In their clinical detachment and stereotyped set of poses, in their repetitiveness, these images are not sexually provocative. Instead they seem to collect many versions of the same experience—the transaction between artist and model. For Close, eliciting a model’s trust and surrender is inherently erotic: “No one makes a nude if they’re not going to get turned on, and if they claim that they are making it for other reasons it’s an absolute lie. I’m glad Cézanne painted apples. I’m glad Morandi painted bottles. But I’m not interested.”

Close is candid about the sexual aspect of his work, which has evolved along with his own sexuality. “I used to be the most hypersexed guy in the world,” he says. “Then I became quadriplegic.” For some ten years after 1988, when a collapsed spinal artery left him paralyzed, he became, in his own words, asexual. “Your body doesn’t punish you—if you are not getting any, you don’t think about it. Pretty soon you don’t notice beautiful women when they walk by.” His nudes seem to record his awakening from this state of indifference into a new body with new constraints and new powers of compensation: “I never felt more like a man than when I was just bringing pleasure to a woman. It made me feel vital and alive. That was really a wonderful period in my life.”

“I never found intimacy went away with exposure,” Close says of his portraits. He compares the practice of photographing a model to the magic acts he performed as a young man. “I would do an act, and then I would stop and show the audience how I did it. Which is breaking the cardinal rule of magicianship. And next time they saw it, they still went, Wow, because if the illusion is strong enough, it will still resonate. If showing a magic trick doesn’t ruin the illusion, neither will allowing people to see how art happens.”

—Hailey Gates