Today among the most prominent photographers exhibiting in the world, Jeff Wall has navigated a complex route towards the goal of making large-scale photography safe for top art museums. Along the way he has incorporated influences from classic photography (portraiture, documentary, photo-essay), academic modernist painting (like Post-Impressionism), Minimalism (Dan Flavin), and Conceptualism. A new show at the Bozar Palais Des Beaux Arts in Brussels, entitled Jeff Wall: The Crooked Path, attempts to thread these motley sources into a reckoning with the complex accomplishment of an artist who some have accused of losing his edge to success. (A few years ago Sonic Youth even titled an album after his famous Destroyed Room, which is hard to say if it counts for or against the aforementioned.)
In a way, it makes sense that the early 20th century work that the Wall exhibition chooses to focus on is Duchamp's Etant Donnes, featuring Manual of Instructions for the Assembly of Étant donnés: 1° La chute d’eau, 2° Le gaz d’éclairage (1966) in one room. Wall, who wrote part of a dissertation on Duchamp at Courtauld Institute of Art in London, shares with Duchamp an element of the provocateur. As Barry Schabsky writes in a recent Nation article, Wall's early-career insistence on blowing up vividly constructed photo tableaux to the size of monumental painting was then a radical salvo in the battle to delimit the role of the photographic medium within the art world.
Moreover, Wall, like Duchamp, frequently and ambivalently straddles lines between strict conceptualist manipulations (and deconstructions) of pictorial form and the production of strikingly visual, sometimes panoramic icons. Finally, as Schabsky points out, Wall has risked devolving into a manager of his image and legacy. Here, Duchamp's solution, hiding in plain sight at chess tournaments while toiling away in secret on a final confrontation, can only be upheld as exemplary.