After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison
Eyes Wide Open, With Stories to Tell
Jeff Wall’s large color transparencies mounted on electric light boxes fill 10 galleries at the Museum of Modern Art with a pulsating and purposeful, if slightly sedate, optimism. Alluring to the point of transfixion, the 41 works measure as much as 10 feet high or 16 feet across. These are outright gorgeous, fully equipped all-terrain visual vehicles, intent on being intensely pleasurable while making a point or two about society, art, history, visual perception, the human animal or all of the above.
Dating from 1979, when Mr. Wall was 33, to the present, the photographs draw on a rich tangle of traditions — from landscape and street photography, to still life and genre painting, to Japanese woodblock prints and medical illustration, to Impressionist and Baroque painting.
Moreover, they combine the stillness and artifice of painting with the light and heat of film; the awkward immediacy of theater with the slick impersonality of advertising. The people are often nearly life-size, so at times it seems that we might almost step into the unnaturally radiant landscapes and interiors they inhabit.
With their Donald Judd-like stainless steel boxes and Dan Flavin-like fluorescents, Mr. Wall’s glowing images turn the photograph into a Minimalist object. They also push the nearly trompe l’oeil illusions of Photo Realist painting to extremes, without so much as lifting a paint brush. In other words, the works make the most of the most diametrically opposed art movements of the 1960s.
Yet the medium here is not so much the message as a magnet, one that snares our attention and compels us to sort through both the vivid details and the underlying layers of meaning, intention and process. You can emerge from the experience with a sharpened awareness of art’s ability to sharpen awareness — whether of the crushing effects of war, poverty and racism or of the communicative power of art.
Mr. Wall was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1946 and has spent most of his career there. He is one of the most staunchly traditional of the untraditional artists to emerge from the turmoil of the 1970s, when art was pulled apart by the political ambition and visual privations of Conceptual Art. He is also one of the best.
Over the years, his circle in Vancouver has included camera-friendly and concept-inclined artists like Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Roy Arden and Stan Douglas. He also belongs to a far-flung but mostly New York-based branch of Pictures artists that specializes in staged or set-up photography and includes Cindy Sherman, James Casebere, Laurie Simmons, Thomas Demand and Gregory Crewdson. But Mr. Wall’s work has a breadth that few of his contemporaries match, as well as a missionary zeal that is cloaked by an extraordinary visual ambition.
As with the German painter Gerhard Richter, all this has given Mr. Wall an unwavering approval rating. His work is sanctioned by academicians and art theorists, who believe fervently in art’s social and moral responsibilities and deplore its complicity in the culture industry. But his images are also a hit at market — a must-have for both museums and private collectors. And they are immensely accessible, enjoyed by even the most inexperienced art viewer.
Artistically, Mr. Wall was both a prodigy and a late bloomer. He started painting young, in a studio in a shed in his family’s backyard, and as a teenager worked his way from Edward Hopper to Robert Motherwell. As an art student in the late 1960s, he gravitated to Conceptualism; he considered it the next, natural stage of Modernism, as well as the way to resist art’s commodity status.
Peter Galassi, chief curator of the Modern’s department of photography, and Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, organized the exhibition. In his catalog essay, Mr. Galassi describes Mr. Wall as almost intimidatingly erudite: steeped in art history, criticism and theory. He depicts a true believer in the Modernist and then Post-Modernist mission that art should change the world, who has been continually forced into deeper artistic waters by his faith in painting.
Mr. Wall had trouble reconciling this faith with Conceptual Art’s dismissal of the art object and tradition. By 1971 he had stopped making art and was studying art history, while also trying unsuccessfully to become a filmmaker and then a screenwriter. This foray left him thinking about photography and how it might be used to make something equal to painting. These inklings coalesced during a trip to Spain in 1977, where he visited the Prado’s wealth of painting and was struck by the luminosity of light-box advertisements on the streets of Barcelona.
As installed by Mr. Galassi and Mr. Wall, the MoMA exhibition proceeds thematically and chronologically from austere, cerebral early works to more lush, complicated and mysterious later ones. But you grasp the complexity of Mr. Wall’s program with the first image, “The Destroyed Room,” which shows an extensively vandalized bedroom strewn with a woman’s clothing. Few viewers may realize that it is based on Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus.” But you do see that this is the aftermath of some kind of cataclysm — whether domestic or climatic — and looking through the room’s makeshift door and window, you realize that it is all fake, built in a studio.
As the images proceed in related clusters — landscapes dominate one gallery; single figures in interiors, another; people intensely looking, a third — you watch Mr. Wall’s techniques expand and contract.
Some works are relatively straight images in a mode that he calls “near documentary,” like the panoramic vista of town, bay, bridge and mountain that seems to exalt both nature’s grandeur and human enterprise until you notice its title, “The Old Prison.” This draws your attention to a 19th-century structure with barred windows at the picture’s edge.
Some scenes are staged but simple, like the bum in “Milk,” whose clenched gesture sends an elegant, pure spill of milk into the air — summing up a lifetime of frustration and rage. Others are elaborately orchestrated, like the astounding image of a black man hunched in a messy basement whose ceiling is an obsessive field of electric light bulbs. Created from scratch in the artist’s studio, this is a faithful recreation of an integral scene from Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man.”
Other images resulted from scores of photographs digitally noodled together into a single consuming vision. The most exhilarating of these is “A Sudden Gust of Wind,” based on a famous Hokusai print in which several travelers are buffeted by unexpected turbulence that sends the sheets of a manuscript spiraling through the air.
Another example is an elaborate battle scene made in 1992 but based on the Soviet Union’s conflict with Afghanistan in the 1980s. Continuing in the tradition of Otto Dix and George Grosz, but also harking back to the French academic painter Meissonier, the image has a strangely old-fashioned look, as if just exhumed from a war museum. Until you notice that this is a macabre vision: the dead Soviet soldiers strewn about are all awake — laughing, crying and fingering their gruesome wounds.
Yet sometimes Mr. Wall’s complexity is deceiving. The riveting artificiality of “Restoration” actually shows three true conservators at work in Switzerland on a 19th-century diorama of an 1870 battle. The 180-degree image curves away from us with a vertiginous sweep, while creating a heady mix of art’s attempt to recreate life and life’s attempt to preserve art.
In recent years, Mr. Wall has seemed to flounder a bit, but perhaps he is going still deeper. He has printed some images on paper — like “After ‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima,” another scene from a novel — that look a trifle drab without the help of the light box. Other images are still gorgeous but more conventionally poetic; for example, the surrealist “Flooded Grave” shows an open grave in a sodden cemetery filled not only with water but also with orange starfish and sea urchins. The final image of the show is of the spattered staining bench and cans in a furniture factory: it might almost be an expression of regret about the painting path not taken.
Yet Mr. Wall’s images can still muster a challenging visual and psychic power. In “A View From an Apartment,” the landscape visible through a bay window forms an extraordinary yet intrusive picture-within-a-picture, though the two women who occupy the apartment seem oblivious to it. The everyday signs of their domestic life have a pleasant disorder that may bring to mind the ransacked bedroom depicted in the show’s first image. But this room is far from wrecked.
“Jeff Wall” is open today to members of the Museum of Modern Art, then on view to the public tomorrow through May 14 at the museum; (212) 708-9400 or moma.org.