Facing Dyslexia: The Education of Chuck Close

This paper, by professor of psychology Ken Gobbo, looks at how Close’s dyslexia and prosopagnosia led to him developing his unique style. It also makes clear that it was the loving environment provided by his parents, together with the encouragement of Close’s teacher that motivated him to become a professional artist.

The most interesting part is how Close developed his own way of handling the reading and remembering of information he was expected to learn for school:

“I used sensory deprivation. I would go into the bathroom where I would — in the dark — put a strong light on a plank that I had across the bathtub with a book stand to hold the book and in hot water — in total silence in the dark — I would go over, and over, and over whatever it was I was supposed to be memorizing all night long before an exam… it was like I had to get rid of all the other distractions and everything else that was going on in order to focus and concentrate and stare at these things.”

He then goes on to describe how he’d break words down into letters and then make a sentence and visualize it, “when I’d need to recall this I would get the mental image, the mental image would feed me the sentence, then I would extract from the sentence the appropriate letters and rebuild the word.” Of course, this meant he spent far longer doing timed tests, but he says people with learning disabilities can now take them untimed. His self-discovered method of learning is now standard practice – teaching people with language processing difficulties with the aid of mnemonics and chunking of information into manageable sizes.

The author observes that this information chunking directly influenced his style of portraiture:

“Knowing himself, his strengths and weaknesses, Close adhered to this reductionist approach that was dependent upon very small units. Basically, he was taking the details of a face, which most humans use to identify others, and reducing it so that a complicated visual event becomes a flat plane in thousands of increments. Essentially this process is similar to the way that he tackled his school reading assignments… He broke the whole thing down into elements and used mnemonics to load it into his memory for later use.”

Close attended Yale’s MFA programme in Art & Architecture, under the directorship of abstract expressionist Jack Tworkov:

“Tworkov’s approach involved exposing students to a wide variety of possibilities that could be in conflict with one another, and allow students to be influenced as they engaged in their processes. “Rather than teach students to be artists – an impossibility- or indoctrinate them in a particular aesthetic, Yale’s approach was to expose students to as wide a range of ideas and potential choices that could be bought under one roof” (Storr et al, 1998, p. 29).”

He then quotes Close as saying:

“… The artist who actually influenced the way I think most was Ad Reinhardt. In his writings he would say, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that, no more this, no more that.’ The whole notion of constructing limitations that guarantee you can’t do what you did before will force you to do something else. And that’s how you change, move forward; not necessarily progress, but how you can program change into your work” (Bui, 2008).

Although it is not necessarily directly related to photography, I think that these words are very powerful and should be considered by anyone engaged in creative endeavours – using a wide range of approaches but also imposing limitations on yourself, both of which combine to ensure that one doesn’t stick to one approach because it works, since that is the quick way to stagnation. Experimentation and not allowing yourself to stick to a sure and safe route, these are things that help you to move forward, to develop!

To my mind, although Davis claims that Close is not a disabled artist since his work does not deal directly with the issue of disability, I consider his work to be disabled art, since it is actually his way of dealing with his disabilities.


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