In the four decades that they’ve known each other, Philip Glass has been Chuck Close’s friend (the two got to know one another when Glass was an assistant to Close’s Yale classmate Richard Serra), his plumber (before he hit it big, Glass learned the trade and worked on two of Close’s SoHo lofts) and, famously, the subject of many of his most iconic paintings. In fact, Close has featured Glass’s face more than any other in his work, recycling a 1968 image of the composer “150 times or something,” he says on a late-summer Friday afternoon as he sips a scotch in his New York studio.
So in 2005, when Glass’s A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close—a hauntingly beautiful piano piece meant to evoke the painter and his work—premiered at Lincoln Center, it had the feeling of a favor returned, a circuit of inspiration completed. Turns out, however, that the artistic back-and-forth was just beginning. On October 27, American Ballet Theatre will debut a new ballet set to Glass’s composition. Finnish dance darling Jorma Elo will choreograph. Fashion designer Ralph Rucci will do the costumes. And Close will create backdrops using imagery from his oeuvre. “The music is a portrait of a portrait,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “And now we’re layering on another medium, creating a portrait of a portrait of a portrait. How to approach that was not exactly straightforward.”
“The music is a portrait of a portrait. And now we're…creating a portrait of a portrait of a portrait,” says ABT's Kevin McKenzie.
A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close got its start thanks to yet another artist, pianist Bruce Levingston. After seeing one of Close’s portraits of Glass, he hit upon the idea of asking Glass to turn the tables on his old friend. A month later, quite serendipitously, Levingston was introduced to both men at an American Academy of Arts and Letters event and proposed the concept. “It all happened very quickly: seeing the portrait, meeting both of them, presenting the idea,” says Levingston, an elegant, delicately featured man who speaks with a soft Mississippi lilt. Glass accepted the commission on the spot.