Artists Who Adorn Walls -- or Rip Them Apart
Friday, April 13, 2007
NEW YORK -- Anyone curious about how much the art world has changed in the past 30 years can get a lesson by visiting New York this spring. Two important retrospective exhibitions tell the tale: "Jeff Wall" at the Museum of Modern Art, and "Gordon Matta-Clark: 'You Are the Measure' " at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Wall, 61, is an art star who has made his way into the media spotlight after a 30-year career spent mostly in Vancouver, B.C. His work consists largely of carefully posed and exquisitely crafted color photographs, exhibited as huge, spectacular, backlit transparencies.
Matta-Clark would be three years older than Wall had he not died of pancreatic cancer in 1978, the same year Wall began making the pictures in MoMA's retrospective. Matta-Clark worked with a variety of unconventional tools and materials, ranging from chain saws to mold in petri dishes, during a career that lasted less than a decade. An eclectic and charismatic artist, he was instrumental in the early 1970s in building the art scene in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood.
It's hard to imagine more disparate artists of the same generation. Wall's pictures often depend on his audience's knowledge of the history of art as well as on the high-ceilinged gallery walls required to hang them. The motives behind Matta-Clark's work may be tantalizingly mysterious but its meanings are self-evident. Instead of hanging art on walls, he sawed through walls of buildings to short-circuit their apparent architectural solidity and to extend our sense of art's relation to life. Now, coincidentally, his retrospective cuts a critical arc through Wall's.
Seeing the exhibitions in tandem forces one to ponder whether contemporary art, for all its current fascination and popularity (altogether, more money is now being spent by collectors for contemporary art than for Old Master paintings), has progressed since the 1970s. Or, a far worse thought, whether it has regressed.
The look of the two shows accents the differences between now and then. Wall's big pictures are housed in shiny metal frames and spaced broadly in galleries big enough to accommodate the outsize ambitions of contemporary artists. Matta-Clark's show has a more homemade look, with walls of drawings and photographs and video monitors sharing space on the floor with a pile of newsprint sheets printed with a pattern of bricks. The Whitney's designers have emphasized the funkiness of the art's appearance by using rough-edged, torn paper for the show's labels.
Both shows depend on photography, although the two artists' conceptions of the medium's usefulness are diametrically opposed.
Wall, whose career consists entirely of photographs, is rarely called a photographer. Instead, curators and critics claim him as a photo-based artist. That's largely because in today's art world, photographers sell their images for several thousand dollars apiece; Wall and his photo-based peers, like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Demand, may get several hundred thousand.
The way Wall tells it, his photographs became light boxes in 1977 after the artist caught himself staring at a backlit bus-stop ad in Spain and had a eureka moment. His works are beautiful to behold, despite subject matter that can seem tawdry or peculiar (a mop on a tattered linoleum floor, an octopus on a desk), and they carry the wow factor of their commercial antecedents. They are the size of large paintings and are meant to compete with paintings and to critique them. Their compositions are based on works as well known as Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" or as unlikely as a Hokusai woodcut.
Photographs for Matta-Clark were, along with film and video, pretty much a convenient way for documenting his real art -- the buildings that he irrevocably altered with his chain saw. True, toward the end he grew interested in putting the photographs together in vertiginous collages that hold their own as works of art, but these photo works have the same relationship to his major accomplishments that prints traditionally have to paintings: They are spinoffs, not the main event.
The irony, of course, is that -- but for a few existing excised pieces -- the dissected buildings at the core of Matta-Clark's work have all vanished. The camera's documents are what have survived. This means that his retrospective has little of the jaw-dropping quality that anyone who saw his work in the '70s experienced.
(Full disclosure: I knew Matta-Clark and came to live in New York at the same time he did. Like him I became interested in what variously has been called conceptual, dematerialized or information art. Art, that is to say, that tried to break the traditions that Wall's photo paintings lean on.)