When Chuck Close took up portrait painting in the late 1960s, he says that "painting was dead, figurative painting was deader than a doornail, and portraiture was the most moribund of all activities." Undeterred, he set out to make massive-scale portraits – or "heads," as her prefers – such as Nat (1971) and Fanny/Fingerpainting (1985) in the Gallery's collection.
The Gallery's recently acquired Keith is a stunning eleven-foot-square, black-and-white portrait done in mezzotint, a printmaking process that experienced its heyday in the eighteenth century. Its obscurity appealed to Close. In mezzotint, the surface of a copperplate is roughened so that it will print as a velvety dark. Highlights are rendered by burnishing areas so they retain less ink and print lighter. The simplest way to think about the process is to envision covering a sheet of paper with black chalk and then "drawing" back into the chalk with an eraser, working from dark to light.
Close based Keith on a 1970 photograph of his friend, the artist Keith Hollingworth. (That photograph, now in the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection, is promised to the Gallery.) Close had earlier drawn a grid on the photo, the first step in an age-old method called squaring, which facilitates the transfer of an image from one surface to another. He later incised another grid of equivalent ratio on the copperplate used to make Keith. By essentially dividing the primary image into small, digestible squares, he was able to approach the image piecemeal, painstakingly burnishing it onto the plate one square at a time.
Ranked as milestone both in Close's career and in the history of printmaking, Keith was Close's first mezzotint – indeed, it was his first print as a professional artist. He anxiously monitored his progress, producing as many as fifty test impressions, or working proofs, during the course of the project. As a result, the center of the copperplate began to degrade, and the squared grid – meant to be invisible – came into sight, especially in the vicinity of the mouth. Close considered various means of correcting the problem but decided to retain the grid as evidence of his process, a seminal choice for his subsequent work in all media. "After finishing Keith," Close says, "I started doing [works] in which the incremental unit was visible and ultimately celebrated in a million different ways. That all came from making this print."