He made his first important works while today’s other leading artists were still in art school—or grade school. That makes it all the more impressive that Jeff Wall’s art feels so current.
If I came cold to Destroyed Room, the huge, lightbox-mounted color photo that launched Wall’s career back in 1979, I would hardly know it was three decades old. Its vision of a domestic interior torn apart by unseen forces achieves a perfectly contemporary blend of pure documentation, Hollywood staginess, and the impact of Old Master tableaux. More than anyone, Wall took the traditional art of still photography and used it to launch a new genre called “photo-based art.” His pictures have stronger links to classic paintings, and to the 1960s avant-garde, than to Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams.
Speaking on the phone from Vancouver (despite worldwide acclaim, the 64-year-old has never abandoned his native city), Wall recalls a moment in the 1970s when the most advanced artists, inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s “anti-art” stance, had become “iconophobes,” giving up on making pictures altogether. That, he says, made him extra keen to “recover the sense of being a picture-making artist… to move forward in time with the old pictorial art, that never gets old.”
The large-scale light box was one way forward to that past. Wall says it gave photography the “startling and spectacular” power grand oil paintings once had. But he adds that he chose his signature medium almost by accident: He simply didn’t like the surfaces big photos came printed on, and transparency had the advantage of doing away with surface altogether.
Losing surface also gave viewers the same full immersion in Wall’s scenes that perspective had given to Renaissance art. (Unlike some contemporary artists, Wall says he was one of those kids who loved leafing through his parents’ books on the Old Masters.) Once Wall’s pictures had achieved that kind of immersion, a huge range of content could come pouring back into them.
Wall has made photographs that seem explicitly political: a pseudo-documentary street scene that depicts a racist encounter, or a surreal ghost scene set in Soviet Afghanistan, where dead Russian troops resurrect and examine their wounds. He’s also made the straightest of documents, showing street corners in Vancouver and basement still lifes. And he’s made pictures that are simply strange: a naked giantess, maybe 70 years old and two stories tall, visiting a library; a lone black man in a basement lit with 1,369 bulbs, just as described in Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's novel about race. (For quite a while, Photoshop seemed to push Wall’s art toward the fantastical. After a few years of sobriety, he says he’s now eager to get back to it.)
Wall’s wide-ranging images have been parsed in every way imaginable. He may have the longest bibliography of any artist today. For a long time, his photos were read almost as stand-ins for theoretical texts about the nature of society and the meaning of images. Wall himself was viewed as the Grand Theorizer, and his chewy prose confirmed it. But recently he's been allowing his art to float free of his own words, or anyone else’s. "If [viewers] just saw what I said I did, it would be lifeless," he says. "The more people see it differently from me, the happier I am."
The truth may be that, for three decades, Wall has been testing the full range of what pictures can still do and mean, after anti-art had “proved” them dead. The more varied things they do and mean, the more alive Wall has shown them to be.