The artist’s longtime gallerist, Arne Glimcher, has organized an exhibition of the artist’s final portraits at Pace, opening Feb. 22.
Feb. 12, 2024Updated 8:03 a.m. ET
Ever since Chuck Close was accused of sexual harassment in 2017, the painter — who died four years later — has largely been sidelined by the art world, with his work rarely appearing in solo museum and gallery shows.
But his longtime gallerist, Arne Glimcher, has always stood by Close, and now he has organized at Pace Gallery in Chelsea what he says will be the artist’s first major exhibition in New York since 2016, giving him the send-off and closure Glimcher believes he deserves.
“For over 40 years we have shown every cycle of Chuck’s work,” Glimcher, the founder and chairman of Pace, said in an interview. “It’s a very important exhibition because it’s the synthesis of everything he did.
“To complete the arc of all these exhibitions and catalogs is crucial,” Glimcher added. “This is one of the great painters of the 20th and 21st centuries — his influence is still enormous. There was no such thing as portraiture when he broke all of the rules and made these great pictures of people. It would be criminal not to have this last body of work in the history of his career.”
Close, who in the 1970s and ’80s made colossal photorealist portraits of himself and others, died at 81 of cardiopulmonary failure. The artist, who had used a wheelchair since 1988 because of a collapsed spinal artery that initially left him paralyzed from the neck down, in 2013 received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, which was amended to frontotemporal dementia in 2015.
The allegations against Close stem from 2017, when two women told The New York Times they felt exploited when Close asked them to model naked for him, and HuffPost published similar accounts from women.
Close denied some of the allegations, but acknowledged having spoken to women candidly and even crudely about their body parts in the interests of evaluating them as possible subjects, and he said he apologized if he had made women feel uncomfortable.
“Last time I looked, discomfort was not a major offense,” Close said in his apology. “I never reduced anyone to tears, no one ever ran out of the place. If I embarrassed anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, I am truly sorry, I didn’t mean to. I acknowledge having a dirty mouth, but we’re all adults.”
The allegations prompted a larger discussion around whether art can be separated from the conduct of the artist. In the wake of the accusations, the National Gallery of Art in Washington decided to indefinitely postpone an exhibition of Close’s work.
Asked if the National Gallery would do a Close show now, its director, Kaywin Feldman, said: “Close will always be an important artist in our collection and we will continue to show his work in perpetuity, but because we haven’t talked about a show, I can’t say what we’d do.”
The National Portrait Gallery adjusted its wall labels to note the allegations, but kept its Close portrait of President Bill Clinton hanging. “At the Portrait Gallery, we try to be fairly transparent about a person’s life,” said Kim Sajet, the director. “But there’s no moral test to be here, or nobody would be here at all.”
The Pace show, “Chuck Close: Red, Yellow, and Blue, The Last Paintings,” which opens Feb. 22 and runs through April 13, will feature work, almost all never before seen, from the last five years of Close’s life. In particular, the exhibition includes paintings in red, yellow and blue that Glimcher said make the body of work “more about color than it is about image.”
Alongside self-portraits, the exhibition includes portraits of the actors Claire Danes and Brad Pitt and an unfinished work featuring the agent Michael Ovitz. Also included will be tapestries and mosaics that Close made during the same period.
“This new body of work is more abstract, and quieter than any previous ones,” Close told the artist Cindy Sherman in a 2018 interview. “The brushstrokes don’t make shapes or stand for any particular information per se, they just exist as layers of transparent washes of oil colors that I’m trying to treat as watercolors, as I did decades ago.” That interview, originally commissioned by The Brooklyn Rail, will be published in the Pace exhibition’s catalog.
Close told Sherman the work “feels like a new beginning.”
In an interview, Sherman said the controversy surrounding Close is “such a shame for him, for his legacy,” given that she attributes his conduct to dementia and believes that his work deserves to be seen. “He was hugely influential for me because he was doing this in-your-face portraiture of every little wrinkle and pore,” Sherman said. “He was important for my development as an artist.”
Glimcher, who in 2022 opened his own gallery in TriBeCa, said he has worked on the show with Close’s daughters, Georgia and Maggie, who through him declined to be interviewed.
The Close accusations had an immediate impact on the market, reducing public demand for a once prominent artist.
But Glimcher said he has never reduced Close’s prices. “There is no reason to drop his prices, and these paintings are knockouts,” he said. He said prices range from $1 million to $5 million.
The most recent Close to come up for sale at a major auction house — a 2012 watercolor print, “Sienna,” depicting an artist who was Close’s wife from 2013 to 2016 — sold for about $25,000 last October at Christie’s. The high for a Close painting at auction, $4.8 million, was achieved in 2005 at Sotheby’s.
Close’s most recent institutional presentation in the United States was at the Pendleton Center in Oregon in 2017.
Glimcher said the controversy surrounding Close is not his concern. “There has been too much about Chuck that isn’t about the art,” he said. “I only want to talk about the art.”
Nor does Glimcher see it as his responsibility to repair Close’s image. “That’s not my job,” Glimcher said. “Restoring his reputation is this exhibition.”