r e v i e w s

Jeff Wall at Fondation Beyeler, Bâle 

by Guillaume Lasserre

Jeff Wall, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen / Basel
January 28 – April 21, 2024

Curator: Martin Schwander, Curator at Large, Fondation Beyeler, assisted by Charlotte Sarrazin, Associate Curator.

Jeff Wall has made a major contribution to establishing photography as an autonomous artistic discipline. Considered the inventor of “staged photography”, he draws inspiration from everyday life or art history to produce, from a number of separate shots, generally large-format prints that are the result of his observation of human interaction. In Basel, the Fondation Beyeler is bringing together some fifty-five works – some of them previously unseen – by the Canadian photographer in an impressive retrospective that spans more than fifty years of creative work, offering a comprehensive overview of his seminal œuvre. The exhibition opens in the foyer of the Swiss institution with two works from 1999 that are emblematic of Wall’s practice: two large slides presented in light boxes, the photographer combining the sources of image and light. 

Jeff Wall was born in 1946 in Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada. He studied art history in his hometown, graduating from the University of British Columbia in 1970 with a research paper entitled Berlin Dada and the Notion of Context. That same year, he moved to London with his wife and children to pursue a postgraduate degree at the Courtauld Institute. He taught art history in Canada, first as assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (1974-1975), then as associate professor at Simon Fraser University, near Vancouver, between 1976 and 1987, before being appointed full professor at the University of British Columbia until his retirement in 1999. His training as an art historian no doubt explains why, from an early age, he described his photographs as paintings, borrowing the terminology from the field of painting. This relationship to art history is reflected in the photography itself, which is presented on a grand scale and with a plethora of details. The often life-size representation of objects and characters has an immersive effect on visitors, who seem drawn into the image. 

Jeff Wall
A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993
Une bourrasque de vent soudaine (d’après Hokusaï)
Diapositive dans caisson lumineux, 229 x 377 cm
Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland
© Jeff Wall

Initially developed in the advertising field, backlit lightboxes were to become the emblematic medium of Jeff Wall’s work. Considering their evocative power, he seized on them in the mid-1970s, introducing them into the field of contemporary art and launching a new form of art presentation. He produced large slides which he displayed inside these light boxes. This format remained his exclusive trademark until the mid-1990s, even becoming his signature. They are characteristic of the way Wall confronts visitors with a “total image”. The artist went on to develop large-format black-and-white photographs and color inkjet prints, expanding his repertoire.

Far from being spontaneous, Jeff Wall’s work is made up of reconstitutions and stagings. He describes his work as “cinematography”, cinema representing for him a model of creative freedom and invention that he does not find in photography due to its dominant documentary aspect. Mimic (1982) appears characteristic of this cinematic style, but also of a commitment to social issues typical of his 1980s output. We are in a North American industrial suburb, where we can see both industrial and residential buildings. In the foreground, a couple walk along the sidewalk at the height of an Asian man. While the woman seems to be looking away, her companion makes a racist gesture, stretching the corner of his eye in the direction of the Asian man. Although the photograph appears to have been taken on the spot, this is not the case. In fact, it’s a reconstruction of a scene Wall witnessed. Unlike previous generations of photographers who captured what was happening in front of them, Wall meticulously stages his images. Like a film, each photograph requires lengthy preparation, actors and post-production work. “His groundbreaking early works represent a balance between emotion and reflection, chance and calculation, conscious and unconscious, back and forth between history and the present, the public and private sphere, art and reality,” writes Martin Schwander in the catalog accompanying the exhibition. Jeff Wall’s work challenges reality, modifying its perception, as in After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2000), undoubtedly one of the photographer’s most famous works, which shows the secret hideaway in which the young black protagonist is writing his novel. It is illuminated by exactly 1,369 light bulbs.

Developed in close collaboration with Jeff Wall, the exhibition navigates through his images, which move between documentary snapshot, cinematic composition and poetic invention. The two works presented in the foyer: Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona, in which Wall reveals a moment usually invisible to visitors: the cleaning of the building’s large windows before they open; and A Donkey in Blackpool, which shows a moment of rest in the life of a donkey in a modest stable, are fundamentally different. What they have in common is the profound relationship between human beings and animals and the interiors that house them. The exhibition is designed to create such comparisons. It weaves together echoes and resonances between subjects, techniques and genres, enabling us to better grasp the masterly work of one of the most important exponents of plastic photography. 

Jeff Wall
Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona, 1999
Le nettoyage du matin, Fundació Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona
Diapositive dans caisson lumineux, 187 x 351 cm
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Acheté en 2000 avec le soutien du
Ernst von Siemens-Kunstfonds
© Jeff Wall

Head image : Jeff Wall, After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 1999–2000. D’après ‘Homme invisible, pour qui chantes-tu ?’ de Ralph Ellison, le prologue. Diapositive dans caisson lumineux, 174 x 250,5 cm. Fondation Emanuel Hoffmann, en dépôt dans la Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel © Jeff Wall

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