Chuck Close: Contemporary Art Rock Star

Chuck Close, "Maggie" story image
Every day, Chuck Close, a rock-star of contemporary art, paints little squares.

"The building blocks for my paintings are not symbolic," he told Sunday Morning anchor Charles Osgood. "They don't stand for anything. It's a little bit like an architect — picking up a brick. You stack up the bricks one way, you get a cathedral. You stack up the bricks another way, and you get a gas station."

Take a step back and it becomes clear that Close is not painting a gas station. It is his daughter, Georgia.

Over four decades, Close has been re-inventing the art of portrait painting — even though for falmost two decades, he has been doing it sitting in a wheelchair.

Click here to see some of Close's paintings.
Close, 66, is one of the most popular working artists today. A New York opening of his images in November created a crush of humanity. Last month, a traveling national exhibit of his prints arrived at the Orange County Museum of Art in California. A few days later, a retrospective of his career opened at the Queen Sophia Museum of Art in Madrid.

He begins his portraits with a photograph, which he divides into squares.

"Every square here," Close said gesturing to a painting, "will become four squares in the painting. There is no drawing on the canvas other than the grid. I never draw a nose. I never draw a lip."

Sunday Morning first visited Close in 1981. He was working out on an exercise bicycle in his New York studio. The visit was during his photo realism period. Close's paintings were so real — some viewers thought they were looking at photographs. And they were also big — really big. The first painting close sold was a 9-foot picture of himself — blemishes and all.

"There's all kinds of evidence imbedded in the person's face as to what kind of lives they've led, a sort of a roadmap of their life," he said then. "They've laughed their whole lives, they have laugh lines. If they've frowned their whole lives, they have furrows in their brows."

When Sunday Morning visited Chuck Close again in 1991, the roadmap of his life had taken an unexpected turn. He could barely walk. Three years earlier at age 49, a blood clot formed in an artery leading to his spine. For weeks he couldn't move any part of his body below his shoulders and he feared he would never paint again.

"I was scared to death," he said. "I think I always thought I was going to make it. I was scared of living trapped in a body that didn't work."

His wife convinced doctors that encouraging him to paint again would help her husband recover, physically and mentally.

"And we began to work with my occupational therapist in the hospital," Close said. "Tried to get the orthotic devices, something that I could use to hold the brush. And they built me a wheelchair-accessible easel. I used occupational therapy for what I thought it was supposed to be — a way to get back to your occupation. And I started to paint while I was still in the hospital."