November 7, 2009


I am new to art and the theory of art and reading your Theory Now blog is a big help. I'm also reading Tom Wolfe's ‘The Painted Word’ and Kirk Varnedoe's ‘Pictures of Nothing.’ Both of these books are interesting and illuminating. I recently watched a documentary about Chuck Close, which was fantastic. I have a question for you, regarding a comment Chuck Close made in the film. He said Andy Warhol, Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz ‘kicked the door open for the kind of intelligent figuration...’ What does he mean by ‘intelligent figuration?’ It sounds impressive and interesting, but what does it mean? ‘Intelligent figuration.’

Thank you for your time.

Curtis [D. Thomson]”

Hello Curtis,
Many thanks for your kind words and welcome to my blog. I want to respond to your query on “intelligent figuration” in this post. I have done this before and it might initiate further discussion on the topic with other readers.

I thought about your question related to Chuck Close and “intelligent figuration” and searched YouTube for the documentary. Although I could not find film or video, I did find the conversation Close had with Isca Greenfield-Sanders on January 17, 2006. I think it important to give the context in which the phrase was used before I speculate on its “meaning” or pursue any critical thoughts about it.

Greenfield-Sanders is also an artist and they were discussing the use of photographs as sources of “information” for their paintings. Greenfield-Sanders stated that photography “gets you to a point very quickly” and Close said:

“I don’t know why everyone doesn’t work from a photograph because it gives you a way to make shapes you have never made before, use colors you have never used before, make edges that you haven’t dreamed of. I remember Philip Pearlstein wrote in the New York Times years ago ‘I get my highs from using my eyes’ which was an indictment of people who worked from photographs. And in essence he was saying that if you worked from photographs that you weren’t looking. If you are working from life you are seeing and if you are working from photographs you are just mindlessly copying. I thought, so, if you are looking at a photograph you aren’t looking? What shuts down? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”(1)

Greenfield-Sanders replied that “paintings that got painted before I was painting allowed my work to short hand those changes in attitude without having to restate the givens.” And then Close said:

“For me, people who kicked open the door that I breezed right through were trying to make intelligent, modernist figuration instead of going back and breathing new life into nineteenth century notions of figuration. It was really important, absolutely critical. I think as a matter of fact that one could make the case that modernist painting is entirely what it is because of the invention of photography. If you think about photography in the 1940’s, it was black and white. Painting immediately became much more colorful. Early on, photography was static because of the long exposure times so everything in painting began to move and shift -- and we got futurism and two views from cubism. Photography was incredibly detailed so the impressionists broke up everything in view. In a way, photography drove painting each step of the way. It wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s that there became an antagonism between photography and painting -- although painters were the first people to embrace photography.”

When we understand that they were discussing photography and its use as a “tool” for painting it affects our understanding of Close’s comment on “intelligent, modernist figuration.” Clearly, he does not believe Pearlstein “kicked open the door” as Close views Pearlstein’s comment as “an indictment of people who worked from photographs.” Pearlstein prefers to use his own visual perception to paint, not photographs.

Close does not mention Alex Katz in the Greenfield-Sanders conversation; perhaps you are confusing it with another interview or documentary. Close does mention Warhol briefly as someone “making paintings with silk screens that were one gesture, one squeegee stroke.” It seems logical that Close considers Warhol to be innovative or his silk screens to be “intelligent” because they appear to deny traditional methodologies of painting. However, I do not view Warhol’s work as “intelligent” figurative painting; Warhol is really an expanded yet shallower version of Duchampian ideas.

Recently, I have been reading David Carrier’s excellent book, Rosalind Krauss and American Philosophical Art Criticism. In Carrier’s consideration of Krauss, he refers to her break from Clement Greenberg’s belief that modernist painting began with Manet. Krauss felt that “modernism began with Rodin” because his sculpture did not “present a visual narrative.”(2) Sculpture prior to Rodin represented the expressiveness of the figure through the physicality of the material and conveyed a sense of narrative. Krauss has pointed out that Rodin did not relate the exterior appearance of the figure to its anatomical “inner structure” and, thus, he “produced an art intensely hostile to rationalism.”(3)

This denial of narrative in relation to figurative representation by Rodin is theorized by Krauss as the advent of modernism. I believe her theory can be brought to bear on a discussion of Close and this idea of “intelligent figuration.” One of the reasons I think Close uses photography as a source material or “information” to paint from is the possibilities it offers him to achieve what he has referred to as an “abstract reading of space.” Ironic as this sounds, Close is able to make “abstract” paintings by working from photographs. His method is much discussed in other conversations which I found on-line and have to do with his ability to represent a realistic image through careful construction of seemingly abstract paint marks that, when viewed from afar, “read” as figurative:

“I wanted to deal in a non-relational way with the imagery. Like, we know the space of the head because we know heads […] I wanted to arrive at a potentially abstract reading of space, independent from the iconography due to the visual clues.”(4)

I believe this is why Close’s use of photography can be thought of as “intelligent figuration.” Close has “breezed right through” those doors opened up by Rodin by denying the inherent narrative within a photographic image. Close uses the raw information of the photograph to work within a gridding system to construct a non-narrative image. It is simply a process but it has “intelligence” because of the freedom now allowed in figurative painting. Paintings generated by photography do not have to be “representational” but can instead be “read” as information systems.


Image: Lucas (1986 - 1987) and detail of eye; oil and pencil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art; © Copyright by Chuck Close.

1. This and the second quote are taken from “A Conversation, Chuck Close and Isca Greenfield-Sanders” on Isca Greenfield-Sanders’ web site.

2. Carrier, David. Rosalind Krauss and American Philosophical Art Criticism, Westport, 2002, 34.

3. Krauss, Rosalind. Passages in Modern Sculpture, New York, 1977, 9.

4. Inside New York’s Art World Chuck Close, 1978.

1 comment:

Horological Rex said...

Hi Mark,

Thank you for your response. I should have included more details about the documentary to provide some context. The film was made by Marion Cajori and titled "Chuck Close."

I actually saved the film on Tivo, so I've transcribed, as best I could, the bit of Close's comments that lead me to contact you.

Chuck Close is speaking about how Al Hold was important to him at Yale, encouraging the students to go to New York city. Close says he used to visit Andy Warhol's "Exploding Plastic Inevitable." Then it cuts to Warhol saying how he doesn't believe in painting anymore and he liked the combination of music, art and movies, thus the "Exploding Plastic Invevitable."

Close then says, while pictures of the work produced by the three artists (Warhol, Pearlstein and Katz) is on the screen, "We don't often think of Warhol as a figurative artist, but, in fact he of course was. Certainly Warhol along with, uh, Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz, uh, kicked the door open for the kind of, uh, intelligent figuration... but I really didn't open myself up to the people who were figurative."

Cuts to Katz

Alex Katz - "Chuck's work, I remember when I first saw it it was initially amazing. The way it could control the space in a room - from the up close to the back. It was much more interesting than the story about the person. The story about the person is just like any other story about a person. You know - he's rich or he's handsome or he's powerful or he's weak or he's got soul. It seemed very, very uninteresting next to the thrill of seeing an object that's magic, you know. Chuck's working from photographs and I'm working from direct information. But you have the thing, trying to deal with what you're looking at rather than what you think about it. And, uh, I think it is very difficult to grasp what you're looking at."

Katz continues, about his own work, which you may find interesting...

"There was one painted I did that had just three windows in it and the only guy who got it was a guy from Canada. And he said, "oh, that's a camp and seven thirty in the morning on a foggy day." Now, no one else would have that experience to put that together. They just see it as an abstract painting or an arrangement of forms, so I don't think many people have optical experiences they have, uh, with the perception of things, I think the most of the way people see things is at this point is almost all through movies and media. My instinct were always figurative painting. And my view was to make post abstract figurative style. And it was problematic whether you could make a large scale figurative painting -it hadn't been done - I mean, if it was done it was like retro - sort of adapting the brush strokes or something, but the really abstract figurative thing was... it couldn't have been made without abstract painting because it uses the same grammar."

I'll let you chew on the above before asking further questions. Thank you for your time and insights.