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Science & Medicine

Creator Of Gigantic Portraits, Painter Chuck Close, Dies At 81

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The art world is mourning the loss of Chuck Close, who died of congestive heart failure yesterday in Oceanside, N.Y. He was 81. Close made his name as a virtuoso portrait painter. Marisa Mazria Katz tells us about his extraordinary career.

MARISA MAZRIA KATZ, BYLINE: Chuck Close hailed from a generation of American artists that infused the conceptual art world of the 1960s with a more humanist and some might say romantic sensibility. For Close, this meant embracing the most passe of all art forms at the time - portraiture. His brash, large-scale, photorealist portraits were an almost immediate hit. One of his most iconic images was of himself as a shirtless, confident rebel with wispy hair, thick-rimmed glasses and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Close was born in Monroe, Wash., in 1940. He was dyslexic and struggled in school. He talked about it in 2012 on "CBS This Morning."

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CHUCK CLOSE: I was in the eighth grade, and I was told not to even think about going to college. I couldn't add or subtract, never could memorize the multiplication tables, was advised against taking algebra, geometry, chemistry.

MAZRIA KATZ: Even so, he went on to graduate from the University of Washington with an art major and got his master's in fine arts from Yale. In the late '80s, Close's career was skyrocketing, but tragedy struck. A collapsed spinal artery initially left him a quadriplegic. Here's Close talking to Charlie Rose in 1998.

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CLOSE: Virtually every muscle group from my chest down is compromised to one degree or another.

MAZRIA KATZ: After rehabilitation, he regained some use of his arms and was able to paint with the help of a special brace on his hand. His work was acquired by major institutions around the world. He went on to paint politicians like Bill Clinton and photographed celebrities like Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey. In 2017, several women who had posed in his studio accused him of sexual harassment. In a New York Times interview, he denied making some of the reported comments but acknowledged that he had been crude and candid. About six years ago, Close was diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia, which leads to a progressive loss of brain function. Yet in the last few years of his life, he retained a robust profile in the art world through shows organized across the globe.

For NPR News, this is Marisa Mazria Katz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.