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Major Jeff Wall Retrospective Opens at MoMA
Jeff Wall (Canadian, born 1946), Milk, 1984, Silver dye bleach transparency in light box, 6 ft. 2 1/2 in. x 7 ft. 6 1/4 in. (189.2 x 229.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Mary Joy Thomson Legacy. © 2007 Jeff Wall.


NEW YORK.- Jeff Wall (Canadian, b. 1946) is widely recognized as one of the most adventurous and inventive artists of his generation. Since 1978, he has worked principally with large color photographs presented as transparencies in light boxes. His unique pictorial universe ranges from gritty realism to elaborate fantasy, drawing upon an unusually broad range of sources that include nineteenth-century painting, Conceptual art, narrative cinema, and modernist photography. The major retrospective Jeff Wall comprises 40 works that span Wall’s career from 1978 to the present. It presents a robust assembly of ambitious and celebrated pictures, including Picture for Women (1979), Mimic (1982), The Storyteller (1986), A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993), Restoration (1993), and After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999–2000). Five recent pictures will be shown for the first time in North America, including a large multi-figure composition titled In front of a nightclub (2006). Organized jointly by The Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition is co-curated by Peter Galassi, Chief Curator of Photography, MoMA, and Neal Benezra, Director, SFMOMA. It will be on view in MoMA’s Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Gallery on the sixth floor from February 25 through May 14, 2007, after which it will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago (June 30–September 23, 2007) and conclude its tour at SFMOMA (October 27, 2007–January 27, 2008).

“Jeff Wall is a risk-taker, and his best and most original works often arise from his wildest risks,” says Mr. Galassi. “The vividness of his light boxes lends unity to his work, but his best photographs are as diverse as the many and varied images and ideas upon which they draw. The opportunity to bring together major pictures spanning three decades is thus especially rewarding in Wall’s case.”

Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he still lives and works, Jeff Wall began painting and drawing seriously as a teenager. He studied art history at the University of British Columbia, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1970 with a thesis on Dada in Berlin. Vancouver was at this time rapidly becoming a vibrant artistic center, and by the late 1960s Wall’s own work was closely attuned to the most recent developments in Minimal and Conceptual art. In 1970, his Landscape Manual (1969–70), a 56-page black-and-white pamphlet of photographs and text, was exhibited at MoMA in Information, the influential survey of Conceptual art curated by Kynaston McShine, now Chief Curator at Large, The Museum of Modern Art.

However, Wall was dissatisfied with his work. He moved to London to study toward a doctorate in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and he soon stopped making art altogether. During his three years in London, he read widely in philosophy, the history and criticism of art and film, and the growing field of critical theory. He saw many films, and by the time he returned to Vancouver in the spring of 1973, he had decided to commit himself to filmmaking. Although he admired experimental cinema, his touchstone was postwar Neorealism in the broadest sense—films that used conventional narrative structures to deal imaginatively with everyday life.

Wall started teaching art and art history in 1974, and in 1976 he was appointed Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver. None of his filmmaking projects had come to fruition, and he was eager to begin making art again. He had become close to the American artist Dan Graham and, like Graham, felt that the Conceptual movement had reached an impasse. (His 1982 essay, “Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel,” expresses this outlook; it appears in Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews, published by MoMA on the occasion of the exhibition.)

In the wake of the Conceptual crisis, Wall aimed to rebuild the rebellious spirit of modernism from the ground up. The distinctiveness of his art ever since has derived largely from the intensity with which he felt that mandate, his willingness to devote considerable resources of time and energy to entirely untested prospects, and his wide-ranging passion for and curiosity about images and ideas. The key initial elements were certain aspects of cinema and painting, brought together in an unusual photographic medium.

Wall began working in the SFU studios, where, like a filmmaker, he could build sets, control lighting, rehearse actors, and otherwise create an entirely fictional image. He adopted the term “cinematography” to summarize his approach, which he felt could greatly enrich the potential of still photography. Another key ingredient of Wall’s new aesthetic was his sense that post-Renaissance painting could serve as a vital resource for contemporary art. On his first visit to the Museo del Prado in Madrid in the summer of 1977, he was deeply affected by the work of Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya, and others, and in his own art he sought to emulate the commanding physical presence and pictorial power of Western painting’s grand theater of human figures in action.

In Wall’s view, color photography—then widely regarded as vulgar and commercial—was an ideal medium, in part because it distanced his work from the contemporaneous revival of figure painting that he regarded as a betrayal of avant-garde principles. Backlit transparencies had become common in advertising, and at first Wall embraced the commercial association as essential to the socially critical dimension of his art.

The initial phase of Wall’s light-box work is represented in the exhibition by The Destroyed Room (1978), Picture for Women (1979), and Double Self-Portrait (1979). The first two works allude to famous nineteenth-century French paintings by Eugène Delacroix and Édouard Manet, respectively, and were initially conceived to address the circumstance of women under capitalism. But the pictures’ pictorial sources, as well as their critical goals, have been thoroughly transformed through a complex admixture of Conceptual strategies and political and theoretical concerns.

The first photographs that Wall made outdoors, in 1980, were three panoramic landscapes—assertions that his art would not be limited to studio fictions. These straightforward views, like most of Wall’s subsequent landscapes, belong to a long photographic tradition of examining man’s presence in the land. The genre is represented in the exhibition by Steves Farm, Steveston (1980), The Old Prison (1987), and Coastal Motifs (1989).

Wall also left the studio to make such works as Mimic (1982) and Milk (1984), both of which were inspired by incidents that he had observed on the street. He hired non-professional actors and restaged these incidents for the tripod-bound, large-format camera that he needed in order to produce images adequately rich in detail for his large transparencies. This way of working, combined with a focus on people at the margins of society, has shaped a central vein of Wall’s art ever since. He summarized the program as “the painting of modern life,” a phrase associated with the work of Manet and derived from a celebrated essay by Charles Baudelaire, titled “The Painter of Modern Life.” In Milk, the liquid explosion caused by the man’s abrupt gesture, set against the bleak geometry of the contemporary city, makes a vivid image of distress. As in Baudelaire’s prose poems, the gritty reality of the street is transformed into a striking emblem of contemporary experience.

In the late 1980s, Wall developed his modern-life imagery in two major pictures that step back to take in a broad view and incorporate a larger cast of characters: The Storyteller (1986) and An Evicti





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