The Conversation I Never Had With Chuck Close
In early 2020, at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, I began an art project whose aim was to create a portrait of intimacy by superimposing the recollections of former lovers on my diary. My hypothesis was that the perfect understanding we all crave in relationships is elusive — that no matter how close we get, we are always confined to our separate inner worlds. By mapping what intimacy was not, I hoped to define the contours of what it was.
This involved reaching out to the artist Chuck Close, with whom I was in a relationship almost 20 years earlier. He first found fame in the 1970s for his monumental, photorealist portraits. But Chuck, who died this year, was perhaps best known for adapting his process after one of his spinal arteries collapsed in 1988, when he was 48, paralyzing him from the neck down. He regained some movement in his arms and was able to paint with brushes strapped to his hands, resulting in a new kind of portraiture.
I met Chuck in 2001, when I was 20 or 21 and a senior at Columbia studying art and comparative religion. He was 61. I spotted him from a window of a taxi and impulsively jumped out and ran back to where I’d seen him. The street was empty, but I came upon a doorway opening onto an expansive studio with a massive, unfinished portrait on the wall. There, in the foreground, in his electric wheelchair, was Chuck Close.
I stood on the threshold for a shamelessly long time until he finally zoomed over and asked matter-of-factly, “Can I help you?” I can’t remember what I said, but he invited me in. After showing me around, he gave me his phone number and invited me back.
After I graduated, we began meeting for lunch most days after our separate mornings of work. I was starting out as a painter, and he supported and encouraged me. He bought me my first proper oil paint — the exact brands and colors he used (particular brands for particular colors) — and taught me to set up my palette just like his. He showed me how to mix beautiful blacks without using black. He instructed me to treat every area of the canvas equally, not to paint the hair differently from the skin just because it was hair, not to paint the background with less attention than to the subject, to erase hierarchy. This insistent integrity has never left my approach to art-making.
Early on, Chuck asked me to pose nude for him. Despite Anaïs Nin’s erotic stories about the artist and the model having been a pillar of my fantasy life, I felt uncomfortable with one person doing all the looking. I offered this deal: If you pose nude for me, I’ll pose nude for you. That ended the conversation. If he ever mentioned it again, it was a childlike plea, easily brushed off. Though it was more an instinct than a conscious thought at the time, I believe I was trying to maintain a balance in our relationship.
I understood that he was attracted to me, but his desire was at a volume that didn’t feel threatening. In that tender time of my early adulthood, what he offered me was validation. It seemed fair for there to be things we wanted from each other in the relationship and that, with our being 40 years apart in age (and in many other ways), these things would not be the same.
Over time and many lunches, a love between us grew, and our relationship became romantic. He told me that he and his wife at the time had not had any physical contact since his paralysis and that she did not begrudge him affairs. This may or may not have been true, but I believed it at the time.
Years later, a handful of women would accuse Chuck of sexually harassing them when they went to his studio to pose for him. In 2017 he told The Times, “If I embarrassed anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, I am truly sorry. I didn’t mean to. I acknowledge having a dirty mouth, but we’re all adults.” It was a steep fall from grace: Shows were canceled, his legacy reconsidered.
When I read these accounts, I felt a complex sadness. It hurt to think that someone I had loved had made other women feel violated. The details were familiar enough that I did not at all doubt them. With a sting, I recognized similar tropes and felt as though I’d unwittingly been a piece in a pattern. But I was also confused: Why did I not feel their anger? Should I have?
But I never felt unsafe with Chuck. If anything, I felt I was the one in control. I always felt I could say no. I was aware that my boundaries were mine to create, though admittedly there were times I found my limits by overstepping them and having to renegotiate.
As an artist and as a person, my interest is in intimacy. I don’t want the people in my life to hide their desires from me. I want to be asked. I want to be offered the choice.
There are well-meaning people who would tell me that, as a young woman in a relationship with an older, powerful man, I was a victim whether or not I know it to be true. While I remain open to that possibility, it is not how I felt.
The truth is, while feeling seductive can be a red herring in the search for deeper self-worth, it can also be a power. I used that power as much as I was frustrated by it.
Seeing Chuck’s image reduced to the accusations against him in recent years has inspired me to tell my story, not as a defense or rebuttal — I believe and honor the women who came forward — but to add perspective to how we see Chuck Close, even if that portrait is more Cubist than photorealist.
Last spring, when I reached him by phone to talk about my project, he was depressed and difficult to understand. A sports station was playing loudly in the background. I told him I would visit as soon as the pandemic was over so we could talk about such delicate matters in person.
As I hung up, I thought about whether shame is the best vehicle for the cultural changes we want to see. I wondered where Chuck might find an opening to understanding or to redemption, and I hoped that sharing our experiences with each other might offer some clarity. He died this past August, before we could get together.
I have my memories, my diary and his approach to painting, which has infused my practice. I also have my knowledge of his best and worst parts — as is the privilege of any intimate relationship. Even if we had been able to talk, it’s as hard to convey one’s experience of a relationship as it is to really know what’s going on inside another person.
Trying, though, is what intimacy is about.
It may also be what art is about. Is there a better definition of art than the effort, the ache, to explain one’s inner experience and be understood? As elusive as a perfect understanding between humans is, when we get close, we can call it a masterpiece.
In the 19th century Édouard Manet shocked the world with his painting of Olympia, that famous nude who gazed back, becoming an active participant. No longer an allegory of idealized femininity, as previous nudes had been, Olympia is a real woman, a courtesan. With one look, she created a new possibility: a woman who is the gatekeeper of her sexuality, who lets herself be looked at and enjoyed — if, when, how and as much as she wants. I am inspired by her gaze. In it, I see her boundaries expressed; she calls the shots.
Ms. Silverstein, a contemporary artist based in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, N.M., was in a relationship with the artist Chuck Close 20 years ago.
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