Artist’s Choice

Chuck Close, Head-On/The Modern Portrait

Jan 10–Mar 19, 1991


Installation view of Artist’s Choice: Chuck Close, Head-On/The Modern Portrait at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Mali Olatunji

Conceived and installed by the American artist Chuck Close, Artist’s Choice: Chuck Close, Head-On/The Modern Portrait explores the various ways artists build portrait images and emphasizes the Museum’s role as a repository of visual information. In this highly unconventional exhibition, Close has chosen approximately 170 portraits, in various mediums, from the Museum’s collection and has arranged them in an extremely dense installation. This is the third in the Museum’s Artist’s Choice series, in which contemporary artists are invited to organize small shows based upon the Museum’s collection.

Covering virtually the entire wall space of one gallery on the Museum’s third floor, the exhibition incorporates works by modern masters alongside those of lesser-known artists. On one wall, paintings are mounted salon-style from floor to ceiling; on the surrounding walls, prints, photographs, and drawings are closely arranged on stacked shelves, one work overlapping the next. Eight portrait busts are also displayed in the installation, their varying scales adjusted by aligning the eye level of each figure.

The construction of the exhibition, in which the artist has built a complex field from a select repertoire of units, mirrors the process Close follows in making up his own art. By juxtaposing so many similar head-and-shoulder images, the installation also encourages the viewer to see what the artist calls the “syntax,” those systems of abstract marks or compositional strategies from which different portrait likenesses are made.

Additionally, by cutting across boundaries of medium, size, and so-called value, the exhibition alters the usual presentation of the Museum’s collection. As Mr. Varnedoe writes in the brochure accompanying the exhibition, “By abandoning the normal conventions of selective, well-spaced hanging, by which museums focus special attention on particular works, this show frees—and challenges—viewers to form their own hierarchies of choice and patterns of attention.”

Mr. Close states, “Certainly I tried to pick compelling, important images…portraits of people who were significant for the artist—either the artist himself or herself, family members, friends, or other artists. I tried to find what would have been for the artist an important image, as the subjects of my pictures are for me. But by slamming images together in juxtapositions the way I have, I tried to set up a situation which makes it more likely that viewers will also look at how the particular choices the artist made influence our experience of the subject.”

A video is being produced in conjunction with the exhibition and will be shown in the Museum’s Edward John Noble Education Center.

Organized in collaboration with Kirk Varnedoe, director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture.

  • This exhibition is part of Artist’s Choice.
  • The Artist’s Choice series is made possible by a generous grant from The Charles A. Dana Foundation.


    • Chuck Close : head-on/the modern portrait : the Museum of Modern Art, New York, January 10-March 19, 1991 Out of print, 12 pages
    • Press release 5 pages


    Installation images

    How we identified these works

    In 2018–19, MoMA collaborated with Google Arts & Culture Lab on a project using machine learning to identify artworks in installation photos. That project has concluded, and works are now being identified by MoMA staff.

    If you notice an error, please contact us at [email protected].


    If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

    MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit

    If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].


    This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].