Comments/Context: Jeff Wall is perhaps the most intellectual of the top tier contemporary photographers at work today; it only takes a few moments with some of his writings and interviews to recognize that this is an artist who has meticulously thought his images through ahead of time, systematically placed them in a larger art historical framework, and thoroughly analyzed his own approach in a depth of detail normally reserved for scholars and historians. For many younger photographers, Wall is a kind of God; a distant icon to be revered and emulated, an emblem of how the traditions of documentary photography and cinematography can be merged, and with a splash of technical perfection, can produce hyper real narratives that tell expansive stories in a single frame.
The selection of Wall's most recent works now on view at Marian Goodman is unfortunately a lopsided group of pictures; there are a handful of stand out images, mixed in with others that seem to miss the mark. I use the word "seem" here with some care - Wall's well known intellectual approach sets a sort of challenge for the viewer; none of what he has done is in the least bit random (these are not aimless snapshots), and his pictures are normally made up of complex layers of meaning and reference. So as I stood before the many works that didn't move me much, I couldn't help but ask myself the question: am I just too dumb to understand what Wall is doing here? Unable to parse many of the images into some kind of significance or meaning, and given the massive prices on the sheet in my hands, I had the distinct feeling of being talked down to.
There are however a few truly extraordinary images buried amid the less inspiring pictures. I thoroughly enjoyed Siphoning Fuel, an image of an older man in a Hawaiian shirt, on his knees siphoning gas from an old Chrysler, while a young girl squats down nearby; it's the kind of picture that I associate with Wall - careful narration and composition, full of pregnant possibilities. Knife Throw tells the story of two young men practicing their knife throwing skills, launching pocket knives into a battered and scarred pink wall in a dark garage or warehouse; again Wall has taken a complicated situation and pared it down into a memorable moment.
I therefore came away from this show somewhat conflicted: there are certainly a few images here that merit inclusion among Wall's best works; there are also quite a few that left me unmoved or puzzled, trying to figure out what an empty spider web jungle gym or a woman walking on the street with a green building in the background were supposed to be telling me. When he gets it right, Wall is the master of turning the mundane into something theatrical; unfortunately, when he misses, there isn't much to hold your attention.
Collector's POV: The smallest works in this exhibit are priced at either $110000 or $120000; after that, the prices jump to $385000 and then range all the way up to $550000. Wall's images have not been widely available at auction in the past few years; the few works that have come up for sale brought in between $70000 and $220000, but none of his iconic works were among this group, so this price range is likely suspect as a result.
Collectors are always making trade-offs, and given these huge prices, I certainly found myself thinking about all of the amazing work that could be acquired for the price of just one of these murals. If we had a world class contemporary collection, perhaps one of the best from this show would be a welcome addition; but for our modest collection, our dollars would clearly be better spent elsewhere.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
- Exhibit review, NYTimes, 2009 (here, scroll down a bit)
- MoMA retrospective, 2007 (here)
- NYTimes Magazine feature, 2007 (here)
Through October 30th
Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019