Apr/May 2007

Framing the Shot

Jeff Wall’s words pit the art historian against the conceptualist

David Rimanelli


There is nothing unique or even special about the phenomenon of artists who write with distinction about art generally and their own practices in particular. History provides numerous examples—Leonardo's great notebooks, Reynolds's Discourses, Vasari's Lives, and Delacroix's journals and letters among them. The twentieth century, with its enthusiasm for manifestos and credos, proves almost embarrassingly rich in this regard, from Gleizes and Metzinger to Peter Halley. But the publication of Jeff Wall's Selected Essays and Interviews by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on the occasion of the artist's retrospective there, is an especially valuable contribution to this literature, even a singular one. For while the postwar neo-avant-gardes have been extraordinarily prolific in terms of literate and rhetorically persuasive artist-writers—Allan Kaprow, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Marcel Broodthaers, Art & Language, Martha Rosler, Barbara Kruger, and Mike Kelley, to name but a passel—Wall's art-critical writing (and his concomitant interviews) bear the stamp of his formal art-historical training. He spent several years in the 1970s pursuing a postgraduate degree in the field at London's Courtauld Institute, and this background left an indelible mark on his art production proper, as well as on its critical reception.

In later years, Wall would come to balk at the emphasis laid on his historical training and its apparent or presumed influence on his art, for instance, in "Frames of Reference" (2003), the last essay included in this volume. Therein he discusses his development with respect to, among others, Stephen Shore, Jackson Pollock, Michael Fried, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. (Las Meninas creeps in, but only in relation to Carl Andre.) Only a few essays—for instance, "Unity and Fragmentation in Manet" and the brief, allusive text "Gestus" (both 1984)—point directly toward Wall's "old world" art-historical education. The interviews that form the second part of this volume, by contrast, bear witness to the artist's abiding concern with aesthetic conventions and dissonances in European painting, in particular history painting broadly conceived (Poussin, Velázquez, Goya, Delacroix, Manet, Richter), as well as history painting as it intersects the "lower" tradition—lower with respect to the norms of the premodernist academy—of genre painting (Chardin, Hubert Robert, Manet, and, beyond the Western canon, Hokusai). Thomas Crow's 1993 essay "Profane Illuminations: The Social History and the Art of Jeff Wall" perhaps remains the cornerstone of the advanced critical reception of the artist's work as an exemplary melding of art-historical, painterly reference and photographic practices that derive at least in part from the legacies of Conceptual art. The art history at stake is specifically the new social art history that came to the fore during the 1970s, such as T. J. Clark's work on Baudelaire's criticism and the painting of Courbet and Manet. Crow, himself a distinguished exponent of this tendency, quotes Wall in an interview with Clark, Serge Guilbaut, Claude Gintz, and Anne Wagner (reprinted in this volume): "None of my work could have been done without the turmoil within art history." (Indeed, Wall has not gone without supporters within the academy but strategically at odds with social art history, for example, Fried and Thierry de Duve.) A 1985 interview by Els Barents lends credence to Crow's interpretation, as the artist makes explicit connections between his Picture for Women, 1979, and Destroyed Room, 1978, and, respectively, Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, and Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827–28, privileged examples within the art historian's analysis. In "Profane Illuminations," Crow credits Wall not only with having subsumed the "turmoil in art history" but with having done so "as often as not in advance of [its] full realization in the writing of academic social historians."

When I first read "Frames of Reference," I could not shake the feeling that Wall desired to distance his work from this kind of interpretation, however compelling, and that in doing so he was being almost willfully perverse, as if rewriting his own history: "People who write about art often think my work always derives in some direct way from the model of nineteenth-century painting. That's partly true, but it has been isolated and exaggerated in much of the critical response to what I'm doing. I'm totally uninterested in making reference to the genres of earlier pictorial art." Perhaps the last statement should be taken with a grain of salt, but the artist's reluctance to be chained to a particular set of aesthetic and historical circumstances in the interpretation of his work is understandable. In retrospect, Wall seems more intent on reestablishing his connections as a photographer to the legacies of Conceptual art, and as such, his avowed connection to Smithson, Dan Graham, Ed Ruscha, and Sherrie Levine appears no less relevant than his previous forays into the Old Masters. (It's worth mentioning that Wall's 1982 essay "Dan Graham's Kammerspiel" is the longest text by far in this collection, and a marvel of critical and art-historical analysis, as is "'Marks of Indifference': Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art," his contribution to the catalogue for the landmark exhibition "Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–1975," at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1995.) Indeed, Wall began as an artist within a Conceptual-art trajectory; his "detour" through canonical Western painting could serve at least one polemical end: to revivify the art of photography through a critical engagement with the tropes of figurative painting, at precisely that moment—the late '70s and early '80s—when the "return to figuration" was trumpeted as art's (and the market's) salvation after a desultory decade of visually astringent, not to say impoverished, photo-plus-text work under the broad Conceptualist rubric. (Wall: "In my earlier pictures I was trying to be a little more dogmatic, trying to establish my position, my theoretical relations with Conceptual art and through that with what I think of as an avant-garde 'countertradition.' This was in 1978, at the beginning of the new painting.")

But Wall is careful to distance himself from the painting-photography mélange: "Unfortunately, this blending of photography with other things, like painting, print-making, or three-dimensional art forms, almost immediately led to the unconvincing hybrids that are so sadly characteristic of art since then." Turning his attention to the condition of photography as practiced by artists—"Classic art photography had been perfected, it seemed to me, and anything that would be done in the present, by me or by anyone, would be a lesser achievement"—Wall attests that he not only studied the histories of photography and of painting but also expanded his concerns to filmmaking, citing Buñuel, Bresson, and Fassbinder, among others, as crucial influences. The link between the masters of painting and those of cinema becomes manifest in Wall's concern for the scale of his photographs (or photographs mounted as light boxes—emanations of light, like movies but still): "Even while I loved photography, I often didn't love looking at photographs, particularly when they were hung on walls. . . . I did love looking at paintings, though, particularly ones done in a scale large enough to be seen easily in a room. That sense of scale is something I believe is one of the most precious gifts given to us by Western painting."

These essays and interviews render an image of the artist as subject to discontinuities no less than to the imaginary continuities that serve to paint a coherent but perhaps deceptively summarizing picture of his work as a whole. (Wall: "As Walter Benjamin said, the only way to think legitimately about tradition is in terms of discontinuities. . . . Discontinuity does not exist in isolation from what seems to be its polar opposite, so I think it is just as valid to talk about reinventions and rediscoveries, not to mention preservations.") That in "Frames of Reference" Wall should choose to downplay his early reliance on models derived from nineteenth-century painting may constitute an evasion of his own history, albeit a tactical one. This quality of tactical evasion may remind one of another exemplary artist of our time, Gerhard Richter, whose elliptical tergiversations throughout his writings and interviews continue to befuddle even his most ardent enthusiasts. Wall's case is not nearly so extreme. He seems for the most part hyperconscious of the discursive formations that have accrued around his work, and as such, his work appears (at least in the shade of these essays and interviews) to be more tightly organized—"totalized," even. But Wall can be amusingly off-the-cuff at times, for instance in this exchange with Jean-François Chevrier: "J-FC: But Baudelaire hates nature; he made it utterly artificial in his work. JW: OK, that's true, but it doesn't really mean anything." Jeff Wall acknowledges the meaningless truth . . . what a relief.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.

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