Chuck Close: Not Just a Spokesperson
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Chuck Close in his studio.
I want to be known as an artist with a handicap, not a handicapped artist.
The doctors classify me as an incomplete quadriplegic, which basically means I have the use of some of my muscles and not of others. It’s the result of an event that occurred in 1988. The doctors at first thought it was a heart attack, but it turned out to be far worse—I had a collapsed artery in my neck that cut off the blood flow and affected every muscle. I was totally paralyzed from the neck down and was in rehab for eight months. Over the next two years I regained many of my abilities. I was lucky.
So many people in rehab were young kids who’d been in diving or motorcycle accidents— they hadn’t had time to figure out their careers yet. All I had to do was figure out how to paint again. Because one paints largely with the whole arm, the fact that my fingers and wrists didn’t work wasn’t the limitation I thought it would be; I just had to find another way to hold the brush. I had a hand brace made out of metal and Velcro for this purpose. Twenty years later I still paint this way. I tell people my entire life is held together with Velcro. I paint 365 days a year— that’s my physical therapy.
I knew Christopher Reeve pretty well because we used to appear at the same events. When we were both speaking and he went first, I liked to tell the audience that I would have been there earlier, but Chris and I were fighting over the handicapped parking spot.
Chris and Dana Reeve were remarkable people. The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation is a real testament to what they accomplished—it’s awarded more than $77 million in research grants to top scientists around the world. I’m especially impressed by Dana’s program, the Quality of Life Grants, which improves the day-to-day lives of people living with paralysis.
That’s what I’m interested in—helping people live better lives when nothing is physically going to change for them. A lot of it is how you deal with the hand you’re dealt. It’s like poker: You can have a really good hand and lose, or you can have terrible cards and still win. My wife says I’m an incurable optimist; I see the glass threequarters full!
I’ve gotten quite a few awards over the years, but the Christopher Reeve Spirit of Courage Award means a lot to me because it’s kind of a continuation of my involvement with Chris. At his Juilliard School memorial service, where there were several of us in wheelchairs, I remember thinking how important it was that Chris wasn’t seen as the only person who lived with paralysis. Famous people have a tremendous advantage: People want to help us. But what about the people who never go out because there’s no car and driver to take them and they can’t wait two hours at a bus stop for a handicapped accessible bus? Or they get to the subway and find out the elevator is broken?
Photographs by Michael Marfione/courtesy of the artist and Pace Wildenstein, New York (ARTIST IN STUDIO); Ellen Page Wilson/courtesy of Pace Wildenstein, New York (PORTRAIT)
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.