A crazy-eyed insomniac under the kitchen table. Dead Russian soldiers in conversation on the hills of Afghanistan. A nondescript man in coveralls at work untangling an absurdly baroque heap of rope. Two girls in pyjamas bewitched by yellow jello. A motley crew in a spotlit forest clearing, some sucking each other’s blood, others just sitting back, drinking it all in. A couple of hunters off to a bag game on the curb of a new subdivision. These are some of the photographs produced by the Vancouver artist Jeff Wall in the nineties. In Paris, on the balmy night of October ninth, it seemed as if tout the international artworld had turned up at the Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries to see them.
One the eve of the opening, while fine-tuning the installation of nineteen recent works, Wall was receiving. He is tall, thin, thin-lipped, thick-haired, sharp-nosed, baby-faced. His draw is his intelligence, ever greased and cocked—“I always lived in my head”—and his manner is gracious and sharp. German television was expected momentarily. Standing by were Wall’s New York dealer Marian Goodman; his Munich dealer Rüdiger Schöttle; the exhibition’s joint organizers Catherine David and Richard Francis—she the commissioner of the 1997 Documenta at Kassel, he the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where the show kicked off; Tuula Arkio, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Finnish National Gallery in Helsinki, next stop after Paris; various critics, including Thierry de Duve, who’s written what he calls “a very bizarre essay” about Wall for a new Phaidon book; and Wall’s gregarious wife Jeannette, whose pet name for this high-powered milieu is “the snakepit.”
So begins our Spring 1996 cover story. To keep reading, view a PDF of the entire article.