I remember that very well. I remember at age–my father was dead so I was probably 13 –when I saw my first Jackson Pollock in the Seattle Art Museum. At first, I was outraged by it. It didn’t look like anything. It totally eluded whatever I thought what painting would look like. I remember feeling outraged, but later — probably even later the same day — I was dribbling paint all over my canvas.
MR. TULLY: You went on a trip to Seattle?
MR. CLOSE: Yes and I think we were already living in Everett. My mother took me to the Seattle Art Museum.
MR. TULLY: So Everett’s close to Seattle?
MR. CLOSE: 30 or 40 miles.
MR. TULLY: Yes, you said that. So I wonder if that Pollock–for instance–
MR. CLOSE: They didn’t buy it, I found out later. It was one that was lent them and they could have bought it and they didn’t.
MR. TULLY: I was just wondering, because there was just a show at the Guggenhiem from Peggy Guggenheim paintings that she dumped on all these regional museums where she couldn’t sell them from Art of This Century [Gallery, New York].
MR. CLOSE: This would have been probably 1952 or 1953. I don’t know what piece it was, although I think it was offered to them for sale and they didn’t buy it. I saw all the local Seattle people who were of the Northwest — [Morris] Graves, [Mark] Tobey. There was lots of that stuff around, most of which I didn’t like. I liked Mark Tobey’s white writing, but I didn’t like it.
MR. TULLY: At that time?
MR. CLOSE: I think by the time I was in high school. Like I say, I came home and dribbled Jackson Pollocks when I was 12 or 13.
MR. TULLY: So the idea formed then about being an artist?
MR. CLOSE: Always wanted to be an artist since I was four. Always wanted to be an artist. Now around high school, I also got interested in things like sportscars and stuff like that, so I thought I’d better be a commercial artist. Practicality reared its ugly head. All the way through high school I was doing the yearbook and all the other stuff. When somebody would run for senior class president or whatever I always did the posters and so forth. So I was already interested in doing things that had a purpose and I liked illustration. MAD magazine had come out. I have all the early MAD magazines from when it came out, I think in 1957. So I wanted to be like a cartoonist — an illustrator. Actually what I really wanted to do was Time magazine covers. Later in life I’ve been asked to do Time magazine covers and I just don’t want to do them. But at the time that’s what I saw as a sort of pinnacle of painting. So when I actually entered college I wanted to be a commercial artist, but you have the same foundation courses for painting as for commercial art.
[End Tape 1, Side A.][Begin Tape 1, Side B.]
MR. TULLY: Before you talk about these foundation courses in college, what was the name of the high school you went to?
MR. CLOSE: Everett High School.
MR. TULLY: And elementary school?
MR. CLOSE: I grew up in Lincoln Heights. I’m not sure what that grade school was — probably Lincoln. Then I lived at Oakland, which is a district of Tacoma, and I went to Oakland Grade School. Then I moved to Everett and I went to South Junior High School and then on to Everett High School and then Everett Junior College, which is now Everett Community College. Then I transferred to the University of Washington at the end of my sophomore year. Then in the middle of my junior year I was given a scholarship to go to the Yale Summer School of Music and Art. I spent the summer between my junior and senior year of college there. On the basis of that, I was encouraged to apply to graduate school at Yale, which I really didn’t intend to do, but the Cuban missile crisis came along. As soon as my student deferment ran out from college, they called me down for a physical which I had been told I would never pass, that I would be 4-F because of my medical problems. But they lowered the standards enough to make me 1-A, so since I wasn’t going to be 4-F and I was now 1-A, I had to get into a graduate school fast. I called Yale and the chairman of the art school –Bernie Chaet — had been the head of the summer program and he had me quickly apply and moved me to the head of the waiting list. I managed to get into graduate school in just a matter of a week before graduate school started. I know we’re jumping way ahead. I just thought I would finish the education while we’re at it.
MR. TULLY: No, that’s good. So what year was that? You said the Cuban missile crisis.
MR. CLOSE: That was 1961 that I was at Yale and then I came back for this academic year of 1961-62. I guess that was when the Cuban missile crisis was –right?
MR. TULLY: I think so, yes. It sounds right.
MR. CLOSE: What ever it was, I remember sitting there looking at the nudes and thinking, “well at least I won’t have to go. I’m going to be 4-F.” [Laughs.] And it didn’t work out.
MR. TULLY: So just going back to Seattle and this idea about going into art school, your idea was commercial art. You knew already probably that artists would have a hard time supporting themselves?
MR. CLOSE: Well, I guess I was beginning to see the sort of Playboy magazine idea of what an artist was. I wanted to be an artist who also drove a sportscar. Whoever that was — those people who were doing cartoons and doing illustrations and whatever– who had that kind of lifestyle interested me. Then, of course, the minute I got into college and started taking painting and drawing and whatever, then I realized that was what I really wanted to do. I took one commercial art course and hated it — dropped out. So I would say it was a momentary lapse of practicality which went by the board.
MR. TULLY: Who was there at the school in Seattle?
MR. CLOSE: This was in Everett — this was Everett Community College– and it was unbelievably fortunate that I happened to live in this town with this incredible art program in a junior college. I mean, it’s unheard of. This junior college — the only thing that distinguished it was its art program. Russell Day, who was chairman of the art department, was probably the most respected and powerful faculty member on campus. It was just this odd thing that happened. They had a wonderful art program. I got a much better first two years of art education than I would have had I gone to the University of Washington and essentially been taught by the TAs. This was a very incredibly rigorous, competitive, demanding program taught by these extremely — there were three members of the faculty — Russ Day, Donald Tompkins, who was my mentor and who since has died, and Larry Bakke, who was the painting teacher. I’ve always been at the right place at the right time. Art schools especially have golden periods and then periods when the chemistry does not work. I’ve been very fortunate to always be someplace when it was the–all of that. I think that I’ve always worked hard. But a number of things have conspired to make things happen — being, I think, essentially driven into art in the first place. Probably more because of what I couldn’t do drove me further and further into art. Then excelling at it –if I had also been good at other things, perhaps it wouldn’t have meant as much to me. Just fortuitous things –like the fact that my father ate breakfast in a diner where this woman also ate breakfast that I ended up studying art. All these things just seem very coincidental and lucky.
MR. TULLY: You mentioned the three faculty people — Russell Day –
MR. CLOSE: Donald Tompkins, and Larry Bakke — were terrific. All three were wonderful. Then when I transferred the University of Washington it also had some wonderful people — terrific people — some of whom are still my friends today. Probably the most important one at the University of Washington was a man by the name of Alden Mason, who is a wonderful painter and a wonderful painting teacher. I have some of his paintings in my studio right now which I’m showing to dealers in New York.
MR. TULLY: What’s his work like? What was his work like then?
MR. CLOSE: It’s always been sort of personal monster kind of imagery that’s painted in a very expressionist way.
MR. TULLY: You must have been quite sophisticated in comparison to other people that were around in terms of being exposed to a lot of art.
MR. CLOSE: Yes. And I was a great student. I was exactly what everybody had in mind. I knew what art looked like and I could make something. Being a good student is a double-edged sword, I guess, because I got lots of pats on the head, I got lots of scholarships, I got grants and stuff — Fulbrights and all that sort of stuff — because I was a good student and because of the relative ease with which I could make things that looked like art. The trouble is, if it looks like art, it must look like someone else’s art or it wouldn’t look like art. When I met de Kooning I said, “How do you do? My name is Chuck Close. I’m the person who’s made almost as many de Koonings as you’ve made.” [Laughs.] It’s true. I was de Kooning or I was Hans Hofmann or I was whoever it was.
MR. TULLY: This would be familiarity from magazines, from –
MR. CLOSE: Yes. Growing up in Everett and Seattle and going to college there was a real cultural backwater. And the mountains are a kind of emotional distancing device. Seattle was not like other cities in America — or wasn’t then. It really drew the wagons into the circle. They loved themselves and they always referred to it as “God’s country” and they hate everywhere else even though they’ve never been there. The whole culture — if there is an interest in culture, which there’s very little, or was in the ’50s, at least — they looked towards the Orient. The art history courses were on Japanese art or were interested in American. They did American Indian art and Eskimo — Alaskan. There was virtually no interest in Western culture. Everybody who traveled had been to Japan. I never knew anybody who had been to Europe. New York was viewed with great suspicion. The heroes — the gods — were the people like Mark Tobey, who had gone to live in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan. Of course they overlooked the fact that he then went to live in Ireland or wherever the hell he was. Or was that Morris Graves? But there was tremendous suspicion of New York and those things. I immediately wanted to make stuff that was about New York. Alden Mason was very supportive. He was somebody who would not make great Northwest mystic paintings. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, as soon as I discovered there was a there there, I went to it. I got out of Seattle, which I saw as an intellectual and cultural backwater, and wanted to go where it really was happening. The other part of being a good student is that it’s very hard then to develop any kind of personal idiosyncratic vision because your hand moves in art ways. It wants to make art shapes. I supposedly had a good sense of color. As far as that’s concerned, I think I had discovered that certain color combinations look more like art than other color combinations. So there were many, many habits and many skills which were developed in school that had served me very well as a student which later became a big problem in terms of differentiating myself from everyone else and trying to find out who I was, different from other artists.
MR. TULLY: So would you say in that period of time when you were transferring over to Seattle — if you were going to bring a portfolio of work — would it be across the board examples?
MR. CLOSE: It’s really funny. One of the reasons that I was sent by the University of Washington to Yale Summer School was that I was — in a sense — a kind of compromise candidate. There were various factions in the school, and I had transferred there recently and I wasn’t identified with any one of those factions. As I studied with a member of each one of those factions, I could do whatever it was that person had in mind. So each camp thought I was theirs. I hadn’t been around long enough to be contaminated in some way by having been identified with any one of those factions. Since none of the factions could send the one that they particularly wanted to send — [they laugh].
MR. TULLY: “I’ve got the perfect candidate.”
MR. CLOSE: That’s right. So it always served me. It wasn’t that I was a whore, I don’t think. It was just that I had pretty good ability to function in many different ways.
MR. TULLY: So what would the range be from one faction to another?
MR. CLOSE: I would paint hard-edge paintings with masking tape, hard-edged paintings with Spencer Moseley. It depended on whose class I was in, I guess.
MR. TULLY: But Moseley was at the University of Washington?
MR. CLOSE: Yes.