- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

Chuck Close is a well-known New York painter and printmaker interested in - even obsessed by - process, or how art is made, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration” more than amply demonstrates.

Organized by the Blaffer Gallery at the Art Museum of the University of Houston, the exhibit is the first complete survey of the artist’s innovative printmaking, which revolutionized original print techniques over the past 30 years. He used different methods to create his signature oversized portraits and self-portraits that he calls “heads.”

For example, Mr. Close’s first print, in 1972, was the 51-by-41-1/2-inch “Keith/Mezzotint.” Mr. Close, 64, and art critics have described it as the largest mezzotint ever made. It was first exhibited with its 19 test prints, called trial or progressive prints, made at each stage of the printing process.

Much later, in 2002, Mr. Close increased the complexity of his printmaking by employing 113 colors in the Japanese-like wood-block print of “Emma.”

It’s obvious that “process” is the key word in the exhibit’s title. In about 100 prints, working proofs and objects of the past 30 years, Mr. Close shows his experiments with the etching, woodcut, linoleum cut, silk-screen, lithographic and handmade paper pulp techniques to create the huge, gridded “heads” of himself and his friends. The glossary that accompanies the show includes no fewer than 37 terms.

It’s also clear the artist is obsessive about depicting himself in the 54 self-portraits included. Yet, as in most of the portraits, they’re strangely depersonalized. Perhaps this is because he combines the grid of older Italian Renaissance traditions with the contemporary device of the Pophotograph and breaks up the surface with uniformly small squares.

The exhibit is more a guide to printmaking and the artist’s fascination with visual perception than a revelation of his art and feelings.

This is where the exhibition fails the viewer, although it includes many magnificent prints, such as “Keith/Mezzotint” (1972), “Georgia” (handmade paper pulp, 1984), “Lucas” (seven-step reduction linoleum cut, 1988) and “John” (silk screen, 1998).

Mr. Close appears to be more preoccupied with working processes than the personalities of his models and himself; however, the wall and object descriptions make a valiant attempt to explain his methods. The organizers also included matrices the physical, ink-holding bases from which print images are made, such as etching plates, lithography stones and carved woodblocks. They add a lot to the otherwise dry exhibition.

Moreover, the curators appropriately organized the show by the four major print mediums - intaglio, stencil, relief and a brief appearance of a lithograph. In the first gallery, the curators explain in exhibit labels and illustrate with prints that intaglio images are produced by ink held in recessed areas.

The more common intaglio methods include aquatint, engraving, etchings and mezzotint.

The room stars “Keith,” the show’s only mezzotint print, in which the entire metal plate is roughened to create a raised “burr,” or “toothed,” surface that holds ink for the background and is then progressively lightened to produce many tones. Both the scale and technical intricacy of the portrait make it an impressive introduction to the exhibit.

By contrast, 24 proofs “pulled,” or printed, from the etching plate of the more subdued “Self-Portrait/Scribble /Etching Portfolio” of 2000 show 24 different kinds of ways of printing an image by beginning with pale colors and progressively adding colors. The series ends with one deeply colored final, signed print.

The show livens up in the second gallery with brilliantly colored stenciled silk screens, the second print method. This allows for many colors from a stencil to be pushed through a stretched mesh fabric with a squeegee as demonstrated in the impressive oversized, brilliantly colored “John” of 1998, a 126-color silk screen. In the Metropolitan Museum show, 10 of these “progressive prints” spread across an entire exhibition wall.

The third method for making prints is “relief,” in which raised printing surfaces produce images. The wood-block and woodcut techniques are the oldest. The most complex stems from the 300-year-old Japanese technique used for the popular ukiyo-e (pleasure quarters) prints. Here, Mr. Close used an oil-on-canvas painting of his niece, “Emma,” that inspired the complicated and beautiful 113-color Japanese-style ukiyo-e woodcuts used for the print. Seven are exhibited here.

Another, somewhat newer, print method for Mr. Close is pulp-paper multiples, in which selected fibers are beaten in water to form a pulpy liquid. A mesh screen is lowered into the liquid and pulled out to form a coherent fibers pattern. The pulp is applied to the screen by hand and is turned into sheets when air-dried. Mr. Close used the method in the show for the textured, charming portrait of “Georgia” made in 1982. Judging from “Emma” and “Georgia,” the artist is most sympathetic in his portrayals of children.

Of course, there’s much more in this 104-image exhibit, but the detail in explaining and illustrating the print methods largely pre-empts the “portraits” of any expressive power they may have.

A comparison with the 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt is useful here. Rembrandt painted many self-portraits, usually in oil pigment, but all different. He used techniques such as layers of white underpaint known as “impasto” and the darkening of shadows in others to express what he felt especially about himself.

Rembrandt’s powerful evocation of expression and emotion is sadly missing here. Exploring technique cannot alone carry an exhibit.

WHAT: “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration”

WHERE: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 9.30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays, closed Mondays except for holidays. Through April 18

TICKETS: $12 for adults, $7 for students and senior citizens, free for members and children younger than 12 accompanied by an adult

PHONE: 212/535-7710.

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