LEWIS BALTZ & JEFF WALL | Painters of Modern Life


Saturday, 9 March 2024, 4-6 pm

Introduction by Stefan Gronert, 
Deputy Director and Curator for Photography and Media Art, 
Sprengel Museum Hanover

Zander Galerie Cologne is pleased to present select works of Lewis Baltz and Jeff Wall in dialogue in the Painters of Modern Life exhibition. These move in the field of tension between photography, painting and film, in the process exploring the boundaries of the medium of photography.

The chosen title refers to Baltz’ essay about his artist colleague Jeff Wall, which was published for the first time in September 1997 in “L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui”, no. 312 and later in the anthology Texts from Steidl Verlag. This important publication compiles central texts of the American artist Lewis Baltz for the first time. The numerous essays he published between 1974 and 2012 in journals likeArt in America, The Times Literary Supplement, Camera AustriaorL’Architecture d’aujourd’huiprovide insights into the understanding of art and politics of one of the most important photographers of his generation, who nonetheless said of himself: “I never saw myself as a photographer. I never liked photography very well. I never felt any allegiance to its so-called history…. I made photographs because photography was the simplest, most direct way of recording something.”

While Baltz contributed decisively with his work to establishing conceptual photography as a medium of equal importance in the art context, Wall (*1946 in Vancouver, Canada) is considered the founder of “staged” photography. In that he combines photography with elements of painting, cinema and literature in his works – a procedure he himself refers to as “cinematographic”, he stages completely constructed pictorial worlds in a complex process.

Together with select works of Jeff Wall, a selection of early photographs from The Prototype Works (1967-76) and Park City (1978-79) will be shown, but also examples of his later creative period with two large format works from the series Generic Night Cities (and others) (1988-2000). 

Baltz already began The Prototype Works during his studies at the Art Institute in San Francisco. They are among his earliest projects, which break with the conventional photographic tradition, and in which a clear reference to modernity becomes apparent. In this work group, Baltz seeks generic everyday motifs of his environment, such as building walls, lettering and parking lots, thus describing places that have originated as by-products of post-industrial society. In that Baltz chooses not to focus, for example, on particularities, but rather on standardised manifestations, he reflects socio-economic structures and critically expands the documentary discourse. The extremely reduced aesthetic of his black and white silver gelatine prints reveals modernistic references and is oriented to contemporaries in the fields of minimalist painting and sculpture, of conceptual art and of Land Art, such as John McLaughlin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Ed Ruscha and Robert Smithson, among others. The influential gallery owner Leo Castelli recognised the radicalism of this practice and already dedicated a first solo exhibition to the at that time 26-year-old Baltz in 1971. From this point on, Baltz conceived of his works as series, which only reveal their sense in the context and in their installation as a block or tableau, thereby becoming objects in space.

With Park City, Baltz radically defines landscape in profitable building units. The work, originally consisting of 102 elements, revolves around the various stages of construction of a large-scale ski resort in the mountains of Utah, which is originating on the grounds of a collapsed silver mine. In clear, concentrated images of piles of tar, building shells and layers of cable, the  buildings rise up from the debris and appear at the same time, subject to the throw-away principle, to be sinking into it again.

Since the late 1970s, the Canadian photo artist Jeff Wall has also contributed decisively to establishing photography as an independent art form. His motifs initially seem like snapshots, but his photographs, composed complexly and subtly from a large number of single-shot exposures, are mostly completely constructed pictorial worlds. When Wall, who studied art history in London after 1970, authoring his final assignment about the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann and commencing with a doctoral thesis on Duchamp as the inventor of conceptual art, began to photograph according to painterly principles, he was particularly motivated by late Romantic realism since Delacroix and Géricault, Manet and Millet. From there, but from the distanced position of a present-day observer, he fixes everyday scenes into poetic still pictures. Until Wall became one of the first to start displaying large-format Cibachrome in light boxes, photography had been exhibited in black and white and in a small format. Wall has updated his photography with modern elements and uses the backlit technique typical for advertising photography. This adoption of the advertising aesthetic in his works has revolutionised photography. Wall leaves nothing to chance in his compositions: his photographs in the light box are perfectly illuminated, re-staged and planned very precisely. Various versions are often seamlessly merged to form a single image with digital montage techniques, which results in the impression of a still image, like on a film set, combining in them elements of photography with those of film and painting. “In terms of motifs, they can be understood as narrative landscape and history paintings of the present, because they make overlooked scenes of everyday life monumental; stylistically, they can be ascribed to realism, that art that seems “more alive than life”, as Wall himself describes the style.” (Stefan Trinks) With his iconic, ostensibly documentary-looking light boxes, Wall decisively contributed to establishing photography as an independent pictorial medium. Like Lewis Baltz, he is one of the most important photo artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Lewis Baltz, born in 1945 in Newport Beach, California, and deceased in 2014 in Paris, studied photography from 1966 to 1969 at the Art Institute in San Francisco before taking on and accepting various teaching activities and professorships as of the 1970s. He later taught and worked at the Istituto Universitario d’Architettura in Venice, where he, in addition to his place of residence in Paris, lived and worked. Following his first solo exhibition with Leo Castelli in New York and his participation in the New Topographics exhibition in the George Eastman House, his works could be seen in many solo and group exhibitions worldwide and are represented in important international collections, including in the Art Institute of Chicago, in the MoMa, Metropolitan Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in the MOCA Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and LACMA, Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Canada, Ontario, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Curated by Stefan Gronert, the first much-noticed retrospective of Lewis Baltz in a German museum opened in 2012 in the Kunstmuseum Bonn. This was then subsequently shown in the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover. The Lewis Baltz Research Fund was founded in 2015 to honour the vision and memory of the American artist. 

Jeff Wall was born in 1946 in Vancouver, Canada, and studied at the University of British Columbia. He completed his PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where he studied with T.J. Clark, expert on Èdouard Manet. Wall’s works have been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in the Tate Modern in London, in the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin and in the Art Institute of Chicago and have found their way into numerous renowned collections worldwide. In 2006, Wall was presented with the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography and with the Audain Prize for his life’s work in 2008. He lives and works in Vancouver. Until 21 April 2024, the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen near Basel is dedicating an extensive retrospective to him that has originated in close cooperation with the artist and encompasses around one third of his oeuvre.


Enquire about this work