Chuck Close on Living in NYC on Less Than $4000 a Year

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Mark, 1979. acrylic on canvas, 9′ x 7′ (29.6 x 23 m).

“It was possible to have a part-time job working maybe two or two-and-a-half days a week, and afford to rent a 2,000 or 2,500 square foot loft, and actually still have money left over to buy meat.” – Chuck Close

Excerpt from an interview with Judd Tully at the artist’s studio in New York City, May 14, 1987

MR. CLOSE: When we first came to New York, we had no idea how we were going to support ourselves, but it was a much easier existence. I feel very sorry for kids straight out of graduate school trying to come to this town now. It was possible to have a part-time job working maybe two or two-and-a-half days a week, and afford to rent a 2,000 or 2,500 square foot loft, and actually still have money left over to buy meat. We lived on less than $4,000 a year the first few years we were in New York — $3,000 and something. Which is — considering it was only 20 years ago — kind of amazing, considering what things cost today and how much money somebody would have to have to live in the city. Luckily, I was able to pick up some part-time teaching, six dollars an hour at the School Of Visual Arts. I taught there two days a week. My wife did medical illustrations for an orthopedist and went to work on finishing her B.F.A. at Hunter, where she studied with Bob Morris and some of those people.

MR. TULLY: In painting?

MR. CLOSE: Sculpture. She started in painting and ended up in sculpture. We had this loft on Greene Street between Canal and Grand owned by the Mafia Lumber Company.

MR. TULLY: Is this the one that you were talking about that was torn down that had an inner court yard?

MR. CLOSE: No. That building was on the corner of Greene and Canal. No, this was a shitty little building. It was a very old building, but it had no architectural details left in it. We lived with no heat, with plastic on the windows so you couldn’t see out. Actually we had a nice view of that church that they tore down.

MR. TULLY: Oh yes. That’s right. That was the famous Catholic church that was supposedly sinking. It was very controversial when they tore it down. It’s still an empty lot isn’t it?

MR. CLOSE: I think they wanted to build some huge complex on it, but they weren’t able to.

“I think, antithetical to what it’s like now — there was a tremendous desire or drive to make your work different from everyone else’s.”

MR. TULLY: So that was a view when you were looking west?

MR. CLOSE: Yes. It was a very exciting time in the art world. I don’t know that we talked last time about the difference between a kind of more monolithic art world of the ’50s and early ’60s. I think the way it’s almost more monolithic again today in the ’80s — certainly was during the kind of Neo-expressionism period of the ’80s, at least — when one kind of attitude seemed to predominate so much. But it was an exciting time because it was — and this is, I think, antithetical to what it’s like now — there was a tremendous desire or drive to make your work different from everyone else’s. You wanted a purging of all associations of art historical associations as much as possible and as much as possible separate yourself from what was being made in the loft next door. So this diversity or pluralism of the time allowed for both minimal painting and Pop art to in a sense reign simultaneously, at the same time, conceptual works, and earthworks, and various kinds of realism — what is called by some people “eyeball realism” — and works that are photo-generated — all this stuff — went on. It didn’t mean that everybody loved everything that was going on, but it was all a tolerated and there was no clear focus. Now, a lot of people didn’t like that about the ’70s. People kept saying, “Where are the art stars? Where are the Jasper Johnses and the Rauschenbergs of the ’70s?” To a certain extent that was true. You didn’t have the equivalent of a [Julian] Schnabel and [David] Salle. But I think it was a very healthy art world. A very interesting time, a very exciting time to be an artist. Everybody was backing himself or herself into their own particular little corners to carve out a niche for themselves and to arrive at some kind of set of — there was no way to impose a larger art world criteria or judgment on things. You had to figure out what somebody was doing and assess the work by his or her own terms what the person was trying to do. So the job of the critic, or the collector, or the curator, or just another artist looking at people’s art was to define quality wherever you found it. Clearly, it was spread all over the place. It wasn’t a convenient sort of vein of quality in a sea of junk where all could you do was identify the mother lode and then you were guaranteed to know where all the great stuff was. It just wasn’t that kind of art world. There was probably the same amount of quality, but it seemed to me to be spread all over the place. It was a more tolerant time, I think. The prejudices seemed to be more pronounced. Everyone seemed to be looking at everything. Now part of the problem is there’s so damn many galleries now that you can’t see everything. So when you start making a choice about what you are going to see and it conveniently fits your prejudices, you’re going to go to the galleries that tend to show the kind of art work that you’re interested in and exclude the rest of the galleries. But it’s a sort of self fulfilling prophecy in the sense that it continues the narrowness. But thinking of the way the Whitney Biennial — or Annual (it used to be an annual at that point in the sixties) — used to look hanging cheek by jowl were some truly different kinds of work. I thought it was very instructive as an artist for me to hang next to a Jo Baer for instance or hang next to an Agnes Martin or someone.

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(The interview took place at the artist’s studio on 75 Spring Street, New York City, and was conducted by Judd Tully for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Posted in Interviews, Interviews 1990s, Painting and tagged , , , , , , , .