There’s a certain shininess—that buffed light on computer screens, magazines, televisions, and billboards—that’s become inescapable. It’s juicy, too, and stimulates in us a low, Pavlovian desire. Something to buy, see, do? Jeff Wall’s light boxes, which are large backlit color transparencies, momentarily suggest that general cultural shininess. Before we take in his imagery, we sense that everywhere light—the life light of consumer culture—and we expect it to deliver that typically fast gotcha! message. Instead, Wall’s boxes surprise us with a wonderful, otherworldly slowness: We begin to find in them different lights, cues, intimations. They become boxes to open.
Wall is an exciting figure because, to put it bluntly, he hasn’t made the capitulations characteristic of contemporary art. Now the subject of a retrospective organized by Peter Galassi for MoMA and Neal Benezra for SFMoMA (and also the subject of a gallery show at Marian Goodman), Wall, who is 60, seems very much of our moment. Yet he cultivates a living relationship to the great Western tradition, struggles to create rigorous formal compositions, and takes subject matter seriously. All at once. Early in his life he hoped to become a painter, and is particularly known for using traditional paintings as a basis for his own compositions, which he stages and, since the early nineties, sometimes digitally alters. The highly crafted and manipulated A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) faithfully follows, for example, a composition by the great Japanese artist. Other works draw upon Manet and Cézanne.
Oddly enough, the historical references help give Wall’s art its contemporary presence. Academic thinking today suffuses the practice of art, and Wall’s sensibility reflects this self-conscious knowingness. (He’s catnip for critics.) Yet, because the quotations are fully absorbed and translated into contemporary parlance, his pictures do not become pedantic or retardataire. A Sudden Gust of Wind doesn’t appear especially Japanese; knowing its source is merely important, not vital. Wall seems drawn to the theatrical compositions of the past, and that rich sensation of the staged showpiece, displaced into the present, can send a ghostly echo into our own performance-driven culture. People often complain that Baroque art is “too stagy.” I always think, And we’re not? There can be something beautiful, at once remote and intimate, in a conversation between different stages.
Wall does not let painting-love trap his photographs. He takes inspiration from all over, giving his art enough metaphysical room to breathe; his compositional intensity helps ensure that he does not also succumb to loose pastiche. He’s a student of modern film and of the traditions of photography. In A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October, 1947, he plays with nostalgia and the past. (Memory can be a private stage.) The act of reading may inspire an image; one of his best light boxes, After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, shows a figure, reimagined from the novel, seated in a low room beneath a starry heaven of lightbulbs. He moves among subjects, which also have traditions. He’s at home in the modernist margins—abandoned places, abandoned people—but rarely draws a pointed moral. And he often works with photography’s surrealist edge, where the line between real and fanciful haunts the imagination. In A Sudden Gust of Wind, which is set in a no-there-there landscape, the eruption of the papers and the twirling of the figures has an air of ecstatic release, like a religious visitation. Instead of the Archangel or Virgin, however, the central figure spies his hat soaring upward. Which, by the way, is the best flying hat since Oddjob’s.
Wall isn’t obviously autobiographical: He may depict moments of great release but does not, in his work, fling his personal papers into the air. Instead, he worries about clichés and exhausted traditions. He thinks, judges, observes, weighs, considers. His decisive moment is the decided moment. An artist of this sensibility may seem impersonal to people who prefer a guts-and-glory approach to art. Others will find the detachment refreshing. Wall is not without his desperations. His desire to restore fullness to art—to revive that patient—is just more interesting than the usual soul-baring.
The Museum of Modern Art. Through May 14.