Jeff Wall was born in 1946, in Vancouver, Canada. In 1964, he started studying art history at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and graduated in 1970. His first art works were already done before his studies and draw on Abstract Expressionism. While a student, he engaged in various experimental approaches to the arts. Yet after his studies, he decided to return to art historical research which he conducted at the Courtauld Institute, London, from 1970 to 1973. After returning to Canada, he taught at the Department of Art History at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Halifax. Here, he especially focused on European film history. Since 1987, Wall has taught Photography and Critical Philosophy of Aesthetics at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Inbetween, he also taught at the Art Academy Düsseldorf, in Munich, and in London as a visiting professor.
With his artistic beginnings in painting, Wall then turned towards conceptual art, developing a vocabulary he could also employ in his later photographic work.Landscape Manual from 1969 may be considered representative of his early phase. In the manner of photojournalism, Wall created a cheaply reproduced book, telling about casual impressions of an I-narrator during a car ride. The book is illustrated with black-and-white photos of suburbs and dull streets. Like Dan Graham, Wall provides a narrative commentary on the Minimalist preference for serial industrial standards.
Following this early conceptual phase, Wall devoted himself to theoretical work during and after his stay in London. He focused on the classical genre of painting, especially 19th century painting, and the beginnings of Modernism in Paris. His extensive involvement with a still tradition-bound, modernist concept of the picture strongly impacted on the ensuing work phase. With the three-part Faking Death (1977), Wall turned towards large-format photography. It was another journey to Europe that inspired him to create his first light box works which came to shape his further work. They consist of large-format, transparent Cibachrome slides, fastened to Plexiglas boxes with aliuminum bands and creating the impression of a light-filled, walk-in room. Viewers are confronted with forms of perception they know from shop-windows and showrooms. With The Destroyed Room (1978), Wall presented a commitment to the present and at the same time an homage to a work which Charles Baudelaire celebrated as the embodiment of modern art: La mort de Sardanapale (1827) by Eugène Delacroix. Further works followed, for example, a series of portraits of workers (Young Workers, 1978). In the following year, Wall continued his associative references to 19th-century painting, for example, with the staged photograph The Picture of Women (1979), a conceptual reflection on the pictorial composition of Edouard Manet’s work. Wall was especially interested in the representation of the »inner drama« and the alienation of the figures (Jeff Wall, Unity and Fragmentation in Manet, in: Parachute 35, 1984). In these works, the theatrical as well as cinematic effect of what is shown becomes the basic principle of Wall’s pictorial approach. Even if single motifs provide the impression of being snapshots, the dramaturgic work – based on stills, videos, and their editing – become Wall’s instruments. The gaze and its gendered as well as social positioning is itself turned into an object to be investigated (Stereo, 1980).
In the following years, Wall used the pictorial strategies he had developed for highly different motifs. On the one hand, he engaged in depictions of urban scenarios and landscapes that seem to present real and documentary views (The Bridge, 1980; The Old Prison, 1987; Coastal Motifs 1989; Restoration, 1993; A View From an Apartment, 2004 — 2005). The narrative-dramatic potential of these works is clearly reduced. On the other hand, he also kept developing the accentuated snapshots (Mimic, 1982; Milk 1984). In these works, he draws on literary, cinematic, or art historical texts (After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 1999 — 2000; Man with a Rifle, 2000).
Since the early 1990s, Wall has also focused on the theme of the grotesque (Vampires Picnic, 1991; The Giant, 1992), making use of the possibilities of digital editing. With his contribution to the Documenta X in 1997, Wall returned to black-and-white photography and, for a time, no longer used staging and light box, practicing a return to the traditions of U.S.-American documentary photography.
Over the past years, Jeff Wall’s works have been shown at many large museums, for example, at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt/Main in 2001, in a traveling exhibition in 2005 — 06 at the Schaulager Basel and the Tate Modern, London. In 2007, his works were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008 in the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin.
Jeff Wall lives and works in Vancouver, Canada.
Jeff Wall: Ausst.-Kat. Museum of Modern Art New York, hg. v. P. Galassi, New York, 2007
Jeff Wall. Catalogue raisonné 1978 — 2004: Ausst.-Kat. Schaulager Basel u.a., hg. v. Th. Vischer und H. Naef, Göttingen 2005
Jeff Wall: Figures & Places, ausgewählte Werke von 1978 bis 2000: Ausst.-Kat. Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt/ M., hg. v. R. Lauter, München u.a. 2001
Jeff Wall, Szenarien im Bildraum der Wirklichkeit. Essays und Interviews, hg. v. G. Stemmrich, Amsterdam u.a. 1997