Erie Art Museum shows ‘biggest’ work in landmark dealSeptember 12, 2019 | In the Press
Museum got “Paul,” a portrait by celebrated American artist Chuck Close, through a grant program with Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The newly hung painting on display at the Erie Art Museum is big in more ways than one.
“Paul,” a 1994 portrait by renowned American artists Chuck Close, is large. At 8 feet 6 inches by 7 feet, it fills a wall of the museum like no other work shown in the history of the 121-year-old institution.
“Paul,” which went up on Wednesday and is open for public viewing on Thursday, also has enormous standing in the American art world.
Erie Art Museum Executive Director Josh Helmer said he considers it one of Close’s masterpieces, created when the 79-year-old artist was at his peak exploring techniques for producing his trademark photorealist portraits of his close friends.
And though Helmer declined, for security reasons, to disclose the value of “Paul,” it is believed to be worth tens of millions of dollars, based on known prices for other Close paintings that have sold at auction. “Paul” is most likely worth more than all the pieces Erie Art Museum’s entire collection combined.
“This is huge,” Helmer said on Wednesday as he watched a crew uncrate and install “Paul.” “This is the biggest piece of art that we’ve had in Erie in scope and value.”
The Erie Art Museum will display “Paul” for six months as part of a new grant program with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns the painting, and other institutions nationwide. The program, a project of the Arkansas-based Art Bridges and the Chicago-based Terra Foundation, is providing the funds to loan major works from large art museums to nine Pennsylvania regional art museums, including the Erie Art Museum.
A week ago, the Erie Art Museum started displaying another loaned work through the collection-sharing program: “Untitled” (L.A.), a 1991 installation by the late Cuban-born America artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The AIDS-influenced work is made up solely of individually-wrapped pieces of candy and is worth $7.7 million. Its owner is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is in Arkansas and whose founder is Alice Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune.
“Untitled” (L.A.) will be at the Erie Art Museum for a year, and Helmer said it has already drawn a number of visitors and raised the museum’s profile on social media. Helmer expects “Paul” to create even more of an impact, largely because of Close’s reputation and how Close created the painting.
It is composed of pixel-like shapes that look like lines and blotches of color up close. But from a distance, the shapes combine to resemble the face of Close’s friend Paul Cadmus, an American artist who died in 1999.
Close derived the oil painting from a Polaroid photograph that he “charted with a grid pattern and transposed, unit by unit, onto a large canvas,” according to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s description. “In creating a complex map of the face, the regularity of the grid becomes a vehicle for sumptuous, inventive painting that subtly balances representation with abstraction.”
Helmer, 31, knows “Paul” well. He was assistant director for interpretation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before he was named executive director of the Erie Art Museum in the spring of 2018.
Helmer said he has long admired Close for his technical skill and his unique vision. On Wednesday, Helmer marveled at how the shapes and colors of “Paul” combined to create a lifelike portrait. Smiling, he studied “Paul” from a distance and then walked up to it.
“You see a face,” Helmer said, “but then you look closer.”
The Erie Art Museum is displaying “Paul” as a companion piece to a Close work that it owns: “Untitled,” a 1993 self-portrait woven on a tapestry. “Untitled” looks like a photograph, much like “Paul” and Close’s other works.
Helmer said having the Close tapestry contributed to the Erie Art Museum selecting “Paul” from the loaned works available through the grant program. But mostly, he said, “Paul” stood out on its own.
“We picked it because it really creates an ‘aha’ moment,” Helmer said.
The Erie Art Museum wants students to get to experience those types of moments. Through the grant program, it received $20,000 — $10,000 each for “Paul” and “Untitled” (L.A.) — to hold tours for students to see the works and the Art Museum’s other offerings.
The Erie Art Museum will work with the Erie School District and other school districts and schools to arrange the tours, said Carissa Brandt, the museum’s director of education.
“I’m excited,” she said. “This has been a good time to be at the Art Museum.”
Helmer said the exposure will continue. “Paul” and “Untitled” (L.A.), he said, are just the first of many major artworks that the Erie Art Museum will select and display through 2021 as part of the collection-sharing grant program.
“This is the first step in playing in a much bigger art world,” Helmer said.