“Keith” is nearly four feet by three feet in dimension, a black and white portrait print. The mouth seems almost faded, a rectangle of blanching discernible amid the gray monochrome of the face. He is unsmiling, and his eyes look at something in the distance, the reflection off the top of his spectacles a shiny half-moon of white. This is a portrait of the American sculptor Keith Hollingworth, but this is not his art. This is the art of Chuck Close.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Crown Point Press, located in Oakland, the de Young Museum’s show “Chuck Close and Crown Point Press: Prints and Processes” displays a few of Close’s notable works with the press. It begins with “Keith,” which marked Close’s foray into the mezzotint process, which involves scraping and polishing, or burnishing, a printing plate to render a portrait. Close worked with printing plates larger than anything the Crown Point Press had worked with before.
Known for his realistic paintings, Close’s venture into mezzotint (Close made “Keith” in 1972 and continued collaborating with Crown Point through the ’70s) paved the way for other photorealists to utilize the same medium. Part of the draw of the show is the description of Close’s process in working with these metal printing plates. Juxtaposing trial proofs with the final products unifies both aspects of the show — the art of Close and the Crown Point Press itself -— emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between artist and his artistic tools. The faded lips in “Keith” are a clear indication of Close’s process. Without doing trial prints, Close was unaware of how his portrait was progressing, and as the Crown Point Press was accustomed to smaller plates, it was a process of trial and error that took two months of scraping to complete. Compare this to a typical production period of two weeks, and Close’s relatively massive portrait becomes even more remarkable.
Close’s photorealism extended into etching, a project in which the Crown Point Press also assisted him. In “Self-Portrait (Black on White)” Close composes a large portrait of himself, also wearing eyeglasses. However, the velvety mezzotint tones that made “Keith” so compelling are lost in this. Viewers accustomed to the digital age will immediately cry out, “Pixellation!” Indeed, Close’ self-portrait is reminiscent of computer pixels, but closer inspection reveals individual hash-marks. It’s a deceiving piece. One could initially believe it to be ink, but Close broke through hard ground — a mixture of wax, tar and rosin — and added acid to add permanence to his mark. As with the mezzotint, there is scraping involved, but it’s marginally more subtle. Here, Close could almost be said to be working in collaboration not just with the press but with the inanimate acid itself.
The artistic relationship between Close and Crown Point in the ’80s changed as Close explored Japanese color woodcuts. Close had to contend with his artistic process being, in a sense, infringed upon. No longer was he in charge of every individual scrape or etch in his portraits. Not one to shy from collaboration, Close allowed his real-life spouse, Leslie, to be immortalized in the watery tints of the color woodblock. A popish work with an astonishing range of hues garnered from a mere 10 individual colors, “Leslie” is almost comiclike, as if Lichtenstein decided to make his art in dreamy watercolor pastels. There is a warmth and approachability to the piece that is notably absent from the mezzotints and etch portraits.
That’s not to say that the other portraits are alienating. On the contrary, they are just as visually arresting. “Keith” is impressively smooth, while “Self-Portrait (Black on White)” displays Close’s face as if in midspeech. It’s clear from the set of the mouth that he never gets the words out, but he doesn’t need to. The Crown Point Press process prints do all the talking for him.