The Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective devoted to the work of Jeff Wall—the Canadian artist whose large-scale, often extravagantly staged color prints displayed in light boxes have profoundly altered the practice of contemporary photography—opens with a disclaimer. A mere 40 works, an introductory wall text informs us, will serve to represent some 30 years of the artist’s career.
Don’t be fooled. The density of theoretical underpinnings, art historical references, and sheer visual information in many of Wall’s pictures is boggling. Erudition is not a requirement (or even necessarily an asset) for enjoying their richly detailed surfaces and hints of narrative. But the more you know, the more intellectually demanding they appear.
A confession: For years I found Wall’s work brilliant but off-putting. As an artist, he seemed largely uninterested in himself, which I found strangely alienating. His chosen medium, the light box, carried the distinct chill of its origins in the realm of advertising. He hailed from afar (Vancouver), and his sensibility appeared disquietingly original, nurtured by the open air of an art world free of market considerations. His ambitions, in fact, were grandly impersonal. Marrying Caravaggio’s emotional drama with Manet’s taste for contemporary spectacle, filtering them through feminism, Marxist art history, and Frankfurt School philosophy, and presenting them in a format with the startling vibrancy of cinema, Wall aimed to be, in Baudelaire’s phrase, “the painter of modern life”—the artist to whom we turn to find our own times reflected.
Somehow he pulled it off. There are hits and misses here (Wall’s landscapes, for one, leave me largely unmoved), but his best works seem at once new and uncannily reminiscent of incidents and personages glimpsed in peripheral vision or rising up from the depths of consciousness. Take Picture for Women (1979)—rarely have the erotic components of an image been anatomized so succinctly. Wall, then 33, had turned to 19th-century painting to help himself through an artistic impasse, following a precocious youth spent in thrall to Conceptualism. Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergére provided the framework for this picture, a mirror reflection of the artist (lean and hungry as a perpetual graduate student) prowling around a pulchritudinous model, with his large-format camera a fulcrum for his desire, and ours.
Never mind my mild annoyance at finding a male artist “succeeding” at feminism so robustly. The progressive agenda of Wall’s early work—Mimic (1982), for example, re-creates a fleeting, racist gesture Wall witnessed on the street; Milk (1984), condenses the rage of a dispossessed youth into a bit of flying liquid—is joined by his constant interrogation of the photographic medium. This is Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” rehearsed by the down-and-out characters Wall recruited from real life until it appears closer to memory than vision.
In The Storyteller (1986), a group of apparently homeless people belonging to British Columbia’s indigenous population find respite under a highway embankment, as beside a makeshift fire they listen to the title character with rapt attention. These are the conditions for narrative in our time, Wall seems to suggest—the storyteller’s art conjuring a sense of cultural identity from the tattered remnants of modernity.
Around 1990, Wall began exploiting digital photography, which allowed him to build up images from previously recorded bits. The deliriously grotesque Dead Troops Talk (1992)—a vision of an ambushed Red Army Patrol, with each blood-soaked soldier reacting to the realization of his own demise—or the intensely lyrical A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993), based upon a Japanese woodblock print of a group of characters caught in blustery weather, are each responses to the new temporal possibilities of the medium.
There were further detours, into abstraction, through “period” pictures with elaborate sets, and back to almost classical black-and-white prints. One has to admire an artist’s absolute commitment to follow, willy-nilly, his instincts. And there’s an image for that as well. In Overpass (2001), four stragglers, plastic luggage in tow, makes their way across some featureless bridge, beneath a glowering sky, toward an unknown destination. We are all headed, Wall would have us realize, bearing our humble burdens, in that same direction.