Chuck Close: Portrait of the Artist

Chuck Close and his work are the subject of a new ballet.

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Jorma Elo (left) and Chuck Close at Close’s studio. In the background, Philip Glass State II, 2005, tapestry.

Chuck Close: Portrait of the Artist

Chuck Close and his work are the subject of a new ballet.

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.

The piece is composed of two movements, a format that evolved via an e-mail accident. Glass was working on two versions of the commission and asked his assistant to send what he considered the better of them to Levingston. The assistant attached the wrong work. “I played it and thought, Fantastic piece,” remembers Levingston. “But when I called Phil and we started going through details, we realized we were talking about two different things.” When the mistake was corrected, says Levingston, he came to believe that “these two pieces actually belonged together, that there were little motifs in both works that related to one another and that, played together, they painted a better portrait in sound of Chuck.”

Even an untrained ear can pick up on the fact that the style of the music changes from one movement to the next: The first is quite minimalist, and the second, fuller and more complex. The significance of that shift, however, depends on whom you ask. According to Levingston, the two parts correspond to Close’s life before and after the 1988 spinal aneurysm that left him partially paralyzed. “What you get, I think, is a sense of transcendence,” he says of the second movement, “of triumph at regaining his life and his ability to express himself artistically.” Close, however, is more interested in how the piece reflects the evolution of both his and Glass’s work. “The first movement is more like what Phil did when I first painted him, much more severe, reductive,” he says. “And at that time I was making things that were full of self-imposed limitations—just diagonal lines in a grid—in the same way that Phil was limiting himself to seven notes played on a crummy electronic organ. The second movement is more in line with what Phil is doing now and is actually crazy as hell and really baroque. In many ways our careers developed on a parallel, in my case from a few dark diagonal lines in each square to eight or nine colors.”

Whether it’s representative of biography or artistic maturation or both, says McKenzie, who first heard the piece at the recommendation of ABT board member Barbara Hemmerle Gollust, the transformative arc of the music makes it a natural soundtrack for ballet. “There’s a trajectory there—serenity and then conflict and then resolution—that makes it a perfect candidate for theatrical interpretation,” he says. It was McKenzie who tapped choreographer Elo for the production, citing the 46-year-old former dancer’s ability to play with perspective, a common theme in Close’s work. (It probably didn’t hurt that Elo attracted copious attention with his 2006 work Glow-Stop, which also debuted at ABT.) Says McKenzie: “If you look at Chuck’s work up close it’s abstract, but the further you get from it the more specific it becomes. Jorma understands that idea and plays very well with how you perceive the proscenium and the box and how negative space is as important as positive space.”

Close’s Self-Portrait, 1977, etching and aquatint, which will be used to make a backdrop for the ballet.

Close—again more interested in seeing the project as a reflection of an era rather than a portrait of him personally—finds similarities between Elo’s work and that of choreographers like Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, all of whom shared his SoHo social circle in the Sixties. “Jorma’s choreography is very much like the choreography that was going on at the time that Phil and I were coming up,” he says, “not virtuoso toe stuff and dramatic flourishes but something rooted more in how regular people move.”

Interestingly, Elo had neither heard of Close nor seen his work before accepting the commission, a knowledge gap that he sees as an advantage. “I’m getting a fresh look at something that Americans are so familiar with,” he says, on the phone from Antwerp, Belgium, where he’s working on another project. In recent months, he’s made several visits to Close’s studio, pronouncing him “a really cool and crazy guy.” Still, he’s not thinking of the project as a laying out of the artist’s life story on stage. “I’m not trying for a literal interpretation of anybody,” says Elo, who claims he’s listened to the music so much that it’s “not notes anymore, it’s just stuck to my head.” He planned to come to New York in September to start working with the six ABT dancers he’s cast. “I’m kind of just swimming in the music and the art and the idea of the artist and seeing what comes out.”

Two months in advance of the premiere, Close hadn’t yet firmed up exactly what he’ll do for the ballet’s backdrop either. (“They’re very laid-back,” he says somewhat grouchily of the ABT folks. “Weeks go by and I don’t hear from them, so I hope something gets up there on the stage.”) So far, he knows that scrims will be printed with blown-up sections of his self-portraits, “from above the eyes to just catching mustache.” When lit from behind, the scrim will appear to disappear. He’s also planning two distinct visuals to correspond to the two movements in the music, the first employing his early black and white works, the second using the squares of swirling color for which he’s now known. The costumes will follow this theme as well: black and white getups that go rainbow bright when turned inside out.

Though he’s met with resistance to the idea, Close hopes that Glass’s face will also find its way onto the set. “I wanted to use Phil, but they kept saying, ‘It’s a portrait of you,’” he says. Still, in his mind, an artist’s work, even a portrait, always says more about the artist than the subject. “And I think Phil’s music stays more Phil’s music than it becomes about me.” It all comes down to what Close calls “the fabric of the art world: Some threads are music, some are painting, some are words.” In the Sixties and Seventies, he says he spent “thousands of hours lying on the floor of some loft listening to someone’s music or watching someone dance. We were all trying to figure out: What makes art now? What makes this time different from other times? And if you want to make something specific to the time in which you live, looking at somebody working in another medium is the way to figure that out, to see the character of society.” It’s a concept that, judging by his latest round of media-mixing, is no less valid today.