JEFF WALL: “Frames of Reference”

Interview by David Shapiro
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jeff wall, passerby, 1996, photograph

Jeff Wall is well known for his transparencies mounted on light boxes informed by a close involvement with the history of art. This interview was conducted in 1999 and treats some of the key ideas in Wall’s art and aesthetic theory. It originally ran inMuseo, vol. 3 (2001) and has been re-published in the books The Education of a Photographer (New York: Allworth Press, 2006) and Jeff Wall, Selected Essays and Interviews, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007), the latter on the occasion of his retrospective.

David Shapiro: I have admired your work for a long time, particularly because you work both as an art theorist and as an artist. I’d like to start out by asking how that happened, how you came to be doing both.

JEFF WALL: First of all, I don’t really see myself as an art theorist or anything like that, more as a kind of occasional writer. My writing partly emerged from problems or occasions in teaching. I’ve taught for many years, my main subject being a sort of combination of contemporary or modern art history and some reflections on aesthetics. Writing things like lectures becomes a way of putting something on paper; so, that’s been one of the frameworks. The other is having been invited to write essays, mostly for catalogues. I never really had a plan to do any serious writing in fact.

Shapiro: So, it grew out of working as an artist?

WALL: Yes, and out of teaching, and so, it turned out, I had some ideas that I thought were interesting and maybe even original, and they had to be expressed in writing, since there was really no other viable form for them. So, I had to accept the fact that I have to try to write sometimes. As I said, I don’t consider myself a writer. I don’t think I’m a very good writer, but I felt that the ideas were interesting enough to me that they would probably be interesting to other people, and I sort of forced myself to find a way to write. So it’s all been, in a way, circumstantial and accidental, although by now I feel like it’s a part of what I like to do; if I get time, and if I had more time, I would probably write a bit more.

Shapiro: So, you’re saying that there are certain things that can’t be expressed visuallyâ€in the form of artâ€that need to be expressed only through writing?

WALL: I think that there’s an intellectual element, an intellectual content to art, or an intellectual content to the way we relate to art. There’s also what we call aesthetics, which is a philosophical attempt to understand the experience of art; that’s something I’ve always been somewhat interested in, if not necessarily in an academic way, but just in a reader’s way.

jeff wall, a sudden gust of wind (after hokusai), 1993, transparency, light box

Shapiro: In the aesthetic movement of the nineteenth century, Charles Baudelaire talked about being a painter of modern life. You’ve often said that you see Baudelairian modern life painting as a project in which you’re engaged. So, is that how you got to the medium in which you work? Do you see photography as the most appropriate medium for today?

WALL: No, I don’t. I don’t think that there’s any most appropriate medium. Photography has been an important phenomenon since it was invented, in both social and artistic ways. And it was inevitable that it would become central to art, simply because it’s a picture-making process, and art, Western art at least, is, in a very major way, about making pictures or images. But that doesn’t make photography a more appropriate medium for our times, in my view. All media are interesting, depending on what’s being done with them at the time; sometimes their field is a bit less energetic for one reason or another, but they usually come back.

The idea of the “painting of modern life,” which I’ve liked very much for many years, seemed to me the most open, flexible, and rich notion of what artistic aims might be like, meaning that Baudelaire was asking or calling for artists to pay close attention to the everyday and the now. This was still somewhat new in his time because the predominant idea about art was still that it was about treating time-honored themes in terms of the decorum of the established aesthetic ideas. The painting of modern life would be experimental, a clash between the very ancient standards of art and the immediate experiences that people were having in the modern world. I felt that that was the most durable and richest orientation, but the great thing about it is that it doesn’t exclude any other view. It doesn’t stand in contradiction to abstraction or any other experimental forms. It’s part of them and is always in some kind of dialogue with them and also with other things that are happening, inside and outside of art.

Shapiro: And you take “painter” to be figurative, i.e. you don’t paint and haven’t, right?

WALL: I don’t paint, but I began as a painter. I take the term “painter” as figurative. “Painter” can mean “maker” in that sense. It’s not limited to being an actual painter on canvas with paint, although it doesn’t exclude that in any way either.

Shapiro: Why did you move from painting to photography?

WALL: I can’t answer that. If I could answer that question, I’d know a lot.

Shapiro: Do you have any ideas on where painting is going, with the changing media today?

WALL: I think that painting is a permanent part of art, just like drawing is, because we have the kind of hands that we have, because we have the kind of eyes that we have. We’re always going to have drawing, and by extrapolation, painting. It’s a consequence of what we are as organisms. Painting and drawing cannot disappear from serious art, cannot “die,” as they say. They can go through all of the complex changes and developments that they have gone through because they are permanent. And therefore drawing is a kind of touchstone for all pictorial art, regardless, because it won’t and can’t be replaced with anything else. Painting as a medium and form cant change very much. So that makes it very interesting and very open too. If it were not so simple and flexible and beautiful, it would be changing technologically, but it’s too right just as it is to change, and so, it’s going to stay there. I’m very involved with painting, always have been and always will be, not particularly because I want to paint, but because it is the most sophisticated, ancient practice.

Shapiro: And you look more towards painting than any other visual media?

WALL: No. I think painting is important, but I think they’re all important: painting, photography, cinema, literature, sculpture. The idea that I relate somehow very especially to painting is a kind of cliché that has come to be attached to my work.

jeff wall, milk, 1984, transparency, light box

Shapiro: That you look toward particularly nineteenth-century painting models?

WALL: I know that I’m somewhat responsible for that because of some of the things that I’ve said, so I can’t complain about it too much, but the claim has gotten exaggerated. In the nineteenth century, with Manet and the others, there was such a high level of pictorial invention, such an interesting take on the now. They created something that is still very important to anyone concerned with pictures, and so, I’m keeping in touch with that, but not in an exclusive way, not as a model for my own work. My work derives from photography also, that is, photography as photography, and from other art forms. But it also comes from things that I’m experiencing directly. So, I’m trying to use the nineteenth century, in a way, as one of the frames of reference for a pictorial practice. We could say that, in many ways, we are still experiencing the nineteenth century in art.

Shapiro: About being a “painter of modern life,” I see that in many of your works. But does that hold true for a work like The Giant with its digital manipulation?

WALL: I like the phrase “painting of modern life,” but I don’t use it as a formula, as a total identity. Basically, it means using the standards that have emerged over a long time, very high standards, one hopes, and the memory that recognizes the existence and importance of those standards, and applying it to the now. That doesn’t mean that “painting of modern life” just means “scenes off the street.” It means phenomena of the now that are configured as pictures by means of this accumulation of standards and skills and style and so on. That means that there are no single themes, genres, or anything else that could be called “painting of modern life.” “Painting of modern life” is an attitude of looking, reflecting, and making. So, I think that The Giant, which is an imaginary scene, is a painting of modern life. It originated in my imagination, and my imagination is in the here and now in the same way that something I might see in the street is here and now. Baudelaire’s art ideal was a kind of fusion of reportage with what he thought of as the “high philosophical imagination” of older art.

jeff wall, the giant, 1992, transparency, light box

Shapiro: So, plausible and implausible imagery would be equally appropriate to you in terms of image-making?

WALL: Yes.

Shapiro: Alright, I guess we’ll switch gears a little. I was reading your interview with Arielle Pelenc, who said that your work has been criticized for lacking interruption, that is, for lacking fragmentation. Do you agree with that criticism? I wasn’t sure that I did. Do you take gesture and interruption to be different phenomena? I don’t really see that as a criticism if your work does lack fragmentation insofar as there has been a sort of regime of the fragment for a long time. Do you see your work as coming out of that?

WALL: I think that the demand that works of art appear immediately as fragmented, out of some kind of avant-garde and collage aesthetic background is just an orthodoxy of the times. It’s not that such a viewpoint has no validity, but that it cannot be complete, cannot define what good art is, as such, even for a moment. So, obviously, my work didn’t really look like the kind of work that was being approved of in that orthodox way. My reaction to that is that my relation to the idea of fragmentation is, in a way, dialectical in that I’m not oblivious to the whole phenomenon of what’s being talked about, but I have my own take on it.

Shapiro: Which is?

WALL: The aesthetic norm of fragmentation implies that the avant-garde movements made a fundamental and irreversible break with the past. The art of the past, which is defined as “organically unified’ is art that does not want to recognize its own contingent character, its own fragile illusionism. It wants to revel in the illusionism for its own sake and for the sake of its audience, and it wants to seem to be inevitable and complete, the creation of magicians. Tearing apart the organic work of art was the accomplishment of the avant-garde, which revealed the inner mechanics of traditional illusionistic art, the stagecraft of the masterpiece. To a great extent, I agree with that process, and I like a lot of avant-garde art very much; it’s very important to me. But, I feel that it’s an unfree way of relating to it to erect it as an absolute standard against the aspects of the unified work. I like the idea of the unified work because I like pictures, and there is always a sense in which a picture exists as such through its unification. I think that the art of the past is not as unified as the avant-garde polemic needed for it to be or made it appear to be. There are always acknowledgments of contingency and a sense of alternatives in good work from earlier times, probably very far back in time. So, first, there probably is no completely unified work, outside of some very specific limits, at least none in the tradition that we’ve been talking about. But there is the phenomenon of unity in a work, the way it might be experienced as a unity, even if, when you look more closely at it, it displays or at least indicates or hints at its own contingency. That phenomenon, that moment of appearance, that moment of the experience of the work’s unity, remains important. That moment, that instant, will always be there when we experience good art, even if we are experiencing a work that rejects the whole idea of unity, like in radical avant-garde or neo-avant-garde art. So, I see the unity of the work of art as an unavoidable moment of the making and of the experiencing of any work. There is a dialectic in all of this, not two antithetical forms, each complete in themselves, one coming after the other in time and rendering the first one “obsolete”â€a favorite polemical term of the proponents of the new orthodoxy. And, just as an aside, I would say that it was always my experience that the criticisms aimed against so-called pre-modern art were not terribly accurate, and they were tendentious in that by trying so hard to break away from the past, a lot of avant-garde artists and writers, critics let’s say, exaggerated the flaws or weaknesses of the art of the past so that they could get away from it. That’s just a rhetoric of the avant-garde, and the times made it necessary; let’s not live under that as some kind of law now. You look at so-called pre-modern art, whether it’s Caravaggio or Botticelli or Dürer, and it’s not as unified as those writers made it out to be. The antithesis between avant-garde art and “museum art” is less pronounced than the avant-garde wanted it to be. Older art is much richer and more nuanced than a lot of the arguments give it credit for being. It’s kind of obvious by now how adolescent a lot of avant-gardist attitudes wereâ€the “burn the museum” attitude from the 20s, from Dada, through the 60s.

Shapiro: It’s still there though. It’s still around.

WALL: It’s still here, but it’s maybe not as dominant. Anyway, for these kinds of reasons, I could begin, in the 70s, to distance myself from that kind of avant-gardism, to try to find other qualities that would go somewhere, without in any way opposing the idea that all contemporary art has to experiment and has not to follow formulae, no matter how correct the formulae might be. I don’t think that that was accepted, at the beginning anyway, and my pictures were often looked at as a simple recovery of the Old Master artists, an unproblematic return to tradition.

Shapiro: Rather than growing out of their reaction, a reaction to their reaction?

WALL: Only slightly a reaction to their reaction.

Shapiro: I mean that in a good way, that is, not just as a reneging of their reaction.

WALL: I think that the critics, when they are triumphant, when their cause is dominant, are very unobservant. And that’s probably the case with some of the reception of what I was doing and still am doing.

Shapiro: But now, there’s a lot of what I call “monumental photography.” Surely there wasn’t when you were starting. Do you see yourself as part of a zeitgeist?

WALL: I hope not.

jeff wall, dead troops talk, 1992, transparency, light box

Shapiro: Andreas Gursky and Wolfgang Tillmans are also making a sort of “monumental photography.”

WALL: I think that there there’s a lot of big photography. Photography’s gotten a lot bigger in the last ten or twelve years, because it’s become a known thing that a photograph can look great at that scale. So, now it’s become something that everybody can do. The scale of the photograph has been experimented with for decades, but it’s now become a known and popular artistic phenomenon. I worked on it; lots of people worked on it. But I think it was inherent in the nature of photography for that to happen. It was inherent in the fact that once photography got taken more seriously and was practiced in a more experimental wayâ€a way that was more like the way people practiced other art formsâ€that newer elements of its nature would appear. Classic art photography, which was very much the predominant language until about the 70s, was based upon the documentary model. And it seemed to be satisfied with a small image, related to the world of book publications. There was no interest in larger-scale photography, and there were no grounds for it. Only when people came from outside the classic domain of photography and started practicing photography did some of these things that had been neglected get reconsidered. kenmore repair atlanta . What I think is positive about that is that photography can function in the world very interestingly as art and can be experienced as art at a larger scale. It doesn’t mean anything anymore as experimentation, but it is now freely available as one of the actual capacities of the medium. The experimental work done since the 70s has unlocked many aspects of photography that weren’t really available or had been blocked in a way by the sort of perfected aesthetic of documentary-type photography.

Shapiro: You don’t see yourself as a documentary photographer in any way?

WALL: Sure I do. I think that all photography contains an element of reportage, just by nature, and so everybody who practices it comes into relation with that aspect in one way or another. What’s interesting is that there’s no one way anymore to come into that relationship. I think in 1945 or 1955, it was clear that if you wanted to come into relation with reportage, you had to go out in the field and function like a photojournalist or documentary photographer in some way; that was expected, and everyone expected it of themselves, and there was no very clear alternative. No other aspect of photography was really taken seriously, and that was great nevertheless because classic documentary photography really is photography; it really does connect to the nature of the medium. But still, it does not cover the horizon. There are other practices that are equally deeply connected to what photography is, and as well, there is no single way to satisfy the documentary demand. There’s no one way to come into this relationship with reportage. I think that’s what people in the 70s and 80s really worked on: not to deny the validity of documentary photography, but to investigate potentials that were blocked before, blocked by a kind of orthodoxy about what photography really was.

jeff wall, housekeeping, 1996, photograph

Shapiro: Do you have ideas about further experimentation in photography, or do you feel set in a medium for expression?

WALL: Well, I’ve been doing black and white now for four or five years.

Shapiro: Why?

WALL: I started doing black and white because when I first started working in color, which was in the 70s, I knew that, while color was important, it was also only one aspect of the medium. Black and white is a peculiar kind of image. Drawings, for example, with a pen and pencil, are black and white. The idea of non-color images is very old, and it really derives from the medium of drawing because if you have a piece of chalk, it’s only one color. You make the drawing, and it’s all in one color, but the world isn’t in one color. That anomaly really goes right back to the beginning of artâ€just having one substance to depict all the other substances. So, photography also has that in its black and white. So, it seemed to me that if you’re going to work in the medium of photography, you couldn’t just work in color; just like in the 70s and in the 60s, a lot of people trying to do new things said that you can’t just work in black and white, you’ve got to work in color. minnesota . That’s true, but it’s the other way around as well. So, I very much wanted to work in black and white, for a long time. Then, in around 1988, I saw the work of a few other photographers who were working on a large-scale in black and white; Craigie Horsfield was the most important one, and I thought, God, I haven’t seen such interesting black and white work on the scale that I’ve been working on, and it gave me more of a stimulus to get involved with what I wanted to do. It took me a while to resolve some of the technical problems of working in black and white at the scale I wanted, and so I didn’t actually make any large prints until 1996. Now I consider black and white to be an integral part of what I’m doing. It seems to me just a completion or expansion of what photography is. I like to see myself as a modernist in that I’m responding to what the medium really is.

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