Monday, January 23, 2012


I’m fascinated with people who have beaten the odds. I admire those who, despite severe challenges, come from behind and emerge above the fray only to excel in their field. One such a person is the painter/photographer/hyperrealist Chuck Close. He is among the foremost artists of our time. His challenges have contributed to, and even enhanced, his extraordinary talent as a painter.

Sigmund Freud coined the term Agnosia after treating several patients suffering from the disorder. It means ‘unknown’ in Greek and refers to a ‘selective deficiency in consciousness’, in other words you don’t recognize stuff. There are many types of agnosias, for instance tactile agnosia: you can describe what you're holding but don’t know what it’s called; in visual agnosia you see the object but don’t know what it is until you put it in your mouth. Scientist agree that agnosias stem from a disconnect between the conscious and subconscious mind, but they are far from understanding the mechanism of the problem. They do know, however, that the information has registered in the brain through analyzing the pulse of agnosia patients. Even though the person can’t recognize something, an elevated pulse shows that the brain has. Chuck Close’s type of agnosia is called prosopagnosia a.k.a face blindness.

People with face blindness will see a face and forget it as soon as they’ve seen it. They look at you from one angle and know who you are, but if you move your head half an inch, they won’t recognize you. They can stand in front of a mirror and not know that they are looking at themselves. This disorder affects 2.5% of the population to varying degrees.

Chuck Close has several neurological disorders including face blindness. He can’t memorize anything. He can’t add, subtract or multiply, but made up for it with art projects in school. To prepare for tests, he devised a system. He would sit in lukewarm bath water, a tray in front of him with cue cards on it. He would repeatedly voice out loud the information on the cue cards until it was time for the test. Then, shriveled like a prune and, I’m guessing, really clean, he would run to class and straight to the test in order to answer as many questions as he could.

This system, it seems, worked quite well for him. He attended Yale School of Art and Architecture and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, the most coveted award for study and research worldwide. I’d say his achievements up to that point were outstanding; but it gets even better.

Face blindness being what it is, you would think an artist would stay away from painting portraits. Chuck, though, was driven to do just that. He needed to create a two-dimensional rendering of what he couldn’t grasp in actuality. Only by committing the faces of his loved ones to a flat surface was he able to recognize them. He “distributes colored dirt on a flat surface,” a modest description for a man who’s paintings hang at the Cochran Art Museum in Washington D.C. and the National Portrait Gallery in London among other prestigious institutions.

The further back you move, you begin to realize that the sum of all parts is a reproduction of someone’s face on a huge scale. As impossible as it is for Chuck Close to remember faces or recite multiplication tables, he has a photographic memory when it comes to flat patterns. He uses a grid to create his gigantic portraits. He says, he’s “overwhelmed by the whole and takes them down to small bite size images”. He knows exactly what to paint in each square of the grid. Through painting, he has eliminated the chaos his disorders produce by simplifying his life: today he’s going to do what he did yesterday, and tomorrow he’ll do what he did today. A painting can take him more than a year to complete, but the positive emotions that come from repetition bring harmony into his life.

At the age of 48, Chuck Close suffered an ‘event’ as he calls it. His spinal artery collapse. Forget the other neurological disorders; now, he was paralyzed…as if that was going to stop him from practicing his craft. After eight months of physical therapy, he regained some movement in his right arm. He found a way to tape a paintbrush to his wrist so that he could paint…from his wheelchair! He continues to evolve as a painter. Collectors and museums seek out his work. Each piece is unique and captures with great detail and precision the lines of the person’s face, so much so that some of his paintings rival photographs. 

Chuck Close represents what is good about disability. Rather than being impediments, he has exploited all that is wrong with him to make beautiful, significant art. He has used his debilitating conditions to create masterpieces.  We can’t all be Chuck Closes and be blessed with an amazing talent; but we are all flawed. That seems to be a pretty good starting point to create something positive.