In September 1996 the Arts Institute of Chicago presented works by Chuck Close (born in 1940) and conceptual sculptor Tom Friedman (born in 1965) as a dual exhibition. The most obvious justification for the cross-generational pairing was a shared obsession with small, technical details. For Close this meant abstract, but painstakingly precise painted grid-work. For Friedman it was spiralled pubic hairs on soap and Play-Doh bits rolled into medicine capsules. A commentary in Frieze suggested – convincingly – that a paternal comedy was at play. It was a juxtaposition of, “the official language of visual culture,” sensible and stoic, against the “visceral world of a new generation”. Even then, in the mid ’90s, Close was a solid fixture of the New York art establishment. His monumental portraits, or “heads” as he calls them, still had something of the academy about them. They were brilliantly executed, subversive in their levelling of printmaking with painting, but their rebelliousness was relatively muted.

For those not partial to tightly cropped portraiture, Close’s expansive new survey at the MCA nonetheless warrants a visit. Few artists of similar acclaim and longevity pursue mark making with such rigorousness – something consulting curator Glenn Barkley is eager to showcase. The most expansive array of Close’s work to be displayed in the southern hemisphere, Prints, Process and Collaboration draws from the artist’s own collection, those of master printmakers and the National Gallery of Australia. (Barkley notes that the Canberra institution is keen to get Bob back as soon as possible. The colossal black-and-white acrylic work, purchased in 1975, remains among the most popular of its permanent collection.)

Seven rooms of the MCA are dedicated to Close – not only to his finished pieces, but developmental state proofs and wood blocks. His heads are mapped out by a strict grid pattern, in which a photographic image is split into a series of ruled, plotted-out cells. As the cells are transferred to a new medium, each adopts a colour approximation and is re-worked into concentric shapes. The result is a tension between abstraction and hyperrealism; though neither is strictly applicable.

Close’s jacquard loom tapestries are particularly ambitious, as is the luminescent, almost liquid Emma (2002), a 113-colour, hand-printed ukiyo-e woodcut. Nat/Felt Hand Stamp (2012) is a shimmering, pink-faced technical feat; in which oil paints were applied to a silkscreen ground using only felt stamps. Terrie Sultan, director of Parrish Art Museum in New York and the driving force behind the exhibition suggests problem solving is key to Close’s experimental printmaking. In the catalogue notes, she speaks of Keith / Mezzotint and its adoption of a process popular in the 18th and 19th centuries – one out of favour with Close’s contemporaries. “In that sense, his decision was audacious: neither he nor printer Kathan Brown at Crown Point press knew how to make a mezzotint, and they had to learn together.”

Close interrogates both medium and material with a relentless, sustained enthusiasm. His physical restrictions are a footnote to his art making, but are still relevant to those engaging with it critically. Close experiences prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a condition that makes it difficult to recognise faces. The process of flattening and freezing a face helps with this a little. In 1998 a seizure resulted in a spinal artery collapse – a moment he refers to often as “the event”. Close (now 74) has relied on a wheelchair since then, and has restricted his physical movements (he works with a brush taped to his wrist). Video interviews show how little all this has hampered his drive.

Does Close perceive his works as a dialogue with audiences? “I do think that he makes art to communicate,” says Sultan, on tour through the gallery. “He’s not making the pictures for himself at all … That’s why he’s so willing to reveal the process of how he makes things. He wants to talk to people [and say] it is possible to have a life-changing experience by looking at art.”

Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration is part of the Sydney International Art Series. It will be showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia until March 15, 2015.

mca.com.au