Museums and a Performance Artist Grapple With Chuck Close’s Work

Posted February 1, 2018 5:22 p.m. EST

As the debate rages about what should be done with work by artists accused of improper behavior, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia is taking what might be considered a middle position on Chuck Close, the artist accused of sexual harassment by several women. Instead of closing its exhibition of career-spanning photographs by Close, the museum announced this week that it would leave the show up — but would add a nearby gallery examining power imbalances between genders.

This comes as several top institutions are grappling with how to handle Close’s work. On Tuesday, artist Emma Sulkowicz turned her attention to Close (and Pablo Picasso) by staging protest performances at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, seeking to put pressure on their directors. Seattle University removed a self-portrait by Close valued at about $35,000 from its Lemieux Library, a move first reported by the alternative weekly The Stranger. And the National Gallery of Art last week postponed a solo exhibition by Close that was supposed to open in May.

Officials at Pennsylvania Academy, which is also a school, said they immediately started discussing what to do with Close’s exhibition after HuffPost and The New York Times published stories in December detailing accusations that Close made unwelcome comments to several women that he was considering as models and pushed them to pose naked. Close has called the allegations “lies.”

The traveling exhibition, which opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in October and was organized by the Parrish Art Museum in New York, features 90 photographs taken by Close dating to 1965. It is set to close April 8. At a community forum with senior executives, board members, faculty, students and others on Jan. 17, a consensus was reached, museum officials said: Create a new gallery.

“My team and I wanted to be future focused,” said Brooke Davis Anderson, director of the museum. “We are deeply entrenched in this time of hearing stories about power and gender and abuse of power against genders.”

Sulkowicz gained national attention when she dragged a 50-pound mattress around Columbia University’s campus for a year to protest how the school had handled her charge of rape against a fellow student. On Tuesday, dressed only in underwear and self-applied asterisks, Sulkowicz went to the Met Museum with her friend, photographer Sangsuk Sylvia Kang, and stood in front of one of Close’s paintings.

They also went to a subway station displaying murals by Close and to MoMA, where Sulkowicz posed in front of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Picasso, a known abuser of women.

“I just wished I could say to each of the museum directors: ‘If it had been your daughter who had been affected by Chuck Close and Picasso, how could you look her in the eye and say, Sorry, we’re keeping the painting and the painting matters more than my relationship to you,'” Sulkowicz said. “In saying that, they are privileging a stupid painting over the experiences of survivors, and that to me is really abhorrent.”

At the Met, Sulkowicz said two guards summoned a security supervisor, but that she and her friend left before any supervisor approached. The Met declined to comment.

MoMA said in a statement, “We respect the rights of individuals to speak out on issues they feel strongly about, and recognize that museums are important centers of debate and conversation.”