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The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close

A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit Chuck Close at his beach house on Long Island. The drive there always reminds me of an escape to the Hamptons in reverse. From the aristocratic brownstones of Park Slope, you work your way steadily down the socioeconomic ladder, past the towering Soviet-­style apartment complexes of Coney Island, through strips of pawn shops and gimcrack hotels that give way to rowhouses fronted with plaster statuary, until at last the journey comes to an end at the sun-­beaten waterfront of Long Beach, a haven for cops and firefighters looking to blow off summer steam, where you pay for access to the sand amid a throng of rented umbrellas and creatine-­engorged pectorals, all of which vanish at sundown into a surfeit of bwomp-­bwomping nightclubs along the strip.

If all this sounds like an odd place to find one of the world’s most celebrated painters, a master of the modern portrait whose work is displayed in the great museums, all I can tell you is that pretty much every close friend and relative of Close’s feels the same way. After 30 years of splitting his time between the tony enclaves of Manhattan and Bridgehampton, he has recently set about leaving much of his old life behind: filing for divorce from his wife, Leslie, after 43 years of marriage, disappearing for the winter to live virtually alone in a new apartment on Miami Beach and retreating from his summer friends to the crowded isolation of Long Beach. Even when Close ventures into the city for a gallery opening these days, he will often turn up in some outlandish costume, in fabrics printed with giant starfish and sunflowers, with lipstick smeared across his face and billowing, extravagant scarves...

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