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Self-Portrait (Yellow Raincoat),” 2013, one of the artist’s new experiments in color jacquard tapestry

“Sienna,” 2013, a portrait of the artist Sienna Shields in Close’s new watercolor print technique

At Close Range

With a career-spanning show opening at Guild Hall on Aug. 10, artist Chuck Close connects with former student and fellow world-famous artist, Ross Bleckner.

Ross Bleckner: I want to congratulate you on your show in Guild Hall. What is this one?
Chuck Close: This one has watercolor prints I’ve been making. New color tapestries and a couple of black-and-white tapestries. Felt-oil stamp drawings, where we use cylinders of felt and dip them in oil paint and push them onto the paper. There’s a whole other room full of paintings: a painting from my last show, two paintings from the ’90s and two painting from the ’80s. 

This will give people an idea of the diversity of your work.
It doesn’t go back to the first works, because I couldn’t get a hold of any; I just sold the only one I had left from that period—a watercolor of [my ex-wife] Leslie.

You concentrated on a subject, the human face, but you came at it from so many different approaches.
When I had the show in October at Pace, I rather strongly announced the fact that I wasn’t going to make any more of those paintings. I did that so I couldn’t make another one, because it would be too humiliating. I sold this painting of Leslie for enough money that I didn’t have to sell anything for a year. I decided to spend the year figuring out what else I’d like to do.

It sounds like you’re experimenting with different techniques—like the felt prints.
Always. Those felt things are multiples; each one is made over from scratch, but they’re an edition.

Each felt thing is a tiny circle you dip in paint and put into a box along the grid?
There are, like, 5,000 colors. We use the kind of felt that’s used for piano hammers—it’s very stiff and impermeable, so it doesn’t just soak up all the paint. We dip it in one color paint and then there’s a smaller-diameter circle, which we can dip into a second color and smush into the first one.

What do they attach to, a little pole?
You just hold it. I can’t do it—someone else has to hold it, but I supervise them.

Where did you get the idea?
Years ago I did pastels; I did those after I made all those paintings with just three colors: red, blue and yellow. I made enough money that I could go to the art supply store and buy every pastel in the world.

Let’s just go back for a minute. As far as I remember, you were doing quite well from the get-go. I remember your first show at Bykert Gallery, where you did black-and-white photo-realist paintings: Richard Serra, Phil Glass…
All nine of them sold for $1,300 each.

Obviously, I’m a little taken aback.
Now it would be $8-$10 million.

And you didn’t hold on to any?
I held on to one until I wanted to buy the apartment on Central Park West, and like a schmuck, I sold the last one I had.
A lot of artists, we do what we have to to get to the point where we can say, “I don’t want to do that anymore.”
The interesting thing about limitations is that every time you limit yourself, it forces you to go through a different door.

That’s almost that Zen concept: Once you get rid of everything you can start to really look inside.
Ad Reinhardt had more influence on me than any other painter, and he’d hate what I do. He made the choice not to do something a positive decision—he limited. Which is what I’m doing right now. The choice not to do something seems negative and nihilistic, but, in fact, it’s positive if it produces change.

Your work is both abstract and completely realistic. I’ve wondered if it’s science or it’s metaphor.
It’s not science, I’ll tell ya that.

I always thought there was a science side to your work, where you’re deconstructing how the eye sees and the kind of tricks it plays on the mind.
In that respect, you’re right. I don’t know much about math or science; I don’t add or subtract or multiply or divide; everything is felt and found.

In a way, it’s about the pixelation of imagery.
I was there first. I was pixelating before the computer.

That’s what I was going to say.
At MIT, when they were developing early image-making software, they called it “the Chuck Close program”—they were trying to do what I was doing.

I know you’ve taught from time to time…
Not since I taught you, my friend.

Oh, get out of here, really?
When you went off to CalArts, I quit teaching. I produced at least one exceptional artist, now I can quit. What are you working on?

In a way, what you said: trying to open up and make my work take the next step, whatever I think the next step might be that day. I’m working on a commission for a chapel in Germany, which relates with those “Architecture of the Sky” paintings I made in the ’90s. It’s been fun trying to figure out new ways to do them and playing with materials.
I’m doing that for the Second Avenue subway. I’m going to do 10 9-foot-high mosaics. First of all, who’s riding the subway? An old white man, an Asian person, black, Hispanic... I want to do each one in an entirely different way. So far, I’ve come up with five mosaic systems… and I have to be a different artist in each one, which is so much fun.

You know a lot of old white men, I’m sure. But none of them ride the subway.
I’d do Jasper [Johns], but I don’t think he rides the subway. I may have to be the old white man; I’ll do a self-portrait.

How do you choose your subjects? I know that you’ve done a lot of artists.
I photograph about 20 people for each person I paint, and one of those images floats to the surface. I’m plagued by indecision—I can never order in a restaurant because I can’t make up my mind, and after I do, I wish I got what you got.

You could always taste it. I can never decide which restaurant to go to, but once I get there I just order the same thing.
Somebody asks me what I miss about the Hamptons [since moving to Long Beach] and I say I miss the fried zucchini from Nick & Toni’s.

Chuck Close, Aug. 10-Oct. 14 at Guild Hall, 158 Main St., East Hampton, guildhall.org