Wall Flowers

New York

Left: MoMA President Emerita Agnes Gund with dealer Marian Goodman. Right: Jeannette and Jeff Wall. (Unless noted: All photos David Velasco)

When I learned my friends at “Scene & Herd” were poised to pass on the big opening-night party for Jeff Wall’s MoMA retrospective due to the probable difficulty of securing a place at a table for one of their scribes, collegial spirit kicked in. “Plus,” my editor reminded me, “You share your name with one of Wall’s photos! You have to write.”

Wall, as it happens, is one of my all-time favorites, and having seen the capacious 2005–2006 Schaulager retrospective and Sheena Wagstaff’s radical edit for Tate Modern, I was itching to see how the show’s organizers, Peter Galassi (the museum’s chief photography curator) and Neil Benezra (the director of SF MoMA, where the exhibition will end its three-city tour), would parse this rather thoroughly sliced-and-diced material. The MoMA show is not, as one might reasonably surmise, the third stop of the Basel tour, but an all-new MoMA-originated production with its own tour (it stops at Chicago’s Art Institute on route to SF), complete with its own full-scale catalogue. What do we get in New York? A bare-bones Wall (the Galassi show is even smaller—though not by so much—than the Tate’s); a consistently thoughtful selection of images; a show that is sensitively installed, though it must be said that despite the exhibition’s relatively modest size, it is not, in the end, a roomy hang. Perhaps these still-new galleries are a mite small for the retrospective task.

Of course, I am the wrong person to ask. Being something of a Wall fanatic (not that Galassi isn’t, too), each picture held back is, for me, a baby murdered, and I can’t help but feel a little cheated by this spare selection. Do we lose too many recalcitrant but supremely worthy pictures, too many quirky scenes in the name of magisterial poise? Does Wall’s signature terrain vague get a little "terrain pretty” in this sampling? Where are Diatribe and Bad Goods and The Crooked Path (at least one of these!), and where is The Stumbling Block? Oh, bother, this nitpicking is tiresome. I respect Galassi’s tough-love determination to craft an exhibition for his space, and the results will serve MoMA’s audience well. Still, Galassi writes in his essay for the catalogue (which I’ve only had time to peek at) that “part of our pleasure” is debating the triumphs versus the less successful experiments, so just for the pleasure of it (and I am not merely being naughty), I will confess that my personal peeve is the cover choice. I do not think After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue to be one of Wall’s greatest works. It is too illustrative, even a touch cloying in its literariness, for my taste. But I digress . . .

Left: MoMA curator Peter Galassi with Jo Carole Lauder, president of the MoMA International Council. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: SF MoMA director Neal Benezra and Ava Benezra.

“Scene & Herd” is about not art but its mise-en-scne, and the scne on Tuesday evening was low-key but entirely congenial. I tripped from hello to hello through the pleasantly undercrowded galleries: Just past the coat check, I bumped into Times “Inside Art” columnist Carol Vogel, whose professional-grade gossip kept my ears perked well into the fourth gallery. There goes Rdiger Schttle, the Munich-based gallerist who provided the artist with his first internationally significant home. Wall’s work, of course, was relatively slow to get its due in this country, and the few words of Schttle’s partner, Jrg Johnen, to me registered perfectly the mix of pride and maybe just a touch of regret that comes of having done the history-making due diligence and then stepping a bit to the background as the glory (and the spoils) roll in: “Here we are at the top of the heap—MoMA! It was inevitable, I guess, that we would finally meet here.” Speaking of glory, I ducked below the horizon of heads to greet Marian Goodman. The first lady of New York dealers, she squired Wall through the next stage of his career and into the two-continent big leagues. This was her night as much as Jeff’s, and she radiated what she always radiates these days: practiced noblesse oblige. “Don’t look now,” I thought to myself, “Here comes Jay Jopling.” Everybody likes Jay, of course, including me, because he is soooo charming—and so Jay. And being as Jay as he ever is, he hit me right off with a hard-driving question re the identity of a passing MoMA-board honcho. I thought I was the journalist! I divulged nothing.

My next hello went to Hans Bodenmann and Maja Oeri, the great Swiss patrons and the forces behind the grand Schaulager show and the catalogue raisonn that accompanied it, not to mention important funders of this exhibition. It is nice, of course, when lots of money comes with even more taste, and Jeff did not forget his thank-yous when speech time rolled around. Oh, and there was my old colleague David Frankel. Frankel labors someplace backstage at MoMA turning art criticism into English. I hope he gets a secret salary.

One virtue of Galassi’s extrataut selection is that I had time to make four laps of the exhibition before the dinner trumpets sounded. When I located my table in a part of Russia where some of you have likely done time, a glance at the place cards revealed another happy/worrisome sign of global warming. I drew the Guggenheim’s Lisa Dennison, who is very good company at affairs like these, and also San Francisco’s Carla Emil—she has great taste in art, which, of course, means taste like mine.

Left: Collectors Michael and Judy Ovitz. Right: Artist Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

The speeches came—they always do—but each was well turned and to the point. Robert B. Menschel, the museum’s chair (and the guy, by the way, Jopling asked about), was appropriately official; Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, was crisp and full of fire as is his way (and after what can only have been a trying week); Galassi, who is a perspicacious student of his media (photography but also words), was perspicacious; and Jeff . . . now, Jeff is a very special speaker, and he showed his rhetorical stuff by pulling off that rather rare thing—authentic thanks in a setting in which such sentiments, because obligatory, are wont to feel rote. Despite his intellection (much mentioned this evening), Jeff has a plainspoken way about him that can be disarming—because (not tonight, of course) he says rather weird and often inspired things. He thanked his Canadian friends who, he noted, traveled far to be with him; he praised his curators, calling the experience of working with them “a blast,” words a less imaginative speaker might have reserved for fill-in-the-blank—post-Oscar party-hopping with Courtney Love—and he told a story about the serendipitous appearance of Matisse’s The Piano Lesson in the museum’s conservation room as he installed his show. Running into this great painting (a childhood favorite of his) frameless and at close quarters drove home the honor—and maybe the magical strangeness—of his own work taking its place in the great sequence of modern art that is synonymous with MoMA. It was nice.

The evening passed quickly, with the first fidgeting husbands holding off on watch-checking till well past nine. One of my partners remarked that people were maybe lingering over dessert a little longer than usual; the smell of coffee more often than not signals mass exodus at such events. But then Wall rose, and the ribbons of good-night wishers began to snake toward his center table and then back out to the periphery—and, eventually, the street. “Good night,” in fact, were my first words to Wall all evening, so congratulations were also in order, but there were a lot of people, so they would have to be quick. “It is a busy week, but maybe we should have that drink,” he offered. That’s awfully nice, I thought, but I won’t hold him to it.

As I headed downtown, musing about this beautiful show, my thoughts kept turning to a recent, relatively small picture, After “Spring Snow” by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34. It is a color image, and it was not on a light box. I have always wondered about those light boxes—how they would feel as time passed and their period-specificity began to show. Of course, I love them, but I also love dented Minimal sculpture. Both have their poetry. I wonder, might this little image auger the shape of things to come? Who knows. There was lots of talk about the rigors of converting the museum to European voltage (converters, apparently, can muck up the color). Perhaps next time it will be that much easier.

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Left: Collector Glenn Fuhrman and Jeff Wall. Right: Collector and New Line Cinema CEO Michael Lynne with dealer Jay Jopling.

Left: Art advisor Kim Heirston with Marian Goodman director Andrew Richards. RIght: Agnes Gund, MoMA director Glenn Lowry, and Jo Carole Lauder.

Left: Judy Zankel, MoMA chairman Robert B. Menschel, and Lewis Cullman. Right: MoMA curators Roxana Marcoci and Klaus Biesenbach.

Left: Curator Okwui Enwezor. Right: Jack Wall. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)