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Critical Eye
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The Art of Overcoming
For many artists creativity is rooted in problem solving. For some -- like Chuck Close and Ginny Ruffner -- this includes overcoming their own bodies' misfortunes

by Sheila Farr

November 18, 1998

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Monet's waterlilies

The famous garden at Giverny, which Claude Monet plotted and directed like some great epic film, and painted continually for the last thirty years of his life, was the artist's muse and final love. That devotion is more remarkable when we consider that for most of his final decade Monet could barely see. He painted everything -- the blossoms and the arbors, the weeping willows and the waterlilies, the turning seasons -- from memory. Monet had already, with his vision intact, pushed impressionism to the very edge of abstraction; loosely implied form was nothing new to him. What changed as cataracts blurred his sight was the characteristic serenity of his canvases. His palette intensified and his brushwork, once delicately considered, became an assault. Monet now painted his peaceful garden through the lens of his own frustration and outrage.

What allows an artist to respond to an overwhelming setback, like blindness, with renewed creativity? Two contemporary artists -- the New York painter Chuck Close, named by ARTnews one of the fifty most influential people in the art world, and the Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner, an internationally acclaimed glass sculptor -- have some of the answers. Both survived devastating physical traumas in mid-career and devised ways of turning their bodies' misfortunes to art's advantage.
Discuss this column in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Critical Eye:

"Subtle Mechanisms" (August 1998)
For Arthur Ganson, an artist whose ingenious contraptions tell stories, meaning and motion are all but inseparable. By Harvey Blume.

"Truth and Consequences" (May 1998)
The films of Luis Buñuel, argues Lee Siegel, reveal a vision of human violence that is complicated, unsentimental, and always honest.

"Posing for Egon Schiele" (February 1998)
Lee Siegel on the artist, the critics, and the importance of being jaded.

Related links:

Monet: Late Paintings of Giverny from the Musée Marmottan

This exhibit will be on display at the Portland Art Museum until January 3, 1999.

Fine Art on the Internet: Chuck Close
Links to works by and articles on the artist.

"Ease, I think, is the great enemy of the arts," Close told me. "It's important to keep an edge, a degree of difficulty ... to push yourself to do something you haven't done before." A remarkably adept painter, Close, now fifty-eight, made a seemingly effortless rise to celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, using his technical ingenuity to create a revolutionary kind of portraiture -- enormous, precise, as minutely detailed as photographic images. Close worked systematically. He used grids, built color in layers or by juxtaposition, and created vacillating surfaces out of thousands of individual marks. The images gradually dissolved from the stubble-on-the-chin precision of Phil, a 1969 portrait of the composer Philip Glass, into mirages of inspired chromatics, as in the 1987 oil on canvas Lucas II. Here, Close conjured the face of his friend Lucas Samaras as if the canvas were a pond set in motion with the toss of a stone. Samaras's face radiates out from a central point in ripples of congealed color.

As an artist, Close likes to back himself into a corner then find a way out. "I've always been a problem solver," he said. "Actually, I've always been a problem creator more than a problem solver -- ask an interesting question of yourself and you're more likely to have an interesting answer." Sometimes, though, the challenge is external. "Once in a while," Close said, "along comes an event or momentous occasion that somehow changes the way you think or look."

For Close that event came in December, 1988, when a blood clot blocked an artery in his neck and left him paralyzed below the shoulders. He was forty-eight years old and had already accumulated the recognition most painters only dream of, including a major retrospective at the Whitney. After a prolonged period of rehabilitation, Close returned to painting. He was not as concerned with inventing formal problems for himself: for the moment, all he could worry about was how to get paint on a canvas. If it meant using his teeth, he was willing to do it, but he gradually regained enough control of his hands to wedge a brush in his fist and move it with his upper arm muscles. He hired assistants and had scaffolding and machinery built in his studio so he could navigate about large canvases while sitting in a wheelchair.

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Self-Portrait, 1996

In 1991 the Pace Gallery mounted an exhibit of Close's new work. His friend, the playwright John Guare, saw the show and wrote: "The new work made me gasp. The landscape was still the human face staring out at you, but all cool objectivity was gone. I remember reeling around the gallery trying to take them all in. Look at the portrait of April. How did Close find Monet's dazzling garden in Giverny in April's face?"

The comparison is apt, because Close finds the human face as endlessly compelling as Monet did his garden: it has been his sole subject for thirty years. Close said the evolution of his work wasn't altered by his paralysis: he basically picked up where he left off, working around his impaired fine motor control as if it were another formal problem to solve. His palette is more vivacious now, and he admits his emotional involvement in the work is greater. Painting, he says, is a celebration. But he adamantly refuses to take credit for courage or exceptional tenacity, and instead chalks his continuing creativity up to innate optimism and sheer good luck. "My ability to be able to get back to work, which people think is such a big deal, also is a product of being a very successful artist and having made a lot of money. If I didn't have the support of my gallery and my friends, if I couldn't continue to make an income, I wouldn't have been able to afford to build a wheelchair-accessible studio and everything I need. Someone else with the same desire to get back to work wouldn't have been able to."

His explanation convinced me, but when I ran it by Ginny Ruffner, who employs five part-time assistants to help fabricate her witty, intricate, mind-bending installations of glass and steel, she pointed out what she sees as a flaw in Close's reasoning. "In a sense he's contradicting himself," she said. "Having no money is very analogous to being handicapped, and even for the most able-bodied person it really takes creativity to do what you want when you don't have much money." To Ruffner, coming up with money is just another challenge most artists deal with all the time. But she thinks Close is dead right about the fame factor. Without it, "it wouldn't matter a bit how much money he had," she told me. "Nobody would take him seriously. He would have been dumped into that hole of 'handicapped artist'."

Ruffner, too, was fortunate in that respect. She already had the art world eating out of her hand when, in 1991, at the age of thirty-nine, a car wreck left her in a coma for six weeks, her brain severely traumatized. When she did finally emerge from her long absence, she had a problem that Monet and Close probably never considered. Beyond the physical results of the crash -- Ruffner has lost much of the use of her left side (she was left-handed), her speech is slow and difficult, her vision is double and vibrates constantly -- Ruffner didn't know who she was. The slate of her experiences had been wiped clean. She didn't have a clue about art, and all her dearly held aesthetic opinions had vanished. When I asked Ruffner, lounging on the couch in her exuberantly furnished Seattle studio, how she was able to relearn herself and her artwork, she giggled. "Fortunately," she replied, "there was a book...." So during her recovery she sat and studied pictures of her own work. The imagery was familiar, she said, like meeting old friends who had been away for a long, long time.

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The Beauty of Perception/The Perception of Beauty

Before her accident, Ruffner was into beauty in a sexy, ornate, fecund way, often incorporating classical icons of femininity into her lampwork-glass pieces, for example the 1991 Grand Oh. It's a filigree of wildly colored glass tubing, sprouting with suggestive fruit and flower forms that shelter a painted, reclining nude beauty. Grand Oh is a pleasure garden. Her paintings, too, incorporated imagery of fruit and flowers, but in compositions that were spare, cool, and precise. In her recent work Ruffner prefers dichotomy: combining materials like steel and glass as emblems of the strength and fragility of human beings. She often works big, creating carnivalesque installations -- for instance, The Beauty of Perception/The Perception of Beauty at her recent exhibit at Seattle's Meyerson & Nowinski gallery. It's a lost-in-the-funhouse experience, with mirrors and trompe l'oeil glass balloons on dartboards. For Ruffner, beauty is more deceptive now, and has an edge to it. Ruffner, with a lofty IQ and winged imagination, can't resist odd visual juxtapositions like "frilly steel" and "macho glass" in works that, not surprisingly, tend to reflect on the mysterious resiliency of the human brain. In her Virtual Vessel series Ruffner works with the image of an intricate steel basket containing a gorgeous array of wildly patterned glass baubles -- a representation, perhaps, of her outrageous imagination cradled inside the tough shell of her skull.

For Ruffner, the great opportunity was the chance to go back and remake her aesthetic choices -- essentially to recreate herself as an artist. She made many of the same decisions -- she still loves the versatility of glass as a medium, she loves extravagance of color and of form, she can't resist puns and mind-games -- but she's added a snake to her sumptuous garden. Now she balances beauty with danger; she thinks more in dualities. As a glass artist Ruffner was already used to working with assistants, so being forced to rely on them heavily was not as dramatic a change for her as it was for Close. Now instead of sketching her designs, she usually describes her ideas verbally to her assistants, then supervises the assembly and the installation. She has started painting again, too, training her right arm to take over, reprogramming the impulses of the brain. "It seems kind of bizarre to say I feel lucky to have had this learning opportunity," she told me, "but in a way I do."

We all know the old stereotype of the suffering artist. That image gets warped in our minds, with the emphasis falling on "suffering." According to both Ruffner and Close, art is not about suffering so much as problem solving, about making choices. That's the practical reality of it, anyway. All of life is about choice, Ruffner maintains. "You can view every situation as 'Oh poor me,' or 'What a great opportunity'." Not everybody would consider such a debilitating experience an opportunity. I don't know how Monet felt about his diminishing vision, but both Close and Ruffner seem to have found something meaningful in their traumas. Somehow, their physical misfortunes have enriched their perceptions even while limiting their action.

Discuss this column in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

More on arts and culture in Atlantic Unbound.

Sheila Farr is a poet and art critic who lives in Seattle.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

Reproductions courtesy of, in order: The Portland Art Museum, The Seattle Art Museum, The Meyerson & Nowinski gallery.
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