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Jeff Wall

Author: Bob Nickas
Issue: March 2003

BOB NICKAS: When I saw The Vampires' Picnic in 1991 it made me realize the '80s were over. In retrospect, how do you see the decade through the filter of your work?

JEFF WALL: I don't think it's because of the calendar, but by about 1990 I had decided to move in slightly different directions. The Vampires' Picnic was part of a group of pictures in which I wanted to work with larger groups of people. It was also one of a few pictures involving imaginary, fantastic elements and what I'd call an "ornate" style. I did this as a vague counterpoint to pictures like Mimic [1982] or Milk [1984], which I see as a kind of neorealism based on things I have witnessed and which have a close relationship to the idea of documentary.

BN: You've referred to the vampires as non–sexually reproducing—they simply overtake other bodies—which made me think of the picture in terms of the end of sexuality with the onset of AIDS. In the late '80s the idea of having a free relationship to your body, and to others, seemed to be at the end of the line.

JW: I never thought about it that way, but I can't deny what you're saying. It seems like a response to something that was in the air, something I probably wasn't even aware of. The whole vampiric mythology that I put into the Picnic goes back to the writings I did on Dan Graham at the beginning of the '80s, "Dan Graham's Kammerspiel," in which I developed some meanings for vampirism in relation to various urbanist and architectural discussions circulating in his work.

BN: You've also said that it's like a portrait of an '80s TV family: the whole Dynasty or Dallas clan, all sprawled out on some bloody battlefield at the end of the day.

JW: It's amusing to think the moment is somehow preserved in some allegorical way even though I never really experienced that moment. I was never that elated during the '80s. I know that things really changed around '89, after the collapse of the market, but that didn't happen to me. I was never that up, and I never went that down. In the early '90s I remember talking to an artist much younger than I who was lamenting that he might actually have to get a job. I always had a job: I was teaching. So I thought, "Well, I feel sorry for you, but I don't really know why I should." I guess they had had it so good that they didn't need to work. My view of success as an artist was that you didn't have to work at something besides your art. Even if you had little or no money, if you didn't have to have a job you were a success as an artist. But I came out of the '60s; I didn't expect much. It was normal to imagine having to do something to survive.

BN: As the money rolled in and New York spruced up, a type of freer '60s person, someone you'd see roaming the streets, was swept aside. When I saw the hippies and vagabonds in pictures like Abundance [1985], Doorpusher [1984], and The Agreement [1987], I wondered whether that had influenced you in any way.

JW: I wasn't living in New York in the '80s, but at the time I did notice that a lot of art at the end of the '70s began to have a fresh and optimistic feel, an exuberant quality to it. I felt that the dirty things about life were not appearing, even though the new imagistic art of the moment made some claims to being closer to life than, say, post-Minimal art, or whatever was sensed to be "over" at the time. I still liked some of that new work, but it didn't satisfy me on the question of the actual appearance of things. So I did have a feeling that it was necessary for me to focus on decayed, forgotten, broken, and problematic things, which is part of how I got a reputation for being a social artist, or for making a kind of politically engaged art. I've never really identified too much with that characterization, but it must be part of the impulse to show that kind of thing in a picture. So you're right about those broken-down hippie figures and marginal people; they seem to me to have a way of disclosing something about just what things were like and, I guess, what I am like.

BN: I remember the exact moment when I was bitten by the '80s bug. I saw a work of yours in a gallery and wanted to buy it on the spot. I think it was Steve's Farm, Steveston [1980], and it was $15,000 or $16,000, probably my entire life savings at the time. I had to ask myself: Had I been pulled into the moment, to be so excited that I actually wanted to own something?

JW: Well, I'm glad you wanted it. Too bad you didn't get it.

BN: Of course, what was a small fortune then is nothing compared to what it might cost now.

JW: Or the converse can be true: It could be quite a lot compared to how little some art is worth now, which is the case with a lot of work from that time—or any time. The public always hears about the price of art going up; nobody seems to notice how most works lose value. Anyway, I didn't have a New York gallery until the end of the '80s. I don't think I sold any pictures at all in the US before then. So when there was the downturn in the market, it had little to do with me. Paradoxically, it was just at that moment that my dealers and I decided my work was too cheap, so my prices went up pretty sharply around '88, and when I first started showing in New York people were shocked at what my pictures cost.

BN: The superproduction back then relates to Warhol's idea of a factory turning out products one season after another. I thought of your work more in terms of a band putting out a new record every few years. It was an event to see a new picture. There weren't that many coming out back then, or now. And never big editions.

JW: I was busy earning a living teaching between around 1975 and 1987 and had limited time and means to make pictures, so I wasn't able to do as much as I would have liked to do. Until around 1992, a lot of my pictures were unique with an artist's proof. I had thought about Warhol and admired his work to a certain extent, but I didn't want to go anywhere close to that direction. I remember thinking in the late '70s that the explosion or flowering of Warholism was inevitable, given a lot of the cultural and social factors. I didn't necessarily think it was going to be very good for serious art. I make a distinction between "contemporary art" and "serious contemporary art," a distinction that I think has become much more pronounced and visible since the beginning of the '80s. In other words, I think a new kind of art has emerged since the '70s, a kind that is easier to appreciate, more like entertainment, more attached to media attitudes. The new contemporary art has by now become the dominant form. It's much closer to entertainment and depends on production value and on spectacle in a way that serious art never did before.

BN: In the '80s you had the feeling that an artist could be as famous as a sports figure, a movie star, a rock star. They often ended up at the same parties.

JW: I think that was something that artists both had and hadn't wanted for a long time previously. They, we, had a phobia about it, a fear that we would be reduced to celebrity status rather than being taken seriously. At the same time, there was a secret longing for celebrity. This intense ambivalence seems like a permanent aspect of the "artistic personality." Until Warhol, artists managed that ambivalence by adhering to traditional avant-garde personae. They still had a connection to the idea that serious art, whether it was music or literature or visual art, didn't need to be celebrated in the same way as entertainment and popular art were, and there should be a divide between them, the distinction Greenberg talked about between avant-garde and kitsch. But there was a generation who were younger than I who didn't feel that way. Warhol was their mentor, their guru. He gave the green light for not being worried about those things anymore and, in fact, for being against being worried about them. He was very persuasive because of the success of his own work but also because he wrote about his attitudes and ideas, and in a very honest way. I admire that honesty; that approach was right for him because that was just who he was and he was true to himself. But his influence on other people was something else.

BN: In '66 Warhol announced his retirement from painting. He said something like, "I only want to make movies from now on." I guess he thought that's where the money was. A lot of '80s artists wanted to make movies; in fact one of them seems to have a much more interesting career now as a director, and nearly nothing left to say in paint. Have you ever been tempted by the big screen?

JW: No. I'm not tempted. I felt that the spectacular art emerging at that time was not necessarily all bad. It did have a kind of baroque quality, proclaiming that art could be extravagant but still serious. So it wasn't unprecedented that artists should want to do something dynamic and large scale and impressive. Maybe that's why I thought I could try to do something along the lines of large-scale public allegory involving some of those ideas about spectacle.

BN: Some people see the '80s as a time when we got the art we deserved. That may seem a bit jaundiced, as if art was some form of retribution, but as we look back there's a strong sense of the art really being of its time.

JW: I think that a lot of what was done was what was wanted, if you want to put it that way, by the general public that made up the art world, the buyers, the sellers, the makers, the observers, and so on. I think they wanted to have the taboo against celebrity and unseriousness lifted. That was the wish of the times, or one of them. Warhol was important for lifting the ban on expressing your own taste. In that sense, he was the anti-Greenberg. A lot of artists responded to him because, in fact, that's what they thought as well, but they were too embarrassed to admit it. Greenberg, by the way, was very perceptive about this kind of embarrassment in judging art. So, in that sense, the art world did get the art it wanted. Whether it was deserved or not, I don't know. Now, having had it for most of their adult lives, I'm not so sure that they're happy with it.

BN: I have almost no idea how to think about what's going on now.

JW: What is evident now is fatigue with getting what you wanted.

BN: For me, art history is a matter of detective work, but there's been almost none done yet for the '80s. We've only just gone through it. How do you see this most recent period entering history?

JW: It's too recent to be historical. It's far enough away to allow some detachment, but the people who are going to write the history of the period are now about eight years old. We went through it, and we're still looking back on what we experienced. We won't be able to see our past that historically. Starting to think about the past while you haven't lost your memory is probably a good idea. Properly written history is usually not very good when it comes to the lived texture of things. That lived feeling is something that disappears with us, probably, except when it's preserved in art. History is different. There are going to be some artifacts, some commentary, some data, and somehow that will be articulated. But it won't be an eyewitness account, it won't have that intimacy. This is an intermediate moment where people are going to reminisce and at least begin to study the period. But to me it doesn't seem historical because so many of the developments of the '80s, like Warholism, are still unfolding.

BN: And in ways we can't even imagine. If you think about the potential rewards involved in following that path . . .

JW: Or the punishments.

BN: [Laughter.] I like a happy ending, so I'm glad you mentioned that.

JW: Punishment, if it is just, can lead to a happy ending. I am still trying to do some of the things I was trying to do in 1980, so for me things are not so discontinuous.

BN: What are you trying to do now that you were trying to do then?

JW: I'm still trying to make good pictures, to make them in the way I thought I was trying to do them then. Pictorial art, when it's done seriously, doesn't age much. Its problems don't evolve much. They remain the same kinds of problems that go back a thousand years. There is a continuity that's imposed by the art form itself. A lot of the new forms that have emerged have a sense of the abruptness of their emergence and so, of course, a sense of their own ending. I never had the feeling that anything could be over for me, and that's because of the art form itself, the simplicity, permanence, and spontaneity of the pictorial. That has a certain sobriety that I think is also important as a distinction from a kind of intoxication with the new, an intoxication with the media, and an intoxication with novel forms of art and spectacle that was really evident in the time we're talking about and is even more intense now.

In '85 or '86, I was working through the idea that picture-making the way I wanted to do it could lead in two simultaneous and, artistically, equally valid directions. One is to extreme artifice, somewhere imaginary and allegorical, such as with The Vampires' Picnic. On the other hand, photography is so rooted in reportage that one has to stay in contact with that. There are these two alternatives that I think are always presented in the medium—maybe in any pictorial medium. I was very much involved with that then and still am. So as far as I'm concerned, I'm still in the same period.

Bob Nickas is a New York–based critic and the curator of more than forty exhibitions since 1984.


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