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.”