Artwork of the Week for January 4, 2010

Loyal Readers,

I write bearing good news: Artwork of the Week is back! I’ve decided to reformat the column slightly. That is, I will impose a theme on each month, and each selected work will somehow respond to that theme. I like to think of this as an online exercise in curating? Proposed themes for the next few months:

January — The Art of Art History

February — Profane and Sacred Love

March — In like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

April — Showers

… suggestions welcome for Feb on.

And so, how shall I kick off January’s “The Art of Art History” (easily my favorite theme)? Perhaps with some Jeff Wall, who is just so darn good at referencing the canon….

Jeff Wall (Canadian, born 1946)

Restoration, 1993
Transparency in lightbox 1190 x 4895 mm
Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Cinematographic photograph

Perhaps there is no modern photographer more engaged with the art historical past, or more aware of its influence on contemporary art, as Jeff Wall. In Thomas Crow’s essay on Wall’s work, the IFA Professor writes “[Wall] situated himself within the processes by which art history as a changing field of knowledge becomes available to artists in the first place.” Wall’s large-scale, back-lit photographs cite and comment on the canon of Western painting, specifically 19th century French painting. His best known citation of the beginning of Modernism is his 1979 “Picture for Women,” a photograph that quotes, modernizes, and dissects Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergere.”

“Restoration” pictures the conservation of a Panorama in Switzerland, one of the few remaining fully-installed works of this once popular medium. The panorama is a format often credited for  “modernizing”  painting and is considered a precursor to cinema (reality effect!). It is not insignificant that Wall used a 360-panorama camera to capture the conservators at work, yet selected to only picture half of the panorama. On the one hand, this is an image about the limitations of sight — he does not show the space behind the camera and the conservator at rest stares out beyond the confines of the photo’s frame. On the other, it acts as a sort of artist’s statement — Wall is, in effect, restoring 19th century works of art, readying them for a contemporary viewer.


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