Looking at Chuck Close Through his Portrait of Bill Clinton

Home / Looking at Chuck Close Through his Portrait of Bill Clinton

In the bubble that is the New York Art world, Chuck Close’s recent death is leading to a reappraisal and challenging conversations about how innovative artistic technique, disability, brain damage, impulse control, and sexual misconduct can coexist.

It is a shame that the associated obituaries and thought pieces do not discuss Close’s portrait of Bill Clinton, whose achievements are likewise tarnished. Of course “Bill Clinton” (2006) is not currently on view at the National Gallery of Art. It is a haunting artifact of how #MeToo and “Hurricane Harvey” knocked many titans off their pedestals. Both sitter and portraitist are rife with contradictions.

Bill Clinton certainly let some glass ceilings crack under his watch. In 1993, he appointed the pathbreaking Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court and Janet Reno as the first woman to serve as Attorney General. In 1997, he selected Madeleine Albright to become the first woman to serve as Secretary of State. He empowered Hillary Clinton to tackle policy initiatives — the only first lady to have an office in the West Wing. Simultaneously, he flagrantly violated the consent of women behind closed doors, as well as exploiting power differentials with other women, convincing them to gratify him.

How did Chuck Close‘s relationship with his own sexuality shift in 1988, when a spinal artery collapse paralyzed him? Although Close was able to successfully invent a new approach to his art that remained commercially viable and critically acclaimed, finding healthy outlets for his valid sexual needs evidently proved more challenging. It is important to honor his pain as a paralyzed man. Many disabled individuals struggle to negotiate meaningful sexual experiences. It is still wrong he responded to this daunting challenge by denigrating women.

In 2017, allegations emerged from several women who participated in modeling sessions that by their accounts crossed the line into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. Delia Brown’s story of harassment traces back to 2005, long before Close’s dementia progressed to its first diagnosis in 2013, which was later recategorized. The obituary in the New York Times intimated brain damage interfered with his impulse control. It strains incredulity that a man with enough discipline to manage his successful, albeit complex, art career suffered from compartmentalized brain damage that left him powerless only when victimizing women.

Robin Pogrebin and Ken Johnson‘s obituary ignore this inconsistency. Nor did Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz go far enough in emphasizing that some women’s stories like Brown’s predate his diagnosis of cognitive loss. I’m sure all four of them back in the ’70s cringed at the “Twinkie” defense in which the sugar high from cupcakes purportedly made it impossible for Dan White to restrain his murderous impulses towards San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. In the guise of journalistic neutrality, they’re allowing a similar brain damage defense to develop that isn’t actually substantiated by the timeline of accounts such as Brown’s. The bottom line is that Chuck Close was harassing women long before his frontotemporal dementia began to interfere with his judgment. It would be more precise or relevant to discuss how cognitive deterioration may have exacerbated his preexisting sexually predatory pattern.

Close’s artistic style of compartmentalizing color betrays an equally partitioned mind of well-defended complexes. His work also reveals an audience of admirers and critics who apparently love both stylistic and ethical compartmentalization. All that visual magnetism holds some appalling moral contradictions. Such compartmentalization emblematizes Clinton at his best and worst. Small wonder he let Close paint him.

Chuck Close was supposed to be the inspiring story of a painter overcoming his disability and considerable physical agony to carry on and keep innovating. But it’s not. Instead, we face a tragic tale of a man whose professional tenacity did not carry over into firmly respecting consent. Bill Clinton was supposed to be the story of a working class widow’s son from Hope, Arkansas rising up because he was smarter than everyone else. But it isn’t. Why couldn’t Chuck Close and Bill Clinton channel their boundless energy and relentless drive into defeating their demons? That question now lives in this portrait at the National Gallery of Art. It’s time to let the public see it again.

Something inside Clinton’s and Close’s psyche compartmentalized too much, echoing the grid of this portrait. Perhaps they believed they were just making women feel uncomfortable. Both inflicted far more harm than each realized. It is a paradox that despite experiencing demeaning marginalization as a paralyzed man, Close marginalized and demeaned women. Is it a paradox that Clinton fiercely championed women as intellectual leaders, while also objectifying and violating them. Both men had the money and privilege to take advantage of therapy, to individuate healthier patterns, and to develop respectful relationships with women and with their own sexuality. What got in the way of this emotional work?

The esteemed poet Audre Lorde once wrote, “Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.” It is easy to sit in smug judgment of Clinton and Close. It is harder to face our own contradictions which if left “unharmonized” can lead us to inflict harm on others. The best thing we can all do right now is to commit to going deeper into our own psyches to face these contradictions head on.

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