After Decades Of Pixel Painting, Chuck Close Goes Truly Digital

The legendary artist will reveal his latest portraits, created with watercolors on a printer, this week.

Chuck Close has been painting the same people for decades: Philip Glass, for example, and, of course, himself. But as he’s often said, what fascinates him is how he paints, not what he paints. Indeed, over the course of his 40- year career, Close has used oil paint, airbrushes, paper pulp, colored pencil, cameras, and his own fingers to create his familiar large-scale portraits.


This week at Pace Gallery, Close will introduce us to his latest medium: the inkjet printer. Alongside never-before-seen portraits of Glass, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, and Cindy Sherman, Close is unveiling a trio of canvases that represent his first serious foray into digital imagery.

It’s worth pointing out that Close’s technique is often compared to an analogue version of digital printing. He works from photographs of his subjects, gridding each canvas into a series of “pixels,” and applies three or more layers of paint to each diamond, getting more precise with each pass. After he was partially paralyzed by a catastrophic spinal artery burst, his style got looser and less exact but remained hyperreal. During a visit to the Colbert Report in 2010 (a sweet interview worth checking out), Colbert even accused him of using a printer.

But Close was never a technologist. “Some people wonder whether what I do is inspired by a computer and whether or not that kind of imaging is a part of what makes the work contemporary. I absolutely hate technology, and I never use any labor-saving devices,” he said in 1998. Still, he added, “I’m not convinced that a computer is a labor-saving device.”

It seems that the computer has grown on him. At Pace, Close will unveil works created in what may be the only more time-consuming process than his traditional technique. According to the curators, Close starts by making simple watercolor marks on paper. Then, the marks (nearly 14,500 of them!) are scanned into the computer. Close uses Photoshop to match his marks to the gridded photograph of his subject. Finally, he prints each painting six times, laying down varying amounts of CMYK ink each time.

Despite separating himself from the actual paint, Close’s voice comes through strong. Each diamond-shaped swatch is varied and unique. The details are the most beautiful thing about the somber, gray portraits: The edges of each pixel bleed with cyan, magenta, and yellow, creating a kind of three-dimensional fog effect behind the intended color swatches. The prints were created in collaboration with Donald Farnsworth, Magnolia Editions, and David Adamson.

For Close, working in modules–moving from square to square–is a way of subverting the importance of the end product. “I like the fact that working incrementally there’s nothing about the unit that says anything about what it’s describing,” he said in an oral history recorded by the American Archives of Art in 1987. “It’s a little bit like an architect taking a brick as a unit. There’s nothing about a brick which says anything about what kind of building that’s going to be built out of it. You stack them up one way and you build a cathedral. You stack them up another way and you build a gas station. There’s nothing about the unit itself which is loaded or has anything symbolic about it. That’s the appeal to me.”


Chuck Close opens on October 19 and runs through December 22 at Pace’s West 25th Street location.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.