Forty Years of Keith

The year 2012 represents a milestone for Chuck Close, the Crown Point Press, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s works on paper department, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Chuck Close and Crown Point Press: Prints and Processes, the special exhibition currently on view in the Anderson Gallery, honors these lasting relationships.

Keith1

Trial proof for Keith, 1972. Mezzotint. Crown Point Press Archive, Museum purchase, Bequest of Whitney Warren, Jr. in memory of Mrs. Adolph B. Spreckels. 1991.28.98

Fifty years ago in 1962, Kathan Brown established what would become one of contemporary art’s most important print workshops, the Bay Area’s own Crown Point Press (CPP). Ten years later in 1972, Chuck Close began work with Brown and the CPP printers to create his landmark work Keith. This year also marks the Fine Arts Museums’ entrance into its third decade as the home of editioned prints from the Crown Point Press archive, which the Museums acquired in 1991. This blog post is the first in a three-part series that will run throughout the exhibition focusing on each of the three marquee artworks on view. In honor of its 40th anniversary, we begin with Keith.

Blackened Keith

Working Proof for Keith, 1972. Mezzotint. Foundation purchase, Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Major Accessions. 2011.1

Chuck Close first visited Crown Point Press in 1972, when he began working with founder and director Kathan Brown to push the technical limits of the workshop, proposing to make the largest mezzotint ever printed (restricted only by the width then available of a sheet of copper—36 inches). In this massive scale, the mezzotint process—which involves scraping or burnishing a roughened plate of copper to produce a design—was highly experimental, and the arduous project took two months to complete, rather than the press’s usual two weeks.

Chuck Close at work

Chuck Close resting among his images, 1972. Photoetching. © Crown Point Press

Keith Hollingworth, the subject of Close’s mezzotint, was a ceramic teacher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where the two artists met in the 1960s while Close was also teaching there. Keith’s brother Wayne took the “mug shot” photograph (as Close had come to call the series) on which Close based his artwork. Although Wayne took many different pictures of his brother, the young man’s expression remained static because Keith had facial paralysis. “I preferred to just hold my face and avoid the risk of showing an asymmetrical expression,” he explained.

Keith2

Working proof for Keith, 1972. Mezzotint. Crown Point Press Archive, Museum purchase, Bequest of Whitney Warren Jr. in memory of Mrs. Adolph B. Spreckels. 1991.28.98.1

Although he had created an acrylic painting based on this image of Keith two years earlier in 1970 (now in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum), Close remained cautious when initiating the mezzotint process due to his lack of experience with the medium. Before he began work on the large copper plate, he experimented on smaller plates with various burnishing and scraping tools. To track his progress in the still-unfamiliar medium, Close asked Brown to print the plate featuring Keith’s mouth numerous times, resulting in a series of proofs, each printed in a different color of black ink as inscribed on the sheet.

Mouth1

Working proof 1 from test plate for Keith (Taille Douce), 1972. Mezzotint. Crown Point Press Archive, Museum purchase, Bequest of Whitney Warren, Jr. in memory of Mrs. Adolph B. Spreckels. 1991.28.98.2

Mouth2

Working proof 5 from test plate for Keith (Crayon), 1972. Mezzotint. Crown Point Press Archive, Museum purchase, Bequest of Whitney Warren, Jr. in memory of Mrs. Adolph B. Spreckels. 1991.28.98.6

The rich black achieved through printing in mezzotint was of great interest to Close, who said of the Keith print:

The blacks in this print are really amazing. You have to see a lot of blacks before you know what a velvety mezzotint black looks like. It’s not a dead black, where the ink is lying on the surface so that light reflects off it. And mezzotint blacks give the whites a kind of pearly, active glow because the whites have been arrived at through the process of scraping and burnishing, rather than existing automatically as the white of the paper.

Achieving this characteristic “velvety black” did not come without its challenges. Before Close could begin to scrape and burnish out his composition, Brown and the CPP printers worked methodically to evenly pit the surface of the copper plate, finally reaching the texture that, when printed appears as an intense black. They eventually came upon photoetching as a solution, which was at the time a new and still largely untested intaglio process that took them more than two weeks of constant experimentation to refine.

Keith detail

Working Proof for Keith (detail), 1972. Mezzotint. Foundation purchase, Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Major Accessions. 2011.1

Once over that hurdle, Close then encountered the difficult situation of being unable to easily imagine the outcome of each mark that he made on the plate. To help the artist see the results of his burnishing required continuous proofing. These repetitions caused the center of the plate to wear down, especially in the areas where Close began his work, around the subject’s mouth. As a result, the mouth area printed lighter, and the final edition was small in number with only ten impressions considered to be of sufficient quality.

For Keith Hollingworth, being the subject of one of the most celebrated 20th-century American prints proved difficult at first. He revealed:

It was hard for me to look at the finished work. But this was mainly because of my facial paralysis, as I hadn't come to terms with it. In the long run, it was also difficult to understand that Keith and I had become two completely separate entities.

Ultimately, however, Keith came to terms with his role in art history, stating, “As the years have passed, I am able to talk about the portrait without feeling at odds with myself. I have to continually remind people that the painting is famous, and I am simply the subject.”

Encounter the many iterations of Keith on view in the Anderson Gallery at the de Young through October 14.