The Oscar-winning actor and celebrated artist chat on Skype about creating art, making black ragdolls for Oprah, and why there’s no formula for getting life right.
Look for the extended video conversation between Tilda Swinton and Chuck Close coming soon to bbook.com
CHUCK CLOSE: So, can I ask you a few questions?
TILDA SWINTON: Please do.
CC: It occurred to me whatever you’re born into becomes your burden, but also an opportunity. I’m a poor, white trash kid from a mill town, and your family goes back before the Norman conquest [of 1066 ], right?
TS: All families are old, Chuck, but some of them stay in the same place. You’re from a very old family, too — it’s just that maybe your peeps moved around a bit more. My sense is that we’re all exiles, certainly those of us who end up in the circus of art. For me, this feeling of being a sort of refugee, with a few things in a handkerchief over your shoulder, which is my experience, and I imagine maybe yours too, that’s a bond. It doesn’t matter where I came from, or where you came from. We’ve both got the same spotted handkerchief and the stick, right? But there are some people who grew up in a very different way. Their parents were artists, and their grandparents were artists. There aren’t many of them, but they do exist. They’re exotic to me.
CC: Both my daughters thought at one time that they might want to be artists. And they found out very quickly that it’s not easy to be the son or daughter of a well-known artist, and they ran in the opposite direction. One is a gastroenterologist and the other is a neuroscientist.
TS: I was brought up believing that I came away from my tribe, and that I was like a changeling. Recently, I realized that there were artists in my family, but I was never told about them when I was growing up. Were there artists in your family that you’ve now discovered?
CC: No, but my mother was a trained pianist and taught music at home. And my father was an inventor, a very creative man. They were nudists. I was an only child, my mother was an only child, and my father was an only child. So there was no family. I was so learning disabled, but in the ’40s and ’50s, no one knew about dyslexia. And I had so much support to be an artist, because they felt that was a better thing to be than a doctor or a lawyer. For my fifth Christmas, my father made me an easel — he made me all my toys — and when I was eight they found private art instruction with a very academic woman in Tacoma, Wash. I was drawing nude models at age eight, so I thought, Why would I want to be anything else?
TS: How amazing, your parents. You know, over the past 18 months, myself and a friend founded a school — the Drumduan Upper School — for our children and their class, and we’re in our second year now. It’s an upper school — 15- to 19-year-olds — and it’s pretty pioneering. There’s no state testing or grading of any kind, but without that distraction and pressure, it’s really teaching these kids how to learn from head, via heart and hands: They learn everything from ethics to science to arts rigorously through systematic exercises and experiments, so it’s hands-on, craft-based, practical learning.
For example, part of how they learn physics is by building a Canadian canoe, or making a knife, or caramelizing onions. It’s a blast. I find it hard to be away from it. It’s drawing teachers and families like anything.
And they’re all chilled and engaged adolescents. Happy, and inspired.
CC: Art saved my life, because when I was in school I couldn’t memorize anything. In history, I made a 40-foot-long mural of the Lewis and Clark Trail. And in the process, I learned a lot of stuff about Lewis and Clark. And if the teacher was caring and supportive, they’d say, “Well, this mitigates your core requirements.” And that work got me through school.
TS: I’m really fascinated by the dyslexia, whether you learned through your hands or through your ears, or through your eyes? Did you need to see things as you made them in order to learn from them, or did you need to hear them?
CC: A lot of information came through my ears. I couldn’t read it. I had a sensory deprivation tank. I sat in the bathtub in a dark room with a board across the tub, and the board had a book and a bright light on it. And I read every page three times. And then I would hurl my body out of the tub at six o’clock in the morning. I was like a prune. And I went to school, and I might be able to spit back enough to pass. But it was harrowing.
TS: I’m very bad at learning things. I can’t sit and learn lines in a chair. I have to move. If it’s linked to an activity, then it goes in. But if it’s just on the page, it’s hieroglyphics.
CC: In the seventh grade, I tried out for a play. I got the part, but I couldn’t memorize the lines, and they had to take it away from me. And then I became, you know, a spear-carrier in the back. It was one of the real profound disappointments of my life.
TS: My mother died the year before last and I haven’t really wanted to make a film for a while, and last year I was persuaded by mymgreat friend Luca Guadagnino, with whom I made I Am Love. I told him I couldn’t bea part of his film, and he said, “Well, what would it have to be for you to do it?” And I said, “Well, if the character is mute.” I didn’t really want to sit and not say anything, but when my mother died, I had this strange frog in my throat. I couldn’t swallow. And it was wonderful, because I didn’t have to learn any lines for two months.
CC: That’s great.
TS: It was bliss. It was silent cinema. My favorite kind. I probably can’t pull that one more than once, though.
CC: Just a quick story about my schooling. I had a girlfriend — she was also in art, and we drew each other naked. And I could never get to first base with her, literally. This was when girls wore girdles or, like, chastity belts.
TS: But she let you draw her naked!
CC: Right, but in a car you couldn’t do everything. So we had a date and I took her home and we were sitting in front of her parents’ house, and there was something strange about the way she said goodnight and gave me a kiss and went into the house. And I was like “Huh, something weird’s going on.” The next day, I went to school, and she had run off to France with her art teacher, who was in his late 50s, I think. And she was like 16, 17. And I had been her beard, obviously.
TS: Wow, you were more than the beard. You were the fluffer. That’s like Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, when the girl runs off with the art teacher. I remember the whole world of art, and the art room for me was all about sex, somehow. And I was in a girls’ school, but I used to run off illegally to the boys’ school and hang out in the art room with this one guy in particular. We were completely platonic, but it was a very romantic relationship. It was all about the sexiness of being in the art room. I think that’s partly what art is for teenagers.
CC: Yeah, well when you’re a teenager and raging hormones are rushing through your body, any room is about sex.
“I’m very bad at learning things. I Can’t sit and learn lines in a chair. I have to move. If it’s linked to an activity, then it goes in. But if it’s just on the page, it’s hieroglyphics.”
TS: Even the lab, maybe. But it’s more tantalizing in the art room, don’t you think?
CC: Yeah. It was also that when I was in the art room. It was the only time that I felt that I had anything going for me. But I wanted to ask you something about your relative lack of makeup and —
CC: Did you know that when I did the Vanity Fair set of images with all these people [without makeup], that I really wanted you. And I didn’t want an entourage, I didn’t want stylists, everyone went on. Even Oprah Winfrey. I sort of expected her to sneak in a hairdresser. But she was fine.
TS: Maybe it’s a relief for people who are used to this kind of carapace to just let it drop. I imagine that it must be incredibly strenuous and energetically expensive to carry all of that.
CC: So, my wife’s mother made black ragdolls for Oprah. And my wife, Sienna, brought them to the studio, and she wanted a picture with Oprah holding these ragdolls. And Oprah said, “Where did these come from?” And Sienna replied, “My mother made them, because there are no black dolls at all in Alaska.” Well, this really blew her mind. She went to the bathroom, and I thought she was going to escape. And she was skipping down the hall singing, “There’s no black dolls in Alaska, no black dolls in Alaska.” It was such a sweet and tender moment.
TS: I think people generally want to connect like that. I mean, everybody can, in fact. Even if they’re led to believe they can’t. It’s like a trick of the light. They just have to wash their faces and connect.
CC: And the more successful they are, the nicer they are. It’s the borderline abusive people who feel they didn’t get enough, or something.
TS: I’m sure it has something to do with what people are told when they’re really young, that people think there’s a sort of knack. It’s like when you’re playing. My brothers and I used to play board games, and they used to really hate it when I won. And I used to hate it when I won too, so I would always try not to win, because they would make my life such hell when I won. But one of my brothers just believes that there’s a knack to these things. And there is no knack. You just have to follow your own nose, and you try to win, and if you don’t win, then you lose, and it doesn’t matter and people go home. But I do believe that some people think there’s a kind of formula and you’ve got to get it right. And people who are really relaxed tend to kind of flow down the river in a much easier way, I suppose.
CC: And it’s not like you don’t care how you look, right?
TS: Oh, there’s a fabulous story someone told me about a legendary, still living, so unnamed, film star. I hope it’s not apocryphal. For many, many, many years, nobody ever saw this woman looking anything other than her public image. There was that much cake and that many eyelashes and that much wig, and all the rest of it. And there was someone who was a close friend of hers, who was staying in a hotel with her, and they had a room with adjoining doors, and the film star said, “You will not come through this door at any point. No matter what happens, you will not come through this door. Good night. I’ll see you in the morning.” So, that was it. And there was a fire alarm in the hotel, and the friend rang the concierge and asked “Is this a test?” And the concierge was, like “No, there’s a real fire in the hotel and you’ve got to leave now.” And he didn’t know what to do, because she told him in this very fierce way, “Don’t open the door.” So finally, he knocked on the door, opened it, and there sitting at the dressing table was a kind of crone, with no eyelashes, no hair, no color, sort of wizened in front of the mirror. And he didn’t know how to address her, because he didn’t know whether to acknowledge she was The Legend. So he said, “Whoever you are, leave now!” He went downstairs, and about 20 minutes later, she arrived perfectly made up. And they never referred to it again. I love it. It was more important to her to get burned as The Legend. It was important for her to put it together, Hang on a minute… there…now, I’m happy to burn.
“Meryl took the subway everywhere. And one of my nurses was sitting opposite of her on the train. And this guy is hanging onto the strap looking at the subway map over the top of Meryl’s head. And so he asked her, ‘If I want to go here, what stop?’ And she answered him in a Polish accent.”
CC: I’ve been friends for a long time with Meryl [Streep]. And we actually lived in the same building for a while, but I had to live at a certain point in an apartment in Central Park West that was an old movie star building. And a lot of the actor parents wouldn’t go to the playground with their kid, because they thought their kids would be kidnapped. So they didn’t get a chance to see their children play. And they would get out of the limo with their collar up, sunglasses on, hat down. Of course, everyone wants to know who’s behind the shades. But Meryl would drive her pick-up truck, park it in the corner, and come in, and no one ever, ever knew who she was.
TS: Well, there’s that sort of signal that people send out. I remember once being in an airport lounge. I was really exhausted — it was an early flight — and I was sitting there reading a book and I could tell that someone had come in. It was like a kinetic energy. And I looked up, and I could tell there was a guy, his back was to me, and I could tell he wanted to be looked at. Because he was giving off this pheromone of I am somebody who needs to be looked at. And he turned round and it was A Very Famous Person. And we were in the lounge for a good hour, and during the course of the hour, he made contact with every single person in the lounge and made sure that they knew he was there. And they all had a nice time together. And I was just zoned out, so I made no contact with him at all. And you could tell that he knew that I was the one person who hadn’t made contact with him. And he was damned if he was going to let me go. And we got on the plane, and eventually we had a bit of a conversation, and he was perfectly nice, but I was quite impressed by the effort I saw him go through to spread his vibe. I thought, Wow, that must be exhausting to have to do that everywhere you go.
CC: How much energy that must take.
TS: Exactly! But that’s real work. That’s why I say being lazy is a great saving. It’s like he was wearing a massive invisible ball gown, and the train was kind of getting hitched up on people’s feet all over the place.
CC: Meryl took the subway everywhere. And one of my nurses was sitting opposite her on the train. And this guy is hanging onto the strap looking at the subway map over the top of Meryl’s head. And so he asked her, “If
I want to go here, what stop?” And she answered him in a Polish accent.
TS: Was she researching her accent for Sophie’s Choice?
CC: Yeah, that’s taking your crap home with you.
TS: That must be fun. And people, no doubt, will respect that. I mean, I’m nowhere in Meryl Streep’s fame league, but we live here [in Scotland] absolutely integrated and nobody pays any attention to us, they all know what we do and nobody gives a damn. Really what’s important is that we’re the parents of our children, and we’ve got some nice dogs, and we meet everybody on the beach, and that’s it.
CC: Elton John is a friend and I’ve photographed him and made pieces for him. And he was at my studio once, and I suggested we go out to lunch, and he said, “Oh God, I don’t want to go out there; there’s going to be paparazzi, and I’m going to be hounded.” And I said, “Oh, come on, nobody’s going to care.” So we open the door, we look left, we look right, we look all ways around. And we start down the street and he puts his jean jacket on, and spelled out in rhinestones on the back of it was “Elton.”
TS: With a big arrow and a flashing light! That’s very sweet. But I think one of the things I love is when people remember that they’re fans, too. There’s always somebody. I would like to ask Elton John who he’s a speechless fan in front of. There’ll be somebody. Probably you, Chuck.
CC: When somebody’s excited about meeting me, I find it so bizarre. It’s the same excitement I feel when I’m with a great ball player or a great actor. It’s the Other. You want to know the Other.
TS: But most people will know your work before they know you, and have a relationship with the work. And then of course, we want to meet you, but really, there are three people in this relationship.
CC: I’ve done too goddamn many self-portraits. I could be an anonymous artist if I hadn’t made all those self-portraits.
TS: So why did you start? There’s something very profound about starting to do self-portraits. I know that Sandro [Swinton’s parter] would say that the reason he started self-portraits is that he couldn’t find someone to sit for as long as he needed.
CC: Yeah, we say that.
TS: That’s what I was going to say! I wasn’t born yesterday. So that moment when you decide to place yourself in your work is a big commitment, isn’t it? You’re a performer, in that sense.
CC: And in a sense, painting is a performance art. No one sees the performance. But really, we’re dancing in front of this rectangle doing all this stuff, and to watch someone else paint is fascinating to me.
“I actually got asked by a doctor recently, he said there’s been a lot of advances in degenerative diseases, and he said, ‘If you come to me seven days a wee and are willing to work eight hours a day, I can have you walking again by the end of the year.’ And I said, ‘And give up painting? I don’t want to walk that badly.’ There are things I want to do sitting down.”
TS: Have you ever made a performance of you painting and people watching you?
CC: I became an artist largely because I wanted to be in a room by myself. And now that room is very crowded by nurses and assistants, so I’m oblivious to the fact that the whole room is full of people when I paint. But my ex-wife said that I was the most narcissistic artist in the world, because I made so many self-portraits. I said “What about Cindy Sherman, for Christ’s sake? She only does self-portraits.” She was like, “Yeah, but it doesn’t look the same.”
TS: You have a lot of competition for that title, I have to say. But is there some quantifiable way in which you feel differently about that experience of showing a self-portrait to showing a portrait of Sienna, for example?
CC: I always put one self-portrait in every exhibition, but I had a self-portrait retrospective in San Francisco, and I rolled in there and I wanted to throw up. Just me everywhere. It was unrelenting.
TS: Well then, welcome to my world. That’s how I feel, especially if there’s any kind of retrospective. It’s a very humbling and vomit-inducing experience.
CC: Well, what’s your relationship with your work in terms of how much you see it?
TS: If you mean the actual physical artifact of a film or a piece of writing, my relationship is relatively casual. Because I’ve come to realize that my real interest is in the making. In terms of filmmaking, for example, I’m really interested in the conversation with the filmmakers. The films are secondary for me.
CC: All right, you’re in a city, somewhere else, and you’re in a different time zone and you’re really exhausted and you get into bed and you can’t fall asleep. And you turn on the TV, and it’s one of your movies. Do you change the channel, or do you watch it?
TS: You know, I’d probably watch it out of curiosity, because I don’t often see my work.
CC: When I go to a retrospective of my work, it’s like a family reunion. They’re all my friends and fellow artists.
TS: I can watch a film, even after ten or 15 years, and remember exactly what we were doing the day we shot that take, like my shoes were too small. Or someone had just died.
CC: What bothers me is when I haven’t seen a painting in a long time and I roll up to it and I can’t remember ever having painted that thing. I look at a piece and I say, “Why in the world would I have done that?” And that’s kind of scary.
TS: Wow, but is that a recent thing?
CS: Well, they tell me I’ve had Alzheimer’s already for ten years.
TS: When that happens, can you imagine for a second that someone else painted it? Can you assess it objectively?
CS: Oh yeah. Picasso apparently once denied having made a work of art with, “Even Picasso makes fake Picassos.”
TS: It’s a strange company, isn’t it? Because the work is like family — you feel unconditional about it, really. You can’t judge it. It’s just your life, really.
CC: You shove these pieces out into the world the way a bird just pushes the little bird out. I want them to go out into the world; I don’t want all my babies. I can’t afford all of them. But I want them out there! It stands for me. It stands for that frozen moment of time that that performance happened. Underneath it all, artists, painters, whatever, are very generous people. We’re not trying to hide anything; we’re putting stuff out there for people to have a relationship with it. And you have to put aside all kinds of ego issues. I’ve had a shrink tell me that I make a mask and I hide behind it. And I reject that idea.
TS: I’d be very intrigued to ask that shrink who they’ve ever encountered who doesn’t.
Isn’t that what being a social animal is to a certain extent?
CC: Well, I was auditioning a new shrink, and the first thing he did was psychoanalyze me through my paintings. I thought, “I’m not coming here to talk about my paintings.”
TS: I always find it intriguing that there’s a misunderstanding about what’s called the vanity of artists, because it so obviously is the opposite. Artists who put their work out there have to put their head above the parapet constantly, and that’s potentially a very humiliating thing. And the truly vain would keep quiet and safe and make some money in some quite secure and neat way. But those of us who aren’t so neat keep thrusting our heads up. There’s no safety in it.
CC: It’s really interesting how you can be contrarian, questioning authority and any belief system.
TS: I’m not sure it’s ever been about feeling particularly contrarian or anti-anything. The earliest memory I have of feeling distinct from my group, my family, was when I was about four. I remember very clearly sitting upstairs in the church, at our family pew, and the children I’d been playing with the day before being downstairs, and I asked why we were upstairs, and why they were downstairs, and the thing that was significant to me was not just that I didn’t get a good answer, but that my brothers, who continue to be very nice and humane people, didn’t ask this question. So for me, it was a matter of trying to find other people who would ask that kind of question. I just wanted to find some company. And I really found good company when I first met [filmmaker] Derek Jarman, and I started making films with him. He, and the people I met with him, were exactly the kind of people who, if they were with me in the loft of the church, would’ve been right with me.
CC: I grew up in the Eisenhower ’50s, but at the same time, the civil rights movement was beginning. I went to every peace march and it really felt like we were part of an army — an army that was outgunned. But you could make a good fight out of it.
TS: But I felt that also. In the ’80s, when I was in London, and we were marching against Margaret Thatcher and all the oppressive laws that regime was imposing, particularly against civil liberties and gay rights. That feeling of resistance is very intoxicating. So in that sense, yes, it did feel like one was aligned with something counter. But aligned was the important bit; it was to do with actually being in good company. I love that feeling of camaraderie. Do you know the work of Derek Jarman? He was an amazing person. When he was diagnosed in 1989 with HIV, he became a political activist in a way that there was no model for then, or in fact now, in some ways.
CC: I went in the other direction. When I became a quadriplegic in ’88, I thought, Well, I can become a professional handicapped person and work for the handicapped, or I can move on and do what I want to do. Same with Alzheimer’s.
TS: Good choice, by the way.
CC: I actually got asked by a doctor recently, he said there’s been a lot of advances in degenerative diseases, and he said, “If you come to me seven days a week and are willing to work eight hours a day, I can have you walking again by the end of the year.” And I said, “And give up painting? I don’t want to walk that badly.” There are things I want to do sitting down.
TS: I have a dear friend, Jean Carper, who is making a documentary about Alzheimer’s — she’s 83 and plays a mean game of tennis. I put her in touch with the brilliant Scott Small, who is working on Alzheimer’s at Columbia University, and he’s working on the value of forgetting, a subject I relish. You have to throw some things in the trash, or there’s not going to be room for the exciting stuff ahead.
CC: I think it’s making it easier for me to be an Alzheimer’s patient, because my whole life I couldn’t remember stuff. Luckily you don’t have to be very smart to be a painter. I visited de Kooning at the end of his life. He had no idea where he was, who anybody was, and he was making transcendent paintings.
Artwork by Sandro Kopp, whose NYC show at Five 11 Gallery opens in November 2015.