Close was born in Monroe, Washington, in 1940. He dreamed of becoming an artist from an early age, supposedly after his father — an amateur inventor — made an easel for him when he was five. Close went on to study at the University of Washington and then Yale, where he earned an MFA.
His art was influenced initially by Abstract Expressionism, in particular the paintings of Willem de Kooning. However, he soon rethought his approach for good — and adopted what became his signature style.
Probably the most famous of his breakthrough works was Big Self Portrait from 1967–68 (today part of the Walker Art Center’s collection in Minneapolis). This painting of Close in black-rimmed glasses, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, is so precisely and convincingly detailed as to seem photographic.
The artist’s process for producing portraits and self-portraits was painstaking. First, he took a photograph of his subject, which he divided into a grid; then he created a corresponding grid, in proportion to it, on a huge blank canvas that he would paint square by square.
Subjects of his work included the composer Philip Glass, the model Kate Moss, and the artist Cindy Sherman. As years went by, he introduced colour into his work (having originally preferred black and white), and he embraced different media, such as prints and tapestry.
Arguably the biggest shift in his art, however, came after he suffered a spinal artery collapse in 1988, which left him in a wheelchair. Close’s subsequent portraiture was characterised by a looser, more gestural application of paint, and a slight move away from the photorealistic. In some cases, he even filled the squares with shapes resembling lozenges, hamburgers and amoebae — though somehow these still coalesced to form a human face when one looked at the picture as a whole.
Close was the subject of a major retrospective at MoMA in New York in 1998, which later toured the US and had a final stop at the Hayward Gallery in London.
In 2000, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton, whose portrait he would paint a few years later (that work can today be found in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.). Close died in 2021, aged 81.