Minnesota’s special relationship with Chuck Close began in 1968, in the artist’s studio. It faces an uncertain future.
As the story goes, Martin Friedman, the former director of the Walker Art Center, spotted a nearly 9-foot-tall painting of Close’s head — his black-framed glasses, lit cigarette and shaggy hair captured in photographic detail. Friedman couldn’t get the portrait out of his own head and, the next day, decided to buy it for the Walker. “The number he quoted was absurdly low: $1,300,” Friedman wrote in his 2005 biography of Close. “Was he sure about this? He was.”
“Big Self-Portrait” was the first painting Close ever sold to a museum.
Two solo shows and 18 acquisitions later, the Walker is among the many major U.S. art institutions facing questions about how it will handle works by Close, one of the world’s most acclaimed artists, following December allegations that he sexually harassed women who posed in his studio, making inappropriate comments about their bodies. In a statement to Hyperallergic, which in January reported similar stories from four more women, Close said he had “never received any complaints prior to reading about them in recent news reports. Having learned that I made these women upset and feel uncomfortable, I do apologize, without qualification.”
Since the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., announced in January that it would indefinitely postpone its Close exhibition, museums and critics have been weighing how to handle works by artists accused of harassment. Should a museum consider an artist’s behavior in deciding whether to stage a solo exhibition? Whether to buy a work? Do we hold dead and living artists to different standards?
‘Creating a conversation’
Art museums “can and should” consider what they know about living artists’ conduct when picking them for solo exhibitions, said Tyler Green, an art critic and historian, “especially because that comes along with the bestowing of institutional honor upon an individual.
“I don’t think that means you’re asking them to be a saint,” Green continued. “I don’t think that means you’re asking them to have two drinks a night instead of three.”
The Walker doesn’t have any Close paintings on view or plans to exhibit them, said Rachel Joyce, a Walker spokesperson. She declined requests to interview administrators or curators. “Given our long-standing association with the artist, it is profoundly disheartening to learn about allegations of sexual harassment,” she said in a statement. “We do not condone abuse of power in any form, and we have empathy and respect for those who have experienced it and have had the courage it takes to come forward.
“At this time, we are actively engaged in conversations about these issues both internally and within our field.”
The Minneapolis Institute of Art, too, has an iconic Close: His third “big head,” titled “Frank,” presides over the museum’s permanent gallery. It will remain there.
“The allegations against Chuck Close raise complicated questions,” the museum’s spokeswoman said in a statement. “However, we also do not believe in censoring artists or their artwork and therefore will not be removing the Close from the permanent gallery.”
Taking a Close off the walls would be “extreme,” said Jillian Steinhauer, a former senior editor at Hyperallergic. A better idea would be to use wall labels to “tell more of a complete story” about the artist, she said. “You’re creating a conversation with the audience.”
Museums tend to regard an art object as “this holy grail, precious thing that just came into being” — especially when it comes to older pieces by artists such as Picasso and Caravaggio.
To have a roomful of paintings by French artist Paul Gauguin, who sexually abused preteen Tahitian girls, and not detail those allegations would be wrong, Steinhauer continued. “To pretend that those were not the conditions that created all those paintings of topless Tahitian women is not only inaccurate — but like you have blinders on.”
Collecting for range
In March, the Walker invited artists, critics and administrators to write essays (published on its website) answering the question: In light of the allegations against Close, coming in the midst of the broader #MeToo movement, how should museums deal with art by alleged harassers?
Green responded by noting that staging a solo show is very different from hanging a single work within a collection. Or acquiring a new work for that collection. Would the Walker, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or National Gallery accept the donation of a major Close painting now? Yes, Green predicted. “He’s not a less good or less influential artist because he apparently, allegedly, behaved grossly.”
The bigger question goes beyond a particular artist or allegation, he continued. “Is a given museum consciously, intentionally and mindfully collecting broadly?” If so, it’s acquiring art that is helping visitors think through issues of gender and representation, encountering feminist points of view.
“I think it’s probably more important to make sure the collection includes the fullest range of artists’ voices — rather than to restrict or prohibit the acquisition of any individual artists,” Green said.
Museums move slowly, planning exhibits four to five years out. But when allegations against Close emerged, the only gallery staging a solo exhibit of his works pivoted. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts did not take down its show.
Instead, beside it, the curators added a new one.
“The Art World We Want” is filled with works by women. Painted on the gallery walls are big questions that sound a lot like the ones the art world has been grappling with since allegations emerged against Close:
Who has had the power to speak about women’s bodies? What other myths has power enabled? Who do we need to hear more from? Visitors have been writing their responses on Post-it notes.
After the National Gallery postponed its Close exhibition, people had called on the Pennsylvania museum to shut down its show, a survey of Close’s photographs that opened in October. But “by closing the show, I’m fairly certain that we would have dusted our hands off and moved on,” said Brooke Davis Anderson, the museum’s director, by phone last week.
Instead, the academy dug in. It hosted a pair of forums that “were so revelatory and so raw ... that I thought by keeping the show up, we would have an opportunity to continue those conversations,” she said. “Instead of moving on, the faculty, staff, students and public are actually talking about this issue.”