Photographer Interviews

Great Artist Statements: Jeff Wall and Encouraging Conversation

August 31, 2017

By Conor Risch

Jeff Wall Works and Collected Writings © Ediciones Poligrafa; Jeff Wall Selected Essays and Interviews © The Museum of Modern Art; Jeff Wall Marcel Duchamp: Étant Donnés © Verlag für moderne Kunst

Along with making images, Jeff Wall has written extensively about his own work and the work of other artists—his essays have been collected in several books. One strength of his writing is that it “never seems to hold tight to one interpretation,” says artist and educator John Pilson.

In our story “Conquering the Dreaded Artist Statement,” we asked photographers and teachers for their advice on writing effective artist statements. One challenge that artists face is that they have to provide enough information about their work to entice interest, but not tell viewers what they are supposed to think. “It’s not a closed conversation [even though] some artists present it that way,” notes Leslie Ureña, assistant curator of photographs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The statement “is a place where you start a conversation about your work,” she says. Photographer and University of Oregon professor Ron Jude agrees. “The last thing you want to do is say very specifically: This is what the work is doing.”

Artist and Yale University professor John Pilson says that photographer Jeff Wall is a perfect example of someone who has resisted the urge to try to nail down the meaning of his work. Wall is best-known for his “cinematographic,” large-scale, staged, color photographs and is one of the artists credited with the creation of conceptual photography. “Jeff Wall is one of the most eloquent artists on the subject of his own work you’ll ever encounter,” Pilson says, “but if you go deep into [his] various writings and the interviews he’s given, he has not submitted to promoting one version of himself: There is a deep intellectual side, there is a deep art historical side to him, and then there is a very poetic and freeform and very accepting [side].”

Wall has made photographs that reference other works of art, such as his “A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai),” which is based on a woodcut by Katsushika Hokusai, and his “After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue,” which imagines a scene from Ellison’s novel. Other images by Wall look photojournalistic or “near-documentary,” but are recreations of scenes Wall has witnessed. His work is complex and varied, and in his writing, Wall invites further investigation and interpretation. “He never shuts down the conversation about his work and he never seems to hold tight to one interpretation,” Pilson says. “He’s very fluid and I think that’s because he’s responding to context, and his work is very fluid if you think about it.”

In addition to writing and speaking about his own work, Wall is also known for his essays about contemporary art and photography. A collection, Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews, was published in 2007 by the Museum of Modern Art to coincide with a Wall retrospective exhibition.

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