What is Real: Chuck Close and Kazimir Malevich


Chuck Close, Self Portrait (detail of right eye), 2000, via Don Relyea

In Lethe Bashar’s “Why is Photorealism Hugely Popular?” he writes that, “the popularity of reality TV shows, the ascendancy of the memoir, and sampling in hip hop show our lust for reality-based art.”

And I agree about this current fascination our culture has developed for the “real.” James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, for example, wouldn’t have been so controversial if something more were not at stake than one man telling falsehoods about his own life-story. The very fact that this became an issue indicates we have a need, and a preoccupation, surrounding it. Call it truth. Call it reality.

Lethe points to the popularity of photorealism as a manifestation of the hunger for the real. This kind of art, he says, provides the most potent illusion of reality.

Let’s compare two paintings. A painting like this

Kazimir Malevich, Black Circle, 1915

is no less real than a painting like this:

Chuck Close, Frank, 1969

In fact one could even argue that the Malevich is more real than the Close, because there’s no illusion involved. What you see is what you get: a black circle on a blank background. Modern painters have worked hard to achieve this reality, applying to the picture plane such standards as a non-illusionistic, edge-to-edge physical presence. A painting like Close’s, on the other hand, isn’t real in the same sense, but creates the illusion of reality. I would argue that, far from desiring the “reality” suggested by a painting like this, viewers desire the illusion. And they have for a long time.

Lethe’s question addresses the public-at-large, the popular. Why is such a thing popular? I would argue that photorealism is popular because the general public has for a very long time had a love affair with trompe l’oeil painting. The term itself is an admission of deception. It is a deception that people love; they love to be fooled this way.

And just as the general public loves to play along with the deceptions of photorealism (which most people, I would bet, are well aware of), it has always resisted deviations from the linear narrative and depictions of ostensible reality. Modern artists—both visual and literary—have learned repeatedly and sometimes bitterly that the general public will only go so far in explorations of the nonlinear and the abstract. The French writer Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), a great admirer of Jules Verne, fell into a profound depression from which he never recovered when the public declined to follow him on his adventures into form.

He truly believed that his abstract works would be celebrated on a par with Verne’s narrative ones. True, he has his champions now. One of the biggest is the poet John Ashbery. Ashbery is lauded from coast to coast, yet he remains controversial. He’s the poster-boy for the nonlinear and non-narrative in poetry, and many denounce his work as nonsense.

The public reception of David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive is also instructive. I recall the reviews and reactions upon its release as, in a word, bafflement. The general consensus was that, despite the visual beauty and palpable suspense in the movie, the whole did not make any sense. But a little bit of mental effort is required to see that the story makes perfect sense and is powerfully told. The problem was two-fold: the story was emphatically nonlinear and Lynch confounded the audience by juxtaposing two modes of perception which we might crudely name poetic and literal. Betty’s dream life is presented to us as if it were the literal truth.

In the visual arts, viz. painting and sculpture, Isamu Noguchi gradually resigned to the fact—as did many artists of the twentieth century—that there would be no revolution in perception through abstract representation. He believed that abstraction was an ideal way to explore all sorts of relationships, within the individual and between the individual and society. He was right. His work is irrefutable proof of it. But the general public in modern industrial societies has never embraced abstract language anywhere near to the extent that Noguchi hoped it would.

And yet this is odd, because so much of our lives involve abstract thinking and geometric pattern building. Going back to the most ancient sources of art, you will find geometric figures and patterns alongside figurative representations. So remarkable is this fact that one might be justified in speaking of a renaissance larger in scope than the Renaissance proper. This wider arching renaissance began with the era of High Modernism, when artists turned once again to a full embrace of formal art, and away from the illusions of ostensible reality. Among the brightest inspirations for artists such as Picasso were the so-called “primitive” artists who were practicing traditions far older than the classical arts in industrial societies. Thanks to people like the late Claude Lévi-Strauss, we know that the artists who inspired Picasso were every bit as intelligent and complex as the clever folks of Europe and North America.

Why then does the public love to have its eye fooled? Is it because of a desire for reality, or an escape from it? I like Malevich and Close. I deliberately chose two pictures I’m very fond of (I’ve not seen either one in the flesh, but I can imagine the Malevich and I’ve seen Close paintings from that period). But in terms of reality, the real world, the unadorned truth (or as close as I can get to it), Chuck Close doesn’t do it for me.

Lethe uses the word “mesmerize” and compares the fascination for photorealism to the desire for a drug. I can say this with certainty: the drug doesn’t work for me. Chuck Close’s Frank is like a triple shot of espresso for its iconic power and “wow” factor, but Malevich’s black circle on a plain background has far more reality. It’s closer to the elemental things: a stone, the ground under my feet, the sky overhead. I’m at peace with it. It’s a calm and sober reality, like a glass of water.

escape biopicMark Kerstetter is the former poetry editor of Escape into Life. Along with poetry, he writes fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on  The Bricoleur.




  • “It is what it is and it ain't what it ain't because if it is what it ain't, it ain't what it is.”
    ~Uncle Remus to Bre'r Rabbit

  • I couldn't have said it any better.

  • Shannonbillick

    good paintings

  • mark – this is amazing – loved the article

  • Kat Del Rio

    Ah this takes me back to OU and Art Philosophy/Criticism. Ugh. The hours of lost life! Lol.

    Maybe we are drawn to the illusion of reality because…for so many people…it’s lies that make us real…

  • “it’s lies that make us real” Kat, that’s a very provocative statement; I’ll certainly remember it!