Home Art Contemporary Art Chuck Close’s “Lucas I” as a Metaphor for Life

Chuck Close’s “Lucas I” as a Metaphor for Life

"Lucas I" is more than a portrait with a breathtaking impact on scale and perception, it’s a memorial of all of those who Close loves and cares about eternalized on a canvas.


It all starts with a grid and color. Chuck Close, highly respected and one of the most influential artists of our time, graced The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with his painting Lucas I. This painting, and his work as a whole, automatically connect to each of his viewers – whether through perception, color, or subject. Tackling what was an assumed to be “dead” art form, Close challenged himself to bring portraiture into societal prominence through giving it a contemporary twist. What one should take away from this painting, and his work as a whole, is not the grandeur of perception, or the sheer scale of the painting itself, but the externalization of the emotional connection which he has developed with his subjects over his lifespan and the characteristics of which he immortalizes on the canvas. But more importantly, what is lurking behind the canvas?

Located in the The Blanche and A. L. Levine Court of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Close’s grandiose portrait casts a gaze over the influential works that helped shape modern and contemporary art of which Lucas I is included. Surrounded by the works of Warhol, Baselitz, Guston, and Morley, one can safely come to the conclusion that Close’s influence has not gone under appreciated. Focusing on hyper realism, his portraiture contains a depth unmatched by many of his contemporaries. Painted in 1986 through a combination of oil paint and graphite, the towering eight by seven foot portrait stands in solitude. Mathematics fuse with sentiment, which in turn gives a greater depth to the paintings meaning. The unmistakable, and largely unforgettable, gaze of the subject gives the painting a new depth wherein the viewer develops a personal connection with the subject, as if Lucas I is looking into ones soul. It depicts his friend and fellow artist Lucas Samaras who has repeatedly appeared in other works by Close. The placement in the gallery allows one to walk upon it, instead of walking into it. This discovery entices the viewer into exploring the nature of the painting, leaving room for one to view it at a distance or up close. Closer, one is exposed to an overwhelming amount of individualized color; from afar, one can see a portrait come into view. He uses many smaller circles of color, split into a grid, to create an image from afar but exposes its reality when examined up close. Ethnographically, focusing on the study of people, this painting stirred interest in the visitors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as they tended to gather around it for a longer time period than the other paintings on display many of whom took the time to read the placard attached to it. This painting practically calls for it to be analyzed, whether through a casual glance or an in depth analysis.

The painting has several components: subject, composition, color, and perception, all of which blend together to create the painting we know today as Lucas I. Upon entering the gallery, one is immediately confronted by a well-defined and vivaciously colored grid made up of smaller dots, giving way to the portraiture of a man from afar. Its scale is only trumped by its intricacy, both of which combine to leave the viewer in a state of awe. To better understand the painting, one must first start at its construction blended with a bit of historical context. Starting with a black and white photograph, Close separates the image into a compartmentalized grid by placing precedence on composition and symmetry. He searches for the best placement of the grid which is most visually appealing, spending hours analyzing each combination for the most visually appealing composition. The grid came to fruition not out of vanity but necessity. In order to transfer a photograph onto a canvas on a monumental scale, separating the image into pixels, recreating the photo at large. The grid is necessary to keep proportion and detail. His earlier works removed the grid while his more modern paintings embrace it. Close found that by focusing on each cell in the grid, he could provide a new perception into how we view an image in parts, focusing on the prominent details contained within each cell. Analyzing an individual cell, one finds that they come in varying size and shape. While they start geometric, they quickly turn into organic circles which blend with each other to create the larger image. Up close, one would be blind to the larger image as each of the cells contain only 2-3 colors. The majority of his recent work follows this same process and scale as Lucas I, the only difference, for now, being the subject. (Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress)

Aesthetically, one is drawn to Lucas I’s illusionary nature. Standing from afar, the painting depicts a man whose gaze is one of intensity, complexity, and introspection. Yet, stand closer to the painting and one is forced to confront the varying size, color, and organization of the cells which make up the larger grid, or image. In many ways this is an abstract as well as realist painting. The interplay of these two perspectives presents the viewer with more than just a portrait of Lucas Samaras, but an idea of his visual make-up. Ones eyes are met with the eyes of Samaras, moving down to his nose, and then out to the image as a whole. His gaze is one of introspection, allowing the viewer to get caught in his glare. On a smaller scale, the initial theme derived from Lucas I is how the whole is constructed out of a plethora of smaller parts, and only when they are placed together in unison that the portrait comes to fruition. On a larger scale, his work as a whole gives way to the theme of immortalization, as the majority of his portraits are of those who have been a part of his life. As he is working with an already existing image, the meaning isn’t derived as much from the subject as it is from the components that make up a subject. From afar, the colors appear dull and gloomy yet upon closer inspection they appear vivacious and bright. Specific colors blend from the multitude of blues used int he background to the complexity of yellows and pinks which make up Lucas’ face. The blue tone which persist throughout the painting offer a reprieve from these gloomy undertones, perhaps insisting that although the subject appears to be serious and dismal, in actuality he is in fact colorful and full of life.

Despite the seemingly mathematical exactitude of this portrait, it gives way to a deeper emotional and metaphorical appeal. Close’s work connects to me personally in ways that many people hopefully never come to terms with. In looking into his background I found that we both tragically lost our fathers at an early age, of whom we both had a close relationship with. As a result of this, we both have spent a majority of our lives in a state of depression trying to reconcile and reason with such a loss. To have your world fall apart and have to put it back together is hard to accept but comes together visually in Closes’ portraits. He takes an image of someone of meaning to him, destroys it by separating it into thousands of cells, and then puts it back together again on canvas –much like how his life had been torn apart and put back together in the years after. In some ways his process can be seen as a metaphor for his life experiences, with each portrait giving becoming a memorial of what once was. Speaking of the loss of his father in his documentary A Portrait in Progress, Close comes to the conclusion that “One of the things that you learn when you loose someone like that at such an early age is that you will be happy again and can survive almost anything.” In many ways this lesson is applied to his art form. He focuses in the details and colors within each cell that bring him happiness. He tries not to represent them explicitly as they present themselves, but adding a second dimension in which he incorporates his emotions for them. The sheer act of disassembling and reassembling the image forces Close to confront his memories of this person, choosing the palette and pattern for each cell as he remembers them.

With all this being said, Lucas I is more than a portrait with a breathtaking impact through scale and perception, it’s a memorial of all of those who he loves and cares about eternalized on a canvas. It gives way to a strong and emotional theme which has plagued his life and comes to fruition through his artwork. The painting initially attracted me in its complexity and scale, the subjects gaze leaving an unforgettable image in my mind as the painting looked into my soul. The analysis started as one of construct: to understand the historical context behind the artist, his work, and the physical processes which contribute to its creation. In following this framework I was exposed to an emotional appeal, in which I developed a personal connection with the artist and Lucas I as a work. As much as he is an influential artist, he is also a symbol of triumph. Despite loosing his father, his mobility, and dealing with the psychological toll that both of these experiences left him, he continues to preserve. His work, with Lucas I in particular, therefore takes on a greater meaning then most will be willing to credit him with. He has faced a tremendous amount of personal loss, an attribute that is characterized vividly in his work. Through challenging himself to bring portraiture back into prominence, he has created a distinctive contemporary style which contains insurmountable emotions and depth. His works are incredibly personal, with every subject having some sort of personal relationship to himself, and as a result they are immortalized in art history for eternity.


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