RCL Exclusive

Legendary Painter Chuck Close on Public Art, Diversity and His Ex-Wife

Close shows RealClearLife and subway riders his favorite portraits in an exclusive video.

Art By

The 86th Street station of the Second Avenue subway doubles as a monument to legendary portrait painter Chuck Close. Twelve large portraits Close produced, which debuted in January, adorn the station walls.

For the first time ever, Close gave a personal, on-camera tour with RealClearLife of his subway art and the inspiration behind it.

“I wanted the mosaics to reflect the ridership,” Close told RealClearLife. “So I found artist friends of mine who fit those categories.”

His Subway Portraits showcase cultural icons. They include composer Philip Glass, musician Lou Reed, photographer Cindy Sherman as long with artists Alex Katz, Cecily Brown, Zhang Huan, Kara Walker and Sienna Shields, his ex-wife.

“Part of the divorce agreement is that I can’t talk about her,” Close said. “But, you know, I’m glad I did [the portrait] … it does look really good.”

Many of the people in Subway Portraits have been frequent subjects of Close’s art through his career spanning nearly five decades.

Close made his artistic debut in 1968 with Big Self Portrait, a nine-foot-tall photorealistic painting of his face. And he doesn’t shy away from his roots in Subway Portraits: He created two different self-portraits for the subway station.

The portraits, 10 of which are nearly nine feet tall, are the largest public artworks that Close has ever created and took him years to complete working with the MTA.

“They’re in a medium he has never done before, which is mosaics and ceramic tile,” said Lester Burg, MTA Arts & Design deputy director. “It’s very exciting to have museum-quality work in the New York City subway.”

Close, a master of photorealism, is renowned for his meticulous detail and innovative technique. For example, his portrait of Reed uses only seven shades gray.

Beyond sharing his art with New York City, Subway Portraits is about leaving a lasting legacy.

“For me, the best part of it is that you look at some subway stations and the mosaics have been on the wall since 1905, you know, they’re not going away,” Close said.

Watch the exclusive tour of the 86th Street subway station with Close in the video above.