Refutation of the Refutation: On Jeff Wall
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.
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.
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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.