– Autumn/Winter 2007

Depiction, Object, Event

Jeff Wall

Modern and modernist art is grounded in the dialectic of depiction and anti-depiction, depiction and its negation within the regime of depiction. the self-criticism of art, that phenomenon we call both 'modernist' and 'avant-garde', originated in terms of the arts of depiction and, for the hundred years beginning in 1855, remained within their framework.

The forms of the depictive arts are drawing, painting, sculpture, the graphic arts and photography. These of course were called the 'fine arts' to distinguish them from the 'applied arts'. I will call these the 'canonical forms'. The depictive arts do not admit movement. Movement in them has always been suggested, not presented directly. The quality and nature of that suggestion has been one of the main criteria of judgment of quality in those arts. We judge the depictive arts on how they suggest movement while actually excluding it.

Movement is the province of other arts - theatre, dance, music and cinema. Each of these arts also has its own avant-garde, its own modernism, its own demands for the fusion of art and life, and its own high and low forms. But in the 1950s, those who took up and radicalised the pre-War avant-garde conviction that art could evolve only by breaking out of the canonical forms turned precisely to the movement arts. I am thinking here of Allan Kaprow, John Cage or George Maciunas. They sensed that the depictive arts could not be displaced by any more upheavals from within, any more radical versions of depiction or anti-depiction. They came to recognise that there was something about the depictive arts that would not permit another art form or art dimension to

  1. Clement Greenberg, 'The New Laocoon', Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, John O'Brian (ed.), University of Chicago Press, 1986, p.23.

  2. See Michael Fried, 'Art and Objecthood', Artforum, June 1967. Also published in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, University of Chicago Press, 1998.

  3. See Thierry de Duve, Kant After Duchamp, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1998.