When Chuck Close Met Barack Obama

Chuck Close with “Obama I” and “Obama II” (both 2012). The Jacquard tapestries, published by Magnolia Editions, will be sold at a fundraiser at Lever House on October 3.

“Well, you know, my friends call me Barack,” the President told Chuck Close when the two met earlier this year for a portrait sitting in Washington D.C. “I didn’t do it,” says the artist of calling Obama by his first name. “But I think he was letting me know I could.” Calvin Tomkins sheds light on the photo shoot and the resulting artworks—ten tapestries (pictured) and 250 prints of a color portrait—and in a Talk piece that appears in the September 17 issue of The New Yorker.

Despite the success of Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster, Obama’s staff seems to be less than savvy when it comes to art. Close, whose portraits have helped to fatten the campaign coffers of the likes of Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, offered to make a tapestry portrait of then-candidate Obama during his first presidential campaign, but never got a response. In 2010, Close was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. “Every time I went to Washington for a meeting I’d talk about the great results we’d had with the art auction for Gore, and said I’d love to do something similar for Obama,” Close tells Tomkins. “Nobody picked up on it until just recently, when they found they weren’t raising enough money, and somebody said ‘Oh, yeah, wasn’t there something about an art auction?'”

The artist was granted permission to photograph the President in a session that was capped at eight minutes. But time flies when Close is behind the camera. “Obama was right on time, and I photographed him for more than a hour,” he says. “People kept coming in and telling him he had to go, but he was in such a good mood, and so charming.” Close’s equally charming images are being published by Magnolia Editions as a series of editioned tapestries and watercolor print portraits that will be sold at a campaign fundraiser at New York’s Lever House on October 3. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is trading 250 prints for donations ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.