Chuck Close made his name in large-scale portraiture, from photo-real paintings to faces composed of his signature grid-based color patterns — and, in later years, photography, printmaking, and even tapestry. Active for almost 50 years, he still produces and exhibits prodigiously, with a his first major solo exhibition in Australia at the Museum of Contemporary Art opening on November 20 and an exhibition of his photographs, including a series taken for Vanity Fair, on view in Southampton in April 2015. Most recently, however, Close has taken an active role in Artists for Peace and Justice, a non-profit founded by film director Paul Haggis that provides aid to Haiti in the form of education, healthcare, and the arts. The organization’s latest event, “Fierce Creativity,” is a four-day benefit art sale that will be up at Pace Gallery’s 57th Street location from October 22 through 25. Together with co-curator and photographer Jessica Craig-Martin, Close helped select the 45 contributing artists, each of whom set the price for his or her own piece on the condition that 100 percent of the profits would go to Artists for Peace and Justice. ARTINFO caught up with Close the week before the sale to discuss his involvement with the organization, his interest in foreign aid, and the importance of arts education.
How did you become involved with “Fierce Creativity,” and what drew you to the project?
For the past couple of years, I contributed works, but I didn’t really know much about it — I contribute to a lot of things. Then, I got to know Paul [Haggis], and when they started telling me what they were doing, I said, “Oh, well I’d really like to do more than just give a piece.” I told them that I wouldn’t do an auction, because auctions are bad for artists; if a thing doesn’t sell well, it’s embarrassing. Nobody should ever have to watch their work up for auction. I said a long time ago that an artist going to an auction is like taking a cow on a guided tour of a slaughterhouse. You know this thing is going on but you don’t want to see it. So I said, “OK, yes, we’ll do it as a sale, and if at the end of the week it’s not sold, the thing is returned to the artist, and nobody is publically humiliated.” So that’s really the condition that I set for my involvement.
Had you worked with your co-curator, Jessica Craig-Martin, beforehand?
Jessica has been involved — she did it the year before. She knows a lot of the younger artists and the European artists, and I know a bunch of old farts, so that’s my contribution. She had all the young, hip people.
Are there young artists whose work you do follow at the moment?
Yeah, I look at a lot of younger artists’ work; there are people that Jessica picked whose work I like a lot. The thing is that the person who goes to the artist and convinces them to give tends to be someone of their own generation — someone they know personally. It’s much better that I talk to people who are my friends and my generation and she deals with hers. She was able to get Damien Hirst.
How did you choose the work that you donated for this sale — the tapestry self-portrait?
I wanted to give something that was unique. I haven’t made a drawing in 20 years, and I don’t have any paintings available, so I could do a tapestry and only make one unique piece instead of an edition of three. You know, a lot of people don’t want something unless it’s unique. If somebody plunks down big bucks, a major chunk of cash, they don’t want to go to someone else’s house and find the same piece hanging there. I normally don’t care — I’ll keep the prices lower and have more of them. But in this case, I really wanted to come up with something that could justify a higher sales price.
And how did you choose the other artworks?
I called in some friends and, you know, stood on ’em a little bit and made it hard for them to say no. But a surprising number of people had no trouble saying no, and some of their dealers said no, which I thought was interesting. But I would say 80 percent of the people I’ve asked have given.
[Artists are] very generous, but you hit the wall after a while. I probably give 12 or 15 pieces away a year to charities, and it can really add up. I give away what amounts to like 20 percent of my income, sometimes more. As a kid, I was raised in the church, and we tithed 10 percent of our income, and my mother had nothing. I look back and I say, “Oh my God, I’m tithing 20 percent,” you know? But this is for something I believe in, and I didn’t believe in the church, so it makes it easier.
Artists for Peace and Justice is touted as presenting a “different model” for an arts charity — how so?
We have impact on the lives of young people going to school, who otherwise might finish grade school but would not go on to what we would call middle school or high school. Not only are we helping these kids, we find local Haitian architects and local Haitian contractor-builders, and they hire all Haitian teachers and administrators, so we’re helping on many different levels. And we have organizations that cover our administrative costs, so nothing comes out of the money that we raise — one hundred percent of it goes to the kids.
The thing is that most of the charities in Haiti are pretty corrupt, and the money gets skimmed off by someone else or the political figures take their cut. Ours is the only organization that really guarantees that all our money goes where it’s supposed to go. They’re providing the always-free public high school and the always-free university, including building the buildings and paying for the staff. In a country which has very little fortune to look forward to in terms of things that we would take for granted — opportunities to advance oneself — these kids may want to do all the right things, and there’s no way for them to do it. What you want, ideally, I think, in a society, is for those people who are serious and work hard and have ambitions to have an opportunity to do what they want to do.
Did your own experience with education have any influence on your decision to fund an education charity?
Well, you know, I’m very old, and when I went to school in the ’40s and ’50s, I lived in a very poor mill town in the state of Washington, and we had art and music every day as a guaranteed right, from kindergarten through high school. And had I not had that, I would have dropped out of school, because I wasn’t good at anything else. So I look at what was available to me as a poor, working class kid and how it saved my life, and I want to offer the same opportunity to young Haitians that was available to me.
It’s a problem right now in the United States that the first thing to go is art and music. Every child should have something to do that makes them feel special. And if you’re not good at reading, writing, arithmetic, you’d better have something else. I’m working with the president; we’re putting art back into public schools, seeing if you can take a failing school, a lowest-performing school in an at-risk community, and turn it around through art and music. In fact, it’s called Turnaround Arts — and it was my experience working with them that cemented my desire to do it in Haiti and other places around the world.