To many romantics, “the machine” is a deathly idea – sterile, mechanistic, dehumanizing. Yet it inspires more warm-blooded art in the twentieth century than, say, that charming old has-been the moon. The Museum of Modern Art is now presenting the work of two artists, Fernand Léger and Chuck Close, each of whom transforms the powerful aura of the machine into a lively meditation on modern existence. If you wish to remain attuned to the moment, believing with Baudelaire that a modern artist should address his own time, then you’ll relish the conjunction of two such exhibitions drawn from opposite ends of a century. Even Léger’s less successful work is illuminating, providing an ironic warning about what happens when the artist himself becomes too like a machine.
The curators of the Léger exhibit, which opened in Paris and was organized for MOMA by Carolyn Lanchner, make a revisionist argument: that Léger’s sensibility is more complex than the usual portrayal of him as a cubist spokesman for the modern machine. Perhaps – but the paintings also support the traditional emphasis. Léger (1881-1955) matters mainly because of what’s in the marvelous opening rooms of this exhibition. He begins as a serious cubist, and a deft cubist he is, at once careful and painterly. Then he brilliantly shifts the key of the style. Although Picasso and Braque brought popular culture into cubism, there remains something ironic, playful, and aphoristic in their approach. They are provocative wits who do not stray far from the Parisian café. Léger muscles cubism from the café into the street. That air of reason reflected in the grid – which in cubism appears philosophical, a deduction reminiscent of Descartes – is now employed to capture the dazzling mechanics of modern life. Léger creates forms that look brawny rather than refined; he seems to construct his art with girders, emphasizing primary colors that evoke the shout of the new advertising. He embraces everything new, so long as it does not shrink from the hammering pulse of the young century. His great La Ville (“The City”), painted in 1919, anticipates much later art – including American Pop. More important, the picture is a rhapsodic vision of the twentieth-century city. Lights blink and shimmer, pedestrians hurry past, girders claim the sky. The city is not only a great spectacle. It seems a fresh form of life.
Léger had little time for art’s private sphere. Not only should artists collaborate, he thought, bringing various voices together, but the different arts should also draw close. (The new world did not require navel-gazers or lonely romantics.) Léger’s encompassing vision led him to many collaborations, from creating stage sets to making movies; the curators present some of this work on a lower floor at the museum, including the film Ballet mécanique, which whimsically fuses the human and the mechanical. Léger’s collaborations and paintings through the twenties create a powerful vision of a society working together to claim a visionary future – a society where the machine is not tamed or made “human” in some trivial sense but instead creates the possibility of soaring splendor. Not surprisingly, Léger revered New York City – “the most beautiful spectacle in the world.”
The history of the twentieth century is not kind to optimists. Perhaps a vision like Léger’s could have withstood one world war, but not the subsequent Depression, the rise of totalitarian politics, and the careening toward a second world war. Léger tries to retain the gist of his early vision, but the price of his failure to confront the evolving truth of his time is a hardening of his art. His ideas become a kind of machine – an ideology. His forms, too, become more mechanical – a decoration. He takes on new subjects, and his view darkens somewhat, but the paintings themselves appear increasingly hollow, their feeling more official than earned. Paradoxically, Léger’s intoxication with the new begins to look old and naïve. The retrospective of Chuck Close’s art, which Robert Storr has organized for MOMA, can provide a more subtle and contemporary view of our relationship to the mechanical. Here, the shadow of the machine comes not from pistons and brawn but from an air of unsentimental process and calculation – and an edgy relationship to the constant pound, pound, pound of advertising.
Chuck Close began making his characteristic billboard-size portraits in the late sixties, a time of strong contrasts in the art world. On the one hand, young artists responded to the rebellious spirit of that era and revered the idea of the hard-drinking Pollock, famously portrayed in Life magazine as a tough outsider with a cigarette hanging from his lip. On the other, they investigated the least romantic aspects of art, laying bare the physical process behind art-making, the brute facts of the materials, and the theoretical foundations of the work.
In his black-and-white portraits from the late sixties, Close, who is now 57 years old, brought these contrasting moods together. His famous Big Self-Portrait of 1967-68 – which depicts an unshaven, in-your-face rebel with a cigarette in his mouth – is a picture of an antihero in the Pollock mode; his other subjects, drawn from a circle of sixties friends, also have a cocky air. At the same time, he approached the portraits in the most circumscribed and mechanical way, turning his subjects into objects. He would first take a photograph of a friend, usually as flat and dead-on as a passport picture. After drawing a grid on a canvas, he would begin spray-painting the portrait onto the grid, methodically transferring the image from the photograph to the canvas square by square, rather like a billboard painter. A picture could take more than a year to complete. In the early days, Close tried to give his marks on the canvas no expressive quality whatsoever.
The resulting portraits are frank but also elusive: They have a tremble, both visual and existential, that belies their cold-blooded creation. A picture from 1975- 76 called Linda delivers a Pop smack yet is neither sterile nor mechanically stiff; it does not pin down the eye the way a poster will. It may evoke the giant faces on billboards or in the movie theaters, but it has no commercial slickness. There is a constant flicker, a back-and-forth shimmer, between the hand and the mechanical means. (The hand is never quite as inexpressive as the artist might wish.) The very idea of the image seems to issue from some fraught space between painting and photography. While a Close portrait may offer a fierce close-up of a face – including individual pores and stray whiskers – it is also reticent. It refuses to convey too much psychological insight into the person before us. This creates an extraordinary sensation typical of a narcissistic culture: We know these people intimately and not at all.
In the late seventies, Close, who loves beautiful brushwork, began to free his hand. He continued to lay out grids on large canvases, painstakingly transferring the image from a photograph to a canvas, but he loosened the tight stitch. In one series, he filled the spaces with finger painting; he would create a massive face from thousands upon thousands of delicate fingerprints. In another series, he filled the grid with bits of pulp paper. The more Close emphasized his own touch, the more subtle and varied the light became in his portraits until he was no longer just copying a photograph but becoming a gestural painter, standing back and responding with increasing spontaneity to the evolving image. In 1988, a blood vessel in Close’s spinal column ruptured, partially paralyzing him. Many people believe his late work derives from his physical problems. Not so. The difficulty of handling the brush may have further loosened his touch, but his push in that direction was clear before the rupture. In one of his best pictures, Kiki, from 1993, he builds a face by making thousands of tiny paintings in the spaces of the grid.
Today, the photograph dominates – even tyrannizes – the human face. In Close’s portraits, the mechanical power of the camera is unsentimentally acknowledged. But he does not rest with this obvious fact: The authority of his art stems from the hand’s complex and varied relationship to the machine. A photograph of a face is a given that Close, for one, cannot accept as a lasting truth. He must remake the photograph by hand, repossessing the human image in his early work with great reticence and then, later, with bravado. Against the fast click of the camera, he insists upon the slow time it takes to construct a face. We are always aware that even so, we cannot finally know these people; we must look at them through the powerful filters of process and artfulness. In the end, Close, whether intentionally or not, does what most important portrait painters do: He upholds the mystery of the flesh. He does not yield to those with a more mechanical view of what it means to be human.