In late December 2017, allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against Chuck Close, one of the world’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. Four women, speaking with the Huffington Post and the New York Times, claimed that Close invited them to his studio and unexpectedly asked them to model nude for him, using explicit language in the process. The women said the encounters left them feeling uncomfortable, manipulated, and exploited.
In the wake of those news reports, four more women have now come forward to describe their encounters with Close. Their stories bear striking similarities to the accounts published thus far, but also include new details: One woman says Close touched her and asked her to “play with” herself; two women connected with Close through internships at art organizations with which he has long-standing professional relationships. The earliest account here dates to 2001, the earliest one reported yet.
After the initial revelations, Close acknowledged that he invited women “to audition” for his photographs. In a statement to Hyperallergic, he commented:
“I have been photographing and painting both portraits and nudes since 1967, and posing for me is completely voluntary. During the past 50 years I have created hundreds of nude photographs of men and women, and have met with many more who had decided not to pose for me. I have never received any complaints prior to reading about them in recent news reports. Having learned that I made these women upset and feel uncomfortable, I do apologize, without qualification.
“My extensive work in nude portraiture is part of a long tradition in the history of art,” Close added. “I have talked with the people who have posed about all kinds of things, including their bodies — both women and men, young and old, healthy and infirm. That’s all part of the process.
“As I have stated before, I vigorously support the fight against sexual misconduct and harassment, and the greater impact it will have on changing the culture.”
Close has said that the auditions were conducted for “artistic reasons,” in the words of the New York Times. But the accounts given to Hyperallergic suggest a pattern of him taking advantage of women in their 20s and 30s who expressed admiration for his work. None of the women felt physically threatened by Close — the artist suffered an arterial collapse in 1988 and is largely paralyzed from the neck down. All, however, described being overcome by his prestige, which they said made them feel pressured to expose themselves for reasons they struggled to justify. Together, the stories illustrate how an artist’s status can hold so much weight that others feel trapped by it.
None of these women are aware of each other’s experiences, and nearly all were stunned to realize how strongly the accounts published in the news resonated with their own stories.
* * *
Carla Rodriguez said she met Close when she was an intern at the 20×24 Studio, where the artist is a longtime client who works with the rare, large-format Polaroid camera. It was the fall of 2009, and, as a college junior interested in old photographic processes, Rodriguez was particularly excited to meet Close, who’s known for his daguerreotype portraits. She had admired him since she studied his work in high school.
While assisting on one of his shoots, Rodriguez asked Close if she could watch him make a daguerreotype. She and another intern, a young woman, were supposed to drop prints off at his studio on Bond Street the next day, and Close told her he would have some examples out for them to see. (The other intern was not available for comment.) When they arrived, his workplace was bustling with assistants, Rodriguez said, and Close showed them a series of daguerreotypes of nude bodies. She remembered him pointing out an image of Kate Moss and asking the interns if they’d be interested in modeling for a similar portrait. He told them they would have to audition first.
“That made sense to me,” Rodriguez told Hyperallergic. “I knew the process was expensive. I understood that if he has a lot of the same body type, the whole set is not going to be super interesting.” Both she and the other intern agreed.
When the pair returned the next evening, the atmosphere in the studio was starkly different. The place was empty and dark, save for a spotlight near Close’s painting rig. Close asked them if they would undress in the spotlight, Rodriguez said; the pair requested to use the bathroom instead.
“Having been a figure model, I’m used to being able to undress privately. It’s mostly inappropriate to take your clothes off in the middle of the classroom,” Rodriguez said. She remembered awkwardly shuffling across Close’s studio from the bathroom to the spotlight, with only her hands to cover herself.
She was the first to model. Close, sitting in his wheelchair about three feet away, asked her to strike an array of poses, she said.
“When he’s looking at me in the front, he’s looking at my genitals,” Rodriguez recalled. “And he said, ‘Is that how you keep your pussy?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh! I guess? Sure?’ I think he could see I was bothered by the language he used.” Rodriguez claimed that Close then asked her to turn around, and she felt him move closer.
“He touched me on my lower back with the tips of his fingers, and said, ‘Oh, I really like this,’” she continued. “I was not expecting that, so I flinched, and he backed off and said he was all done.”
The other intern went next, but Rodriguez said Close did not touch her or make inappropriate comments. After they had gotten dressed, in the bathroom, Close showed them another photographic series, this time more closely cropped images of genitals. When they came across a picture of an uncircumcised penis, Close turned to Rodriguez and asked if she had ever “experienced” one, Rodriguez said.
“He asked me about my boyfriend and if his dick was circumcised,” she said, adding that Close then told her, “Well, I’m uncircumcised. You should really experience that at some point in your life.” Feeling uncomfortable, she remembered laughing it off.
Close then asked if the interns would be interested in modeling for the series he’d just shown them. If so, he would “have to see it again,” Rodriguez claimed Close said at the time. She thought the request was strange but agreed, thinking, “It’s Chuck Close. I was trying to make excuses for his behavior.” Away from the lighting rig, at his desk, she pulled down her pants once more. Close had her sit down on a chair and spread her legs apart, she said.
“At this point, I’m really uncomfortable,” Rodriguez said. “He’s like, ‘Show me,’ and I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘Play with yourself.’ I jumped up, pulled my pants up, and said, ‘I’m uncomfortable.’”
According to Rodriguez, Close then told the interns he would pay them at his apartment. They followed, and he gave them each a $100 bill. Rodriguez said he never followed up with an offer to photograph her. The experience, she said, left her feeling vulnerable, like Close had taken advantage of her admiration for him.
“I assumed I would be modeling nude, since the daguerreotypes were nude,” Rodriguez said. “That wasn’t a surprise to me. His behavior was a surprise to me.”
Rodriguez told her former boss at 20×24, Jen Trausch, about the incident but chose not to report it to anyone else at the studio for fear of repercussions; Trausch confirmed the account in a separate interview. Rodriguez went on to tell the story many times to friends, including the artist Emilia Olsen, who also independently confirmed it to Hyperallergic. It wasn’t until last December, however, when she read the Huffington Post article, that Rodriguez realized her experience was not just common, but almost identical to the published accounts.
* * *
The painter Sara Vanderbeek also realized her encounter with Close wasn’t unique only after a friend sent her a news story, in her case the Times article. Reading it, she felt “creeped out” and triggered, she said. She met Close in August 2001, just before her junior year of college. She had recently completed a summer internship at Pace Prints, a longtime publisher of Close’s work.
At the internship, Vanderbeek had worked on an etching by Close but had never gotten a chance to meet the artist, whom she called “my idol.” So she decided to take initiative. Vanderbeek found Close’s phone number in Pace’s Rolodex and called, asking if they could meet. Close asked her to come by his studio that afternoon, she said. Upon her arrival, he sent his assistant home, Vanderbeek recalled, leaving the two alone. Close showed her daguerreotypes of celebrities — among them Kate Moss and Brad Pitt — as well as a series of images of anonymous nude bodies. He then asked if Vanderbeek would ever want to model for him, and she said yes. According to Vanderbeek, Close told her she would have to audition first, a process for which he would pay her $100.
“I said, ‘Awesome, let’s set up the audition. Let me get my planner,’” Vanderbeek recalled. “He said, ‘No, we do it right now.’” Although caught off guard, Vanderbeek agreed, saying she was “still in this dream-haze-land of getting to meet one of my heroes.”
She recalled Close being three feet from her as she fully undressed. “It was extremely uncomfortable,” she said, “but I was like, deal with it; this is art.”
She stood — first facing him, then with her back turned to him — for what felt like five minutes. Then Close told her to dress, she said, and went to fetch a box, in which she saw a large stack of $100 bills. Handing her one, Close told her he wanted to use her as a model and that she should call in a couple of weeks to set up the official session for the daguerreotype. She remembered him emphasizing how expensive the process was.
Shortly after, the September 11 terrorist attacks shook New York City. Vanderbeek decided to wait until December to call the studio, at which point Close told her he was too busy to photograph her, she said. She called twice more, but her portrait was never taken.
The incident upset Vanderbeek, and she told her boyfriend at the time, Max Porter, about it. Porter confirmed details to Hyperallergic in a separate interview.
“I felt ashamed and embarrassed about it,” Vanderbeek said. “It made me feel like my body wasn’t good enough — like I didn’t have the right body.”
* * *
Like the other women, the artist and educator Caitlin Reller had studied Close’s work in school. She admired his portraits, and, in 2009, unexpectedly got an opportunity to meet him. Reller was 24 and working as a waitress at the Cooper Square Hotel, now known as the Standard, East Village. When Close attended a party at the hotel, Reller served him a drink and told him it was an “honor” to do so. She said Close approached her later and asked if she would be willing to model for him.
“The only work I knew he made was these big faces,” Reller said. “I was excited and honored and thought, wow, he wanted to paint a big portrait of my face.” They set up a meeting, and a few days later, she went to his studio. This time, it was Close who offered her a drink, which she declined, she said. He then sent his assistant home, and the two were left alone. According to Reller, Close gave her a tour, during which he showed her a book of his daguerreotypes. He pointed out a nude photograph of Kate Moss and said he wanted to work with Reller to create a similar image.
She remembered hesitating and wanting more time to think about the offer, but claims Close was persistent, saying, “You’re an artist. You know how the artistic process works. Just go with it; don’t think about it.”
Like Rodriguez and Vanderbeek, Reller tried to justify the request to herself. “The whole time I’m in my own head, thinking, Just do it; it’s Chuck Close,” she said. Then, she claims, he started to get more aggressive and “come on to me. He said things like, ‘I need to see your naked body right now,’ and ‘Do you shave your pussy? Can I see your pussy?’”
Reller asked him what the photograph would be used for, and Close responded that it was for a series of “mugshots of cocks and pussies,” she said. His answer “wasn’t good enough” for her, she remembered, so she refused the request and left. Close did not pay her, although he had initially offered $250 if she sat for a Polaroid portrait, she explained.
Afterwards, Reller recounted the incident to her friend John Lark, who worked with her at the hotel as a bartender. Lark confirmed the story to Hyperallergic in a separate interview, saying that Reller seemed upset by the incident.
Reller has cast her own body before and has also assisted another artist in creating casts of nude models. “I knew the experience those nude models got,” she said. “They knew when they arrived that they were going to model nude. With Chuck Close, it was never even disclosed until it was he and I alone in the studio.”
* * *
Reller’s account echoes that of another woman, an artist who spoke to Hyperallergic on condition of anonymity. In 2013, when she was in her late 20s, she met Close at an art opening. The two exchanged contact information to arrange a studio visit. Their email correspondence, shared with Hyperallergic, shows that Close specifically invited the woman to pose for a project that required full frontal nudity. When she expressed discomfort at the prospect, he told her there was no pressure to participate.
She arrived at his studio the next day. They were alone, and he offered her a drink, which she declined. He began showing her his artwork, until the conversation took an unexpected turn: Close started talking about his past sexual experiences, then he asked if he could photograph her nude. The woman said he mentioned an audition process. “He said it would mean he would have to see me naked right now,” she claimed.
Feeling uneasy about the situation, she declined. She said Close continued to ask her to undress, and although his tone was casual and calm, he was persistent. According to the woman, he kept reminding her that he would pay her immediately if she complied, and that it would be easy money. She claimed Close asked her to show him her breasts.
“He was like, ‘No one has ever said no to me before,’” she said. “I started to feel uncomfortable about that.”
The woman said she stood her ground because his request “didn’t sit right with me.” Eventually, he got the message, and she left. Afterward, she described the incident to a longtime friend and collaborator, who wanted to remain anonymous but confirmed details of her account to Hyperallergic in a separate interview.
“I felt caught off guard,” the woman recalled. “It felt like I had a mind game played on me. I thought, Am I making this up? Should I not feel uncomfortable, because this is Chuck Close, a very historicized artist?”
* * *
Close has photographed nude bodies for decades. His work in this vein, collected and shown at Pace Gallery in 2014, includes daguerreotypes and Polaroids of both celebrities and anonymous individuals. Some images depict the full human body, while others focus on bare chests or offer unflinching shots of genitals. Janie Samuels, who worked as a studio manager for Close between 1999 and 2006, said he often created diptychs comprised of one male and one female nude.
“During that time I never once saw Chuck act inappropriately or in a nonprofessional manner,” Samuels told Hyperallergic. “Chuck handled his staff — both men and women — and his peers with the utmost respect and consideration without exception.” Samuels said she does not know any of the women who have come forward so far, but that Close did bring models into the studio for “interviews.” These were conducted privately, “out of respect for the models,” she said, although studio employees were around. She acknowledged that Close could have had people in the studio when the staff wasn’t there.
The eight women who’ve come forward so far never had their portraits taken by Close. Some, like Rodriguez, didn’t contact Close again after visiting him. Reller emailed him a few days after the incident to apologize for wasting his time; now, she looks back on their meeting with anger.
“People can have power over another person physically, but there is also a power that is asserted within professional dynamics and relationships,” Reller said. “There’s this unspoken pressure because he’s a powerful, famous artist.”
Vanderbeek did see Close again, 11 years later, on her own terms. She was working on a series of portraits of artists whose work she admired, and Close came to mind. She thought, “I’ll ask him if he will model for me, but I’ll let him leave his clothes on.” When she visited his studio, she asked if he remembered her. According to her, Close — who has prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness — said, “I’d remember you if you took your clothes off.”
Vanderbeek said something about that comment helped her better understand their encounter more than a decade prior. Still, she remained under the impression that they had an artistic camaraderie, and went on to photograph Close and create two paintings and an etching of him. It wasn’t until she read the Times article that she “pieced together that his whole act and request was a charade,” she said. “I realized it was an abuse of power, and he doesn’t give a fuck about me.” The recent revelation that she’s not alone has left her feeling even more aware of how naive she had been.
“He didn’t treat us with respect,” Vanderbeek said. “He treated us as a predator, like we were objects, in the name of ‘art.’”
* * *
Hyperallergic is committed to reporting on sexual harassment in the art world. If you have a story about personal or institutional abuse in our field, please write to Claire Voon at [email protected]