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A Portraitist Whose Canvas Is a Piano

(cover story of The New York Times Weekend Arts section)
By Charles McGrath
Published: April 22, 2005

Chuck Close has painted, drawn or made prints of the composer Philip Glass so many times that even he has lost count. The images, most based on a photograph Mr. Close took of a young, tousled and slightly wild-eyed Mr. Glass back in 1969, have had the odd effect of both freezing the young Mr. Glass in time and turning him into a landmark of contemporary art.

"Poor Phil," Mr. Close said in an interview. "I'm still using that same old photograph. Every time I go back I see something different. It's like going back to a magic well."

Mr. Close used to call his portraits "heads" to emphasize that they were exercises in form, not biography, and were of people he happened to know, not people he had been commissioned to paint. What appealed to him about that early photograph, he has said, were Mr. Glass's "curly, dendritic locks," which reminded him of Medusa.

Mr. Close and Mr. Glass have known each other for nearly 40 years now, going back to a time when both were struggling and unknown. They became friends in New York in the late 60's when Mr. Glass, who was working as an assistant to the sculptor Richard Serra, recruited Mr. Close, who had the studio next door, to help him move some 800-pound steel plates.

In those days, before establishing himself as a composer, Mr. Glass held an epic series of odd jobs, and, among other things, he installed the plumbing in Mr. Close's first loft. ("He was a much better composer than he was a plumber," Mr. Close says now. "The pipes always leaked.") And inevitably, over the years, a good deal of history has crept into the portraits, including the spinal aneurysm Mr. Close suffered in 1988, which has kept him in a wheelchair and has changed the way he paints. The portraits are, Mr. Close admits, a kind of accidental record of a friendship.

That friendship has now been documented in a different way in the form of a musical portrait that Mr. Glass has written of Mr. Close. The composition, a 15-minute piece for solo piano, was the idea of Bruce Levingston, a concert pianist, who commissioned it through a foundation he heads, Premiere Commission, and who will perform the piece at a recital at Alice Tully Hall on Monday.

The piece is written in the familiar Glass idiom of repeated chords and figurations and is a far cry from, say, the romantic portraits of Chopin and Paganini in Schumann's "Carnaval." It doesn't refer to Mr. Close at all in any literal way, and in that sense it belongs more to the tradition of musical portraits that Virgil Thomson wrote of his friends (including three who were painters) and in which, as he said, "only the sitter's presence is portrayed, not his appearance or his profession."

Thomson's portraits were both spontaneous and sketchy, however, written on the spot, in Thomson's Chelsea Hotel apartment, and never revised. Mr. Glass worked on his, on and off, for six months. Technically, the piece is so demanding that Mr. Glass admits he would have trouble playing it himself.

What the musical portrait and Mr. Close's paintings do have in common is a method and a philosophy - a kind of minimalism, though that's not a term that either man cares much for. Both artists work with very small elements, "bricks" Mr. Close sometimes calls them, discrete bits of information that are repeated and carefully varied to create a whole.

"If you look at some of Chuck's paintings, they're modules that are put together and shaded with different values," Mr. Glass said in an interview recently. "And I've used that idea with modular music also. But there's another aspect of it which is perhaps more important, which is that his work is really about creating art out of an exhaustive and detailed process, so that the entirety of the work is a reflection of the integrity of the process. And he wasn't the only one doing that."

Referring to the sculptor in whose studio they met, he added: "Richard was working with process also. Many of us were doing that. One of the things that was very interesting for us as a generation, I would say, is that what we were doing - and succeeded in doing, actually - was to replace the narrative of painting and the narrative of music with a different kind of balance."

The first time Mr. Close heard the musical portrait of himself, in late February, he grinned and called it pretty complicated. "It used to be different musicians in and out of phase - now it's two hands."

About one passage, in which the two hands play in contrary motion, he said, approvingly, "Like a car crash!" and he added: "We used to take drugs to be able to hear Phil's music. Just letting it wash over you was what was so radical and so liberating. I can't tell you how often I lay on my back in a loft somewhere and let that happen."

He went on to reminisce about the early years of his friendship with Mr. Glass, back in the days, he said, before SoHo was SoHo, when it was just industrial New York. It was a moment of extraordinary loft culture, he said, in which artists, dancers and musicians all intermingled and, in effect, put on shows for one another.

"So much was shared then, so much was in the air," he said. "It wasn't direct influence but a kind of back and forth. There were painters and composers - not just Phil but Steve Reich - and dancers like Trisha Brown. And we all showed up for each other. All Phil's early performances were in museums and art galleries, for example. The music world was way not understanding."

What these artists had in common, Mr. Close added, was that they were all working on the relationship of the part to the whole and within a very severe set of restrictions. "For me the idea of a musical portrait has to do with the sense of connectedness that was always there - the belief in a system and the joy in limitation," he said. "It was a belief that in part had to do with the political structure of the country then, with every institution being questioned. You just wanted to purge your work and see what was left."

Mr. Levingston, the pianist who commissioned "A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close," got the idea from the Close portrait of Mr. Glass that hangs in the lobby of Caspary Hall at Rockefeller University. He happened to be playing a concert there one evening in 2003 and started thinking about the way Liszt, Schumann and others had used music to describe character. He believes that the two parts of the Glass piece - the first ending on a peaceful F-major chord and the second beginning with a broken chord in D minor - affectingly dramatize the way Mr. Close's career was interrupted and then resumed after his aneurysm.

He said in an interview recently, "Every time I play the piece, I think about that phrase Chuck used about regaining his ability to paint: 'loss and celebration.' "

That the two parts do work this way is in fact a happy accident, the kind of thing John Cage always used to hope for. After accepting the commission, Mr. Glass browsed through a sort of musical sketchbook he keeps, looking for something suitable. He eventually worked up two pieces and after reflection decided to send Mr. Levingston what he thought was the better of the two, the piece that is now the second half. His assistant, however, sent Mr. Levingston the other composition, and the mistake was sorted out only after a perplexing conversation in which Mr. Levingston seemed to be describing to Mr. Glass a piece completely different from the one he thought he had written.

After getting and playing the correct piece, Mr. Levingston convinced Mr. Glass, who was dubious at first, that the two in fact belonged together, and then there was a further discussion about which order they should be played in.

"This was not an elaborate ploy to get both pieces played," Mr. Glass said. "I was really meant to do only one."

He added that he had also been certain that what is now Part II should have been Part I. "I really felt that way," he said. "But I have to say that I've heard Bruce play it this way and I've thought about it myself, and I now think the current order is the right order. This is the fortunes of happenstance and synergy and whatever you want to call it. What did Jung call it? Synchronicity?"

He added: "To me the second piece has an expansiveness to it, it just seems to keep going on and on. And it's like trying to find the edge of the canvas in one of Chuck's paintings. There's an edge there because there has to be an edge somewhere. But in another way you could say, well, why doesn't it keep going forever?"

To the degree that the piece does capture some of the spirit of Mr. Close, he said, it is less a matter of conscious reflection than of shared experience. "I've known Chuck very well and over a long period of time," he said. "I knew him when he got married and when he had children and when he had the illness and when the children went away to college. I was married to a painter who died some years ago, and after she died he came to the house and - with some effort, he was in the wheelchair then - we looked at her work together and he advised me what to do with it and so forth. And so we've been, I think - to copy a word he said - we've been embedded in each other's lives."

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