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Refutation of the Refutation: On Jeff Wall | The Nation

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Refutation of the Refutation: On Jeff Wall

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Jeff Wall is one of the best-known photographers working today, and he is one of the best-known artists. That pair of statements is not the tautology it may seem to be. Wall came of age during the heyday of “artists who use photography,” some of the most renowned being the loose-knit group called the Pictures Generation, whose work was featured in a big exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years ago [see “A Million Little Pictures,” June 1, 2009]. Contemporaries of Wall’s like Richard Prince maintained an ironic distance between their practice and any task as plebeian as creating an image from scratch; the world is teeming with images, the thinking goes, and all the artist needs to do is treat them as ready-mades and repackage them under the aegis of a new idea.

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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Early on, Wall also helped to bring photography from the margins of the art world to its center, but in a very different manner. His aspiration was twofold: to make a kind of photography that would rival, both as visual spectacle and intellectual resource, the grandest works of the European painting tradition; and to make an art worthy of museums, like Cézanne wanting to make something as solid as Poussin after Impressionism. In 1978 Wall began producing images that had a rich, saturated color, and on a scale that was unprecedented for art photographs, which had typically been printed at about the same size at which they might have been reproduced in a book or magazine. Two years earlier William Eggleston had caused an uproar by showing color photographs at the Museum of Modern Art. The dye-transfer process Eggleston used had been developed for commercial projects such as billboards, but he never printed his pictures at that scale. Wall did, though he used a different process. His works were color transparencies mounted on gigantic light boxes. The presentation nodded to a form of advertising display, and the works’ fluorescent backlighting gave them an eye-catching, almost aggressive luminosity. But the evocation of profane commercial culture was counterbalanced by understated yet insistent allusions to art history and critical theory. Wall’s work was as certifiably intellectual as conceptual art but without the visual poverty typical of conceptualism. It was as slick as Pop Art but without the vulgarity, and as formally rich and thematically resonant as the classic art of the past yet contemporary and immediate, not neoclassically stuffy.

In wanting to make photography an art for the museum—for the great hall, not the library or the print room—Wall has succeeded more than he could have hoped. In the past few years alone there have been three major presentations of his work: one at the Schaulager in Basel and the Tate Modern in London; another at MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and a third at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. But there can be too much of a good thing; maybe Wall’s work is becoming overfamiliar. Certainly a reaction to his prominence has quietly set in. Has Wall lost his edge, become too much the official artist? I’ve heard this opinion voiced, perhaps not in so many words, by more than a few colleagues. A more grounded expression of discontent was recently put forth by Julian Stallabrass in New Left Review. Stallabrass attributes Wall’s success to what he labels the “conservative and spectacular elements of his practice”—which he claims have intensified in recent years—“increasingly accompanied by other conservative attachments,” by which he means a retreat from the leftist political commitment previously manifested in Wall’s imagery and writing. For Stallabrass this withdrawal is epitomized by Wall’s remaking of his Eviction Struggle, from 1988, as An Eviction in 2004, which he says transformed an image of class conflict into an anodyne and universal “meditation on human imperfection.”

On the face of it, Stallabrass argues a credible case, and his target would hardly be the first artist to have grown complacent and conservative with age. After all, success conspires to translate art’s discoveries into platitudes, to divert the artist from making to managing (not only staff but one’s career and the interpretation of one’s work), and to focus the artist’s mind on interests that appear to coincide with those of the wealthy who sustain him through their patronage. Yet “Jeff Wall: The Crooked Path” (named after a 1991 photograph by Wall), an exhibition at Bozar, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (through September 11, then traveling to the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, November 11–February 26), left me wondering. To dismiss Wall as an artist past his prime, or to write him off as a purveyor of mere “advertisements for what exists,” as Stallabrass finally does, would be shortsighted.

* * *

The Bozar exhibition, curated by Joël Benzakin (with considerable input from Wall), is unusual in form, and it suggests that Wall has not been so seduced by success as to have become insensitive to the dangers of overexposure. Although the exhibition has been conceived on a Promethean scale and mounted in eleven rooms, it includes just twenty-five of Wall’s works, ranging from 1978—the year he made the first of his light-box images, The Destroyed Room—through 2010. Alongside these are some 130 works by other artists (painters, photographers, writers and film directors) who have influenced Wall or formed part of the context for his development. While the tight selection means parts of Wall’s oeuvre have been excluded, the exhibition is far more revealing than it would have been if the entire space had been filled with his works, as convention would have dictated. The approach reveals a lot about Wall’s aesthetics and connoisseurship but also, more broadly, about the complexity of any artist’s formation, and especially the productive tension between his various and seemingly irreconcilable influences. The provisional resolution, rekindling and renegotiation of these tensions give the work much of its changing character.

What’s missing from the exhibition, unfortunately, is any more than a glimpse of what Wall had been up to before The Destroyed Room. He was in his early 30s by then and had already taken something of a crooked path. He’d studied fine art and art history at the University of British Columbia and quickly began exhibiting text-and-photo-based conceptual work around Vancouver; some of these resemble the magazine pieces of Dan Graham and Robert Smithson (which have been included in this show, even though Wall’s works in this vein have not). His work was selected for “Information,” an important international exhibition of conceptual art at MoMA. In 1970 he left his hometown and his art practice to take up doctoral studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where he began researching a dissertation on Marcel Duchamp. He returned to Canada in 1974, the dissertation abandoned, but did not exhibit again for four years.

A hint of this history can be found in the show’s first room, which includes Duchamp’s Manual of Instructions for the Assembly of Étant donnés: 1° La chute d’eau, 2° Le gaz d’éclairage (1966) and a 1959 Duchamp collage related to the same project, the French artist’s last work. The instruction manual is not properly a work of art but one of those paralipomena that Duchamp’s work generated in such quantity; the collage is an artwork, at least according to Modernist criteria, which undermine the distinction between studies and finished works (though Duchamp’s thinking might be taken to undermine those criteria in turn). Besides evoking Wall’s doctoral studies, the two Duchamps point not only backward, to the sort of art Wall abandoned in order to study art history, but also forward, to what Wall would undertake in 1978. The Manual evokes the conceptual art that was starting to be made around the time that it was compiled, while the collage, with its disjointed reconstruction of a landscape, indicates the possibility of a reconstituted “tableau” such as Wall has subsequently become known for. Duchamp stands here like a herm looking in both directions. And the Bozar makes clear that Wall’s turn toward the tableau, the self-sufficient photographic image grounded in art history, was not his alone. Two works from 1977 show his friend Ian Wallace already partway there; their art-historical quotations may be too obvious—The Calling cites Caravaggio; The Studio, Courbet—yet they manage to make something striking of their citations.

The tension between the conceptual dissolution of the image and its self-conscious reconstruction as tableau is further developed by other choices of Wall’s and Benzakin’s. Especially notable is the inclusion of divergent approaches to photography. There are conceptualists like Graham and Smithson, as well as Chris Burden, Douglas Huebler and Hans-Peter Feldmann, who used the medium with a kind of indifference. But there are also “classic” straight photographers like Eugène Atget, Walker Evans and Weegee—and their successors, such as Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Stephen Shore—who were fascinated with photography as a medium in its own right. At first, Wall’s photographs were regarded as being closer in spirit to conceptualism because of their evident constructedness, a denial of spontaneity that created a sense of mental distance from their ostensible subjects, as if they were diagrams disguised as pictures rather than true pictures. But Wall’s emphasis on the autonomous image distinguishes his work from conceptualism and classic photography, in which images were typically subsumed into a photo-essay in a magazine, a book or occasionally a grander overarching sequence, like August Sander’s life project “People of the Twentieth Century.” They were not primarily meant to be seen as isolated images on a wall.

Wall’s somewhat younger German contemporaries, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky, whose works appear in “The Crooked Path,” were all students of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers’ gridded arrangements of photographs illustrating building typologies (coal bunkers, coke ovens, cooling towers) might be the ideal meeting point of conceptual and documentary photography. But while the students adopted the Bechers’ deadpan eye, they ditched their typologies and, like Wall, went for color and big scale. Even Ruff—whose portraits from the 1980s, often compared to gigantic passport photos, insistently present his subjects as “types”—uses intense detail to show each quasi-anonymous person as a sort of self-contained alien landscape. In so doing he places the emphasis firmly on the individual image, if not the individual person. “In the light of these artists,” Wall says in the catalog, “the Bechers appear to be the last in a lineage,” crowning but also exhausting two traditions that subordinate the image to the system of images. (I would argue that the Internet has turned the tables once again and created a new opening for the subsuming of the image to system—but that’s another story.)

Among the other works in “The Crooked Path” are several by the American minimalists of the 1960s, their presence ostensibly meant to show their influence on Wall’s use of scale (though one shouldn’t forget that the fluorescent tubes Dan Flavin used for his sculpture are cousins to those illuminating Wall’s transparencies). A film program includes such auteurs as Robert Bresson, Jean Eustache and Terrence Malick; there are displays with original editions of literary works Wall has used as sources (Franz Kafka’s “The Cares of a Family Man,” Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) and those that have had more indirect influence on his work (André Breton’s Nadja; Documents, the magazine edited by Georges Bataille in 1929–30). Finally, there are works by a few of the younger artists Wall keeps an eye on, including some interesting painters (Luc Tuymans, Kai Althoff, Kerry James Marshall). Their inclusion might be an inadvertent reminder of the marginal place of painting in the show (otherwise there are just a couple of early Frank Stellas in the section on minimalism).

The relative paucity of painting is surprising because Wall’s photographs are full of allusions to its history and because, despite his love of classic photography and cinema and his fascination with conceptual art, the lineage he wants his art to be measured against is the European painting tradition from the Renaissance to the beginnings of Modernism (in the work of Manet). What he says of Marshall is clearly meant to apply to his own efforts: “If he’s involved in what you might call a ‘refutation of the refutation’ of the pictorial tradition, that suggests that what he’s doing is not simply a continuation of that tradition, but a new relation with both the tradition and the critique of the tradition.”

Naturally, it would not have been possible for the Bozar to borrow touchstones of the tradition like The Death of Sardanapalus or A Bar at the Folies-Bergère for an exhibition like this. And even if it had, their glorious presence might have upset the balance: Wall might no longer have been the focus of the exhibition, only its occasion. Although his works are greatly outnumbered in the show, thanks to their scale they still dominate; a dozen black-and-white photographs from the early twentieth century can be arranged on a wall that just one of Wall’s pieces would occupy. Besides, his connections with painting from before the twentieth century have already been much commented on—too much so, according to Stallabrass, for whom “making art-historical references is one of the most reliable tactics to get a work discussed as if it is art.” Apparently Stallabrass does not accept that artists become artists because they love art, because they want to steep themselves in it, and that the most natural thing in the world for them is to take the art they know as a reference point. For him, art that remembers the work of many masters is merely “a form of social display…indelibly marked with the inequalities of class, education and the opportunity for cultured leisure.” That these references are to painting, not to photography, is worse still in his eyes: Wall is somehow traducing his medium through a confected relation to one considered more prestigious.

But Wall came to photography through art, not to art through photography. Is it strange that his long view of art’s development does not begin with the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century? Although Stallabrass is a photographer as well as an art historian (and, like Wall, a product of the Courtauld Institute, where he teaches), one could almost imagine that he has had no contact with living artists or the process of art-making, imagining it only as a thing of use—either in the good cause of political agitation or the bad one of careerist self-advancement. For him art can only be radical sociology or a calling card.

* * *

Though Stallabrass sometimes pushes his argument so far that it would be impossible for any artist working within the art world to satisfy its conditions, the question remains: Is Wall’s an art in decline? Has it sacrificed life-giving conflict for an insipid harmony? Stallabrass is not the only critic to think so. David Campany has recently published a book-length analysis of one of Wall’s most famous early works, Picture for Women (1979), which concludes with the damning observation that ever since Wall made that image, his art “has grown more likeable than admirable.” Peter Osborne sees Wall as having sold his birthright—an art “distinctively ‘Post-Conceptual’ in its combination of a medium-based practice with a strategic conceptual content”—for a formalist pottage. Why? Something snapped, writes Osborne; it seems that Wall grew tired of thinking so hard.

The source of Osborne’s remarks, by the way, is his contribution to the catalog for “The Crooked Path”—the only catalog I’ve ever seen that admits severely critical views alongside the usual encomiums. This alone makes me wonder whether it can be claimed that Wall has lost all taste for conflict. Besides, Eviction Struggle and An Eviction, the pair of works that Stallabrass presents as crucial pieces of evidence, might not be entirely indicative of Wall’s career (they are not at the Bozar). Wall’s earlier pieces may not be quite as conflict-laden as they appear, or anyway not in quite the way they seem. The Destroyed Room shows what looks to be the aftermath of some catastrophe, not the action that caused it, and it underlines its own artificiality: one cannot but be conscious of it as a staged emblem of ruin rather than a record of the real thing. The photograph Milk (1984) shows a young guy with greasy hair and stubble squatting on the sidewalk; in one hand he holds a milk carton in a brown paper bag, its contents exploding in a rather spectacular stop-action splash in the manner of Harold Edgerton. It is easy to see Milk as an evocation of the homelessness and addiction endemic to Vancouver—but then shouldn’t it be a pint of whiskey, or at least Mad Dog 20/20, in that paper bag? Wall seems to be playing a joke on the viewer’s sociological eye.

In what might be the best of Wall’s earlier works, The Storyteller (1986), some men and women, evidently First Nations people, are hanging out on a patch of scruffy terrain adjacent to an overpass. Wall’s mastery of scale comes into its own here—the landscape, though hemmed in by a stand of trees on one side and the highway on the other, seems vast, yet it does not overwhelm the figures in it, however small they are in relation to the rectangle that contains them. Three figures sit around a small fire in the left foreground. One, presumably the eponymous storyteller, gestures animatedly; two others loll farther back near the trees; one sits separate, far off to the right, on the pavement under the overpass. Why are they taking their leisure here, of all places? Can it be that of a whole continent that was once the home of their ancestors, this narrow and inhospitable strip of land is the only place left for them to relax? Yet the image’s gently ironic pastoral overtones—the slight echoes of Seurat, even of Matisse (the pose of the solitary figure on the right recalls that of a figure in his 1910 painting Music)—have their place. Despite everything, these people have their storyteller and their story, and though we might not hear either one, both survive within their dispossession.

The Storyteller is the kind of image that Thierry de Duve once called dialectical. The same can be said of Wall’s most recent pictures, no longer mounted on light boxes but still made mostly on his accustomed grand scale. If they aren’t quite as poignant for me as some of his older works, I suspect that’s mostly because I have had more time to think about the earlier pieces, to let their colors, allusions and oblique imagery seep in. When I first saw those works they left me feeling a little flat and quizzical, just as the recent ones do. They weren’t quite answering my questions of them because they were inciting me to new questions I didn’t know how to pose, and the same may be true of Wall’s new pieces.

The most immediately arresting of them is Dressing Poultry (2007), which shows four workers in an industrial shed doing just what the title says. The woman in the foreground is laughing as she does her job; apparently someone has just cracked a joke. As Stallabrass says, “the scene is almost a cheery one”—which for him is suspect. Apparently, the workplace should be represented only in the form of a trenchant exposé. I don’t see it that way. There is a place in art for muckraking, but there’s more to art and life (even under neoliberal capitalism) than that. I once worked in a place not too different from that shed, and what I remember about it is how my co-workers and I got through our day by singing Beatles songs. It’s because work can be oppressive that part of the heroism of daily life is learning to make the best of it, to take it lightly. Dressing Poultry draws its thoughtfulness and power from the way it depicts this quotidian struggle. It means a lot to me that Wall, while being unlike most other people in his capacity to control his own work, can still make art that meaningfully evokes a day in the life.

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