on the wall


In wanting to make photography an art for the museum—for the great hall, not the library or the print room—Wall has succeeded more than he could have hoped. In the past few years alone there have been three major presentations of his work: one at the Schaulager in Basel and the Tate Modern in London; another at MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and a third at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. But there can be too much of a good thing; maybe Wall’s work is becoming overfamiliar. Certainly a reaction to his prominence has quietly set in. Has Wall lost his edge, become too much the official artist? I’ve heard this opinion voiced, perhaps not in so many words, by more than a few colleagues. A more grounded expression of discontent was recently put forth by Julian Stallabrass in New Left Review. Stallabrass attributes Wall’s success to what he labels the “conservative and spectacular elements of his practice”—which he claims have intensified in recent years—“increasingly accompanied by other conservative attachments,” by which he means a retreat from the leftist political commitment previously manifested in Wall’s imagery and writing. For Stallabrass this withdrawal is epitomized by Wall’s remaking of his Eviction Struggle, from 1988, as An Eviction in 2004, which he says transformed an image of class conflict into an anodyne and universal “meditation on human imperfection.” On the face of it, Stallabrass argues a credible case, and his target would hardly be the first artist to have grown complacent and conservative with age. After all, success conspires to translate art’s discoveries into platitudes, to divert the artist from making to managing (not only staff but one’s career and the interpretation of one’s work), and to focus the artist’s mind on interests that appear to coincide with those of the wealthy who sustain him through their patronage.

more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.