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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  or Milk , 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
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 , Doorpusher , and The
Agreement , I wondered whether that had influenced you in
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 , 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
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
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
JW: What is evident now is fatigue with getting what you
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
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
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
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
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
Bob Nickas is a New York–based critic and the curator of more
than forty exhibitions since