NYU researcher unveils the scientist in painter Chuck Close

NYU Vision Scientist Denis Pelli Says Close's Paintings Refute Long-Standing Assumptions About How Shape Is Perceived

Pelli's Findings Are Published in the August 6th Issue of Science

The work of painter Chuck Close is well known. For 25 years, he has created gigantic "block portraits." Up close, his paintings appear to be orderly arrays of painted squares. But as the viewer backs away from the canvas, a human face emerges. The common explanation for this visual effect is that the edges of the individual blocks blur together as the viewer backs away.

But an article by NYU vision scientist Denis Pelli in the August 6th issue of Science challenges this explanation. According to Pelli, the transition from grid to face occurs at relatively short distances from the canvas (typically less than six meters). At these distances, the individual blocks are still in sharp focus for a person with normal vision. Something else is driving the effect.

According to Pelli, the dramatic effect of viewing distance on the appearance of Close's paintings shows that perception of shape depends on visual size. This finding, which Pelli credits to Close, refutes the age-old assumption that shape is seen the same way at all sizes.

Pelli's data were collected at the Chuck Close Retrospective, when it was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the spring of 1998. (The retrospective is now at the Hayward Gallery in London, July 22 to September 19.) Pelli's main experiment used just a tape measure.

He notes that "It is commonly assumed that scientific research today can only be done in laboratories with complex equipment. But the essence of science is careful observation of the world around us. And in this sense, the best science and the best art share a common methodology."

Each of 5 observers was asked to do a "nose test" on 33 Close paintings to measure the transition from grid to face. While looking at a given

Contact: Josh Plaut
New York University

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