Jeff Wall – a minor artist


What is a Minor Artist? A first and last note on Jeff Wall at Tate Modern.  

The sign of Wall’s minorness then is this, the light box, the very structure of his work. In playing at God it reinstates the old myth of origin as first cause, and seen in this light his oeuvre, for all its charm, can hardly even meet the boundaries that he has set it out to map.

When I set out to write this piece I had rather a brash thought of Jericho in the Bible, and that if I trumpeted hard enough the whole Wall phenomenon would crumble into dust and blow away. I had not really thought of writing on Wall but was invited to submit a short piece to the Oxford Art Journal, short, not ‘scholarly’ and informal, an invitation abruptly withdrawn on sight of the below. I was ticked off and scolded in a way that is inherent in peer review and that undelines why – in my own reviewing I have tended to say either ‘no’ or ‘yes’ in all the varaitions and conditions of the affirmative. With footnote 1 I include the OAJ response, which I think is an example of quite poor practice – up to you to judge. [i] In the article I was enjoined to cite, amongst others, Rosalind Krauss expresses astonishment at how some important theorists and historians are held in thrall to Wall’s self assessment(in the Phaidon book), something that troubled me for years too.  She compares Dead Troops Talk dismissively to Meissonnier; I agree with this, but also I think it is an ethically despicable work, petulant, childish, self-congratulatory humour of the kind one expects from the (very) far right, and materially overblown for what it might set out to achieve. [ii]

In fact I unwittingly chaired the launch of the first edition of the Phaidon Jeff Wall years back at Tate Britain, a wretched and distasteful affair for me. Despite careful preparation with Thierry de Duve and Boris Groys on the announced theme of The Return of Beauty(it sounded like an animal fable for pre-teens rather than a Kantian  debate), no one had told me the real purpose of the event. When I asked the interlocutors much the same question as Rosalind was later on to pose – what on earth is so great about this? – and made what I had hoped were useful comparisons with the Death of A Commissar, (K Petrov Vodkin, 1928, ( ) the artist himself, in the audience unbeknownst to me, made himself felt and I was tempted to leave the platform! I dutifully sat out a dull evening and fled before dinner… In effect the Krauss piece theoretically most useful for what follows is her Angelus Novus, which maps out an enviable discussion of medium of a kind I try to recapture in my discussion of Ingres in this short piece. Any discussion of medium is indebted to her…

The lack of interest or even dislike that Jeff Wall’s work once aroused in me was a source of some anxiety. If I had already ended up spending so many years thinking about J – A – D Ingres, an artist who had intitally filled me with indifference and distaste, could I be once again at risk? In the event no. The trailing of a negative affect into fascination was cut by the epiphany of the 2005 Tate exhibition: Wall is a minor artist. I can enjoy him, take his work or leave it, from day to day and without the ‘theoretical’ baggage that it trails in its comet’s tail and which insists to the contrary. I can glimpse A Sudden Gust of Wind: After Hokusai, with some pleasure, en passant, because, out of the corner of my eye I see something like the multiple vanishing points of Vermeer’s View of Delft rather than the manifest reference. Out of the corner of my eye I can even miss the painfully contrived surface of the light box, the whorls of typescript systematically ordered in a lumbering critique of spontaneity, an overevident display of CAD virtuosity, the theatrical gestures that shout out about the artifice of making – as well as engaging me, in a nerdy way, in making’s fascination. The peculiar spiralling of the paper twist the eyes into the empty distance with distress of a mild migraine, while the contrived charm of the central figure pulls them back to a Gavarni-like pleasure in the gentler theatricals of caricature. It is here that the Hokusai does indeed count, on condition that we get the instruction in time to appreciate it, while the Vermeer stays uncannily reflected in the water and the darker land.

Again, in another room, the slight but elegant magician’s trick of An Octopus and its partner Some Beans is delightful because it is so thoroughly overblown and simple at the same time, a memory of Mélies as well as of still life paintingof the seventeenth century. The act of disapperance as one thing and reapperance as something else, octopus to beans, beautifully amplifies the powerful wash of light and shadow which itself belies the light box – the way in which the shadow of the left table finds its way under the left corner of the one on the right looks like one of the little impossibilities that another Dutch painter of the seventeenth century would have known how to do. ‘Estrangement experienced in the experience of the picture has become our orthodox of cultural lucidity.’ So writes Wall himself, in the paragraph that falls directly under Some Beans in the Phaidon Jeff Wall. I wonder how this controls or frames a pair of images in which the conundrum is more powerful than the enigma? And by enigma I do not mean the ‘ineffable’, just something undoable, obvious, but somewhere beyond the puzzle of the ‘metempsychosis of lilies into roses’ as Jules Laforgue once put it. [iii]

Elsewhere the Diagonal Composition 2 surprises all the other works in its restrained intensity – as do its siblings in the series which are not all on show. Here, size really counts: it is small and glows with an understated abjection; a delapidation without trauma, that meets a poetic form which quietly exacerbates its qualities into an almost sublime affirmation of the unimportant and the accidental -, fatigue and light and colour; an unimportant crisis of saturation and dulling. The No. 2 looked its best for me when – at the Whitechapel Gallery centenary show – it could be seen at the same time, but not on the same wall, as a Mondriaan and a Kenneth Martin, which between them stripped it of its residual moralism. This temporary installation and lasting affect had little to do with the categories of estrangement or false plenitude, ‘instrumental, ersatz unity’, to use Wall’s words again; but it was a deep satisfaction in the interderpending of the things, and the belonging of the image neither to history nor to itself, but to a conjuncture that gives it to be seen. In the Tate I had to make up such stories, to think only about artists to whom Wall did not direct me.

So while I was walking around the exhibition I thought a great deal too about Hubert Robert, who was a good artist in his time and who traded wittily, self-consciously and often beautifully in history and its myths. (As it happens after writing this I find that Wall did once refer to this artist, though not, thankfully, in terms I recognise. [iv] ) His famous pair of images, Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre in Ruins, and the Design for the Grande Galerie in the Louvre, (both 1796, ) as well as one or two genre scenes came to mind. His  Washerwomen under  a Bridge,  for example, beautifully constructed to represent the banality of everyday life in the shadow of the ancient world, displays these two forms of timelessness crossing each other in the figure of the arrested river-flow; the classical frieze on the bridge itself and the daily space of washing join but cannot outdo one another. In the two images of the Louvre, the one a superabundant display of its collections being viewed and drawn and copied, the other the site of a sky-capped ruin, the fragments of its hardly excavated collection being viewed and drawn, and in the Washerwomen, Robert engages an exhaustive exploration of a conceit worked through a series of rhetorical-historical figures that consistently imbricate the past, present and future as each other’s as if.

The Louvre in the present-ideal necessarily quotes from its whole visible collection, as if quotation were a simple matter of the record, while the discovery of the fragments defers the past into a post-catastrophic future. Robert’s temporalities are something more than a knowing syncretic and, importantly, resign to history rather than control it. They make for a space of improbable time, in the efflorescence of so many possible instances of its being visible in the meeting of sky and stone and flesh as they abut one another in their different being(in paint). Out of the corner of my eye I catch The Pont du Gard, (1787), that supremely Rousseauesque ruin, with its backlit sky, in the knowing production of a cleverly factitious relation between the seeable and history, the interferences between the rhetorics of history and nature and the picturesque remains of work as a something painted. These really do not haunt Wall’s landscapes and townscapes, where also physical or botanical nature and building almost touch, The Story Teller, or  The Thinker, but they haunt me in their exclusion. They haunt me in their complex adequacy to these relations that Wall’s work otherwise inflates. Manet’s Déjeuner…, (one of the true Idols of the once social history of art) weighs in Wall with the deadweight of a discursive tradition that would have its cake and eat it. The Roberts, so perfect an example of  what was thought to be a minor genre, escape the name in their aspiration to and figuring of time as phantasy. A phantasy or a daydream of a kind now scorched and rendered arid in  the relentless light of the genre of all genres which is not now history painting, as in Robert’s time, and which so overtly appeals to Wall. But rather here, in Wall, this genre is the history of painting – as the history of the finally uncritical delusion of critical modernism. Wall’s monumental project is nothing if not control, as if rhetoric has become an instrument of the suffocation of its own histories, of speech itself.

Yet even so their haunting is more evidence of a repressed belonging of Wall to history than the stark obviousness of the Ruined Room. Belonging to a manner, that is, of art telling stories about itself. Stories made up out of an already story-told version of contemporaneity in its relation with history as if a future perfect. But with the Ruined Room, before I am even told to look at Delacroix, Wall’s image mimics everything in Delacroix I cannot abide, and ends history with the closure of a an historical judgment and an instruction on how to look and how to feel. But there it is, seen out of the corner of the eye, it is nonetheless the art of a minor vision, of an alertness, a passing pleasure or an irritation, now you see it, now you don’t. A minor artist.

Yet this insight is hardly free from problems and it flies in the face of a general consensus that Wall is a terribly important figure. He is one of those artists around whom historians, critics and theorists collect, Richter, Koolhaas or Emin, for example; and like them he sustains the ambient discourse with his own verbal fluency, determining its directions and its limits, directing the multinational enterprise that is his critical fortune. At the same time the term ‘minor’ is painfully relative and in no way in contradiction with being so important. Histories of art and criticism are strewn with changing passions, and there have long been strange relations of intensity between artists and writers or critics; Diderot’s obsession with the dreary Greuze or Baudelaire’s devoted inflation of Delacroix’s already inflated gestures. Phares is one of Baudelaire’s poems that leaves me cold, and if  I have little taste for Delacroix, whom I feel should have been a minor artist, and this little judgement has some import for what I am writing. And whatever historical status Delacroix has come to acquire it still hardly matches up to that which came to embalm Manet; or, to swap metaphors, it is this latter who has been the grain of sand in the cultivated pearl of contemporary art history. That Wall has so closely identified himself with both these artists is no doubt because of his training as an art historian and because he has seen in rather a perverse way how art in its making might be historic(al).

And, after all, if he is a minor artist then this might properly imply that we who engage with him on the terms that he has offered are likewise minor historians, critics and so forth, and that the ‘terribly’ is a narcissitic misrecognition of such a probability. One of the results and, maybe, purposes of the Phaidon series ‘Contemporary Artists’, in which the volume is dedicated to Wall is particularly weighty, is to achieve the flattening effect of totally commodifying the relation of writer and artist into one of the beatification of the critical as the field of their equivalence: something notable in the Wall volume, where passionate agreement and occasional difference alike constitute the artist’s veracity, all-controlling presence and canonical value. Wall’s own speaking appropriates and fully processes everything that touches it with the effect that the relation of the practices of making and theorising, in the work and around it, make for a monumental closure of which openness, question or uncontrolled readings are nothing more than one of  the characteristics of its monumentality. In a none too subtle a loop the critical itself emerges as the highest and shared form of value, the commodity offered by the book, and figured in a mutual hollowing out of art and critical discourse.

Follow the passages that surround the my above quotation from his essay ‘Gestus’ with its surging teleologies of received criticality. Be that as it may, there is plenty of complex intellectual activity in the book, but it remains suspended in the hypostatized spectacle of the artist himself as always and already in possession of the total ground of possible discourse.  More than many another volume in the series the Wall pleads for recognition of the artist’s importance, but this importance itself is, as I suggest, the wrecking of critical discourse. In this respect Boris Groys’ essay, ‘Life without Shadows’ could weigh either way in a reflective and critical understanding of the lightbox, but it remains oddly neutral like political spin, ‘Wall is using the tradition of painting to free photography from everything that is not pre-planned and calculated, to leave nothing to uncontrollable chance.’ [v] This could as well be the outline of a pathology as the naming of a new procedure for photographic art or of photography as-if-painting, but the curious openness of the sentence opens theoretical perspectives on the image and its histories of an immensity that can only feed the totalising ambitions of Wall’s own discourse -, erected on the ruins of historical diversity, complexity and chance. Indeed if, I quote,  ‘Photography (‘writing in light’, to translate from the Greek) possesses the transparency and controllability of the technical process that eliminated all darkness.’(ibid, p. 65), the the only other technical process comparable to Wall’s is that by which God created the first light and will recreate it again after the end of human time! – something that Groys goes on to note, while referring it back only to the history of painting. ‘And what is hidden behind the light? A light source. Maybe a god, maybe a sort of lamp. But this light source is so publicly inaccessible and opaque that there is certainly no point in wasting any further thought on the matter.’ (ibid, p. 67)

What is clear enough in the interviews and essays alike, then,  is that Wall stares at history with a frontal stare; there is no thinking to waste, for us, on our own behalf. For if history is never behind him and for ever in front, but as a manifest presence rather than as a matter deferred action the, for me, this posture is one of the constitutive elements of his importance. For his posture requires us, willy nilly, to match his words to his works and his works to his words and it is rare that left-over and half of fully forgotten thoughts of the past filter into his materials and his gestures other than through our escaping from them or carelessly forgetting them.

So what now is a minor artist, for our times, that is to say? An artist who (out)faces history? This, I think. Baudelaire, it is worth remembering, wrote well about minor artists, as well as about a Delacroix or a Wagner:

‘M. Penguilly is also an amateur of the past. An inventive, curious, hard-working intelligence. Add to this, should you wish, all the most all the most honorable and graceful epithets that may be applied to a poetry of the second rank, one which is not absolutely great, bare and simple. He has the attention to detail, the burning patience and the cleanness of a book crazed man. He pieces are worked like the arms and furniture of olden days. His work has a metallic polish and the sharpness of a razor. As for his imagination[the queen of faculties for CB – my note] I would not say that it is positively great, but is singular in its activity, openness to impressions and curiosity.’ [vi]

The rest of Baudelaire’s page from his Salon of 1859 would stand in for almost all that I have to say, so closely does his presentation of Penguilly-l’Haridon’s Petite Danse macabre, ‘a band of late night drunks’, begin to echo Wall’s Dead Troops Talk in its relation, let us to say, to Wilfrid Owen’s ‘Red lips are not so red…’ If for Baudelaire Penguilly’s pedantry is utterly pale in relation to a true medieval allegory, the for me there is no lighter,  ironic or  playfully violent version of Owen’s bloodstains that is not fated to be kitsch, in our time, and Wall’s image offers them a terrible affront.

Let me circle round this historicity once more then, following Wall, this time behind his back.

Some while ago, writing about one of the many versions that Ingres did around the theme of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, the one in the Musée Condé, I was struck by the way in which the artist seemed to have stumbled on the trick of backlighting. This, I admit, is not an idea that could have ocurred without Jeff Wall or Catherine Yass. [vii] Ingres’ is a dark theme of two lovers caught almost at the moment of infidelity, the angry husband of Francesca emerging from the shadows at viewer’s right to despatch the two of them to Dante’s inferno (other artists show this episode in plenty). In this version Ingres shows the lovers against a luminescent wall that drops down behind the bench on which she is seated as he kneels to kiss her cheek, reappearing as a horizontal plane to the right of a carpet upon which the bench is placed and then again beyond the rug to the front edge of painting. More or less, with some modulation the background object shares the tonality of the face flesh and swelling necks of both the lovers. Thus while the shadow on the inside of her neck and that cast by his foot on the floor refer to a conventional light source to the upper left of the picture, this makes no sense of the underlying evenness that envelops the figures in something that is not like light at all, but which nonetheless reveals the figures and forms them. Curiously if it were light, it would cease to be interesting. For what holds the attention is that it is only like light and does something for which a vocabulary is wanting, a thought without an idea, or a ‘simple’ matter of the difference between finding and saying: something that Ingres only discovers by having his back to us as he paints, and, at the same time with his back to history and to all of painting’s suppositions as well.

This perception makes a certain nonsense of the painting and what looks like its carefully elaborated intentions, while pointing to its capacity not to be a painting at all in the terms that it is setting out for narrative and feeling; rather it engages an uncanny relation with its own claims to represent or to tell. And so it makes visible the aporetic of how any given subject matter and any given formal procedure make a space for each other on the painted surface, or any other surface that forms the space for the inscription of this relation. It envisages an enigma, that is to say. At the same time, taking this as a sign not of Ingres’ pre-discovery of the backlit image, but of the arbitrary character of  implication of subject and procedure, it is more as if he were a forerunner of Thomas Demand than of Jeff Wall. That is, if we understand Demand as faking or making light as identified with objects that the light anyway submits to photography.

Both Ingres and Demand would be an as-if of a form of lighting that gives its own game away, thus too calls the bluff on modelling and composing and of the rest of  painting’s representational procedures and, by implication, of abstraction itself. And, thereby, of all art history’s modernist teleologies as Wall invokes them, as that of which he a summum. Not only would Wall not then belong to this field but rather his actual use of the light box would be the procedure that excludes him. It literalises itself, as the symptom of an anxiety of not being seen to be in critique. What in Ingres is the critical, if unwilled, form of backlight in Wall becomes an essence, a metaphysic that secures the arbitrariness of the work as if logical, political, coherent and properly proportioned in its discursive balances. In effect this is the inverted form of the thought in Robert’s two paintings of the Louvre. The sign of Wall’s minorness then is this, the light box, the very structure of his work. In playing at God it reinstates the old myth of origin as first cause, and seen in this light his oeuvre, for all its charm, can hardly even meet the boundaries that he has set it out to map.


[i]   1)     The board want to see it developed as a fully elaborated argument with footnotes, discussion of other approaches, etc.

2)     Centrally they thought you should tackle Clark, De Duve, Crow et al head on and elaborate your disagreements.

3)     That you ought to compare your criticism to Krauss’s in her essay on Coleman.

4)     That the Phaidon volume could be given less attention.

[ii] Rosalind Krauss, “… And Then Turn Away?” An Essay on James Coleman, October, Vol. 81. (Summer, 1997), pp. 5-33. Also her “Angelus Novus”: Perspectives on Walter Benjamin, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 2, (Winter, 1999), pp. 289-305.

[iii] Jeff Wall, with essays by Thierry de Duve, Arielle Pelenc, Boris Groys and Jean-François Chevrier (New Edition), London, Phaidon, 2002. Here from p. 87

[iv] Jeff Wall,  ‘I’m Not Necessarily Interested in Different Subject Matter, But Rather in Different Types of Picture: Jeff Wall Interviewed by Martin Schwander’, Restoration , Kunstmuseum Luzern and Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1994, p.22.

[v] ibid. p. 64.

[vi] Charles Baudelaire, Curiosités esthétiques. L’Art Romantique, Édition de H Lemaitre, Paris, Garnier, 1962, p. 362

[vii] In my Ingres then, and now, London, Routledge, 2000, p. 60. For an extensive discussion of the oddities of this series of Ingres’ work see Susan Siegfried, ‘Ingres’s Reading – The Undoing of Narrative’ in Fingering Ingres, edited by Susan Siegfried and Adrian Rifkin, Oxford, Blackwell, 2001, pp. 4 – 30.