Close Encounter

Seeing Artist Chuck Close Carefully Looking

A square canvas painted with a dark grey ground, with a non-representational composition of colorful lines, circles, and squares. The shapes are connected by colorful lines. There is a gradient of color painted in a narrow bar across the top edge of the canvas, which is turns red about two-thirds of the way across, from the right side.
“Thermodynamics,” Elizabeth Meggs, oil paint on canvas, 12" by 12,” (IMAGE © COPYRIGHT ELIZABETH MEGGS) ⠀

The word thermodynamics relates to the transfer of energy, and is a word primarily associated with physics. I initially titled this painting “Thermodynamics” because the forms and colors playfully deal with connections, the energy of interaction and reaction, and temperature via warm versus cool colors.

This painting of mine was in a small group exhibition circa 2010–12ish in lower Manhattan. When I walked into the art opening, I was surprised to see artist Chuck Close* in front of it, looking closely, in contemplation. I didn’t have a chance to talk to him, but I’ve always deeply appreciated that he was carefully looking (which can be rare in the party atmosphere of openings). For all I know, he hated this painting — who knows? — but it meant so much to me as a young artist that he was looking. I’ll always remember how it made me feel at that time — that to him my work was worth looking at meant so much to me. This helped me keep going.

The title of the painting “Thermodynamics” takes on deeper meaning to me, in the context of this anecdote. It’s more meaningful now, because now it references the connections and energy between all of us. Shapes and colors from my mind, hand, and eyes, hitting another artist’s eyes and mind — it is all energy transfer. Something I love about painting, and especially color, is that chromatic energy and the energy of a painting can be persistent, long after an artist is physically gone.

A black and white line drawings of an armless figure, whose head is one giant eyeball, standing on an overlook looking at a landscape that includes treetops and mountains.
“Transparent Eyeball,” By Christopher Pearse Cranch — Houghton Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37441554

Carefully looking means to thoughtfully take in visual information. A painting transforms from mere surface to a beacon of thought and imagination when someone is willing to look. Thought and imagination found in a painting might transcend the boundaries of time and lifespans, especially when someone attempts to eschew ego and superficiality, embracing empathy, love, and humility in how they look.

When a famous artist like Chuck Close dies, or any artist for that matter, it is reassuring to know that their energy will live on in their artwork. We know from the scientific branch of thermodynamics that energy can be transferred from one state to another. This is reassuring to ponder. I love Chuck Close’s artwork and appreciate his contributions and his inspiring tenacity to continue to create in spite of significant challenges. Seeing Chuck Close carefully looking is an image I’ll hold dear and indelible, in my memory. ♥

(*I’m saddened to read about the frontotemporal dementia Chuck Close experienced, plus the inappropriate behaviors that some people I know experienced in his presence, that may have been caused by his health situation. It’s a complicated and upsetting chapter in a life primarily devoted to painting.)

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Elizabeth Meggs

Elizabeth Meggs

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Elizabeth Meggs is a Brooklyn-based artist, designer, and writer. BFA: Virginia Commonwealth University; MFA: Pratt Institute