JEFF WALL: “Diagonal Composition” (1993)

ASX Editors

April 5, 2011

Diagonal Composition 1993, Transparency in lightbox 400 x 460 mm

Christie’s Auction, Lot Notes

The photograph for Diagonal Composition, like those for An Octopus and Some Beans, was taken in the cellar of Walls Studio. It is tempting to see these relatively empty images as a dormant, inanimate underside to the spectacular figure compositions. Yet they are not so different. For all that they may appear more chanced-upon just the set, without the characters the stage of even these scant elements is as powerful as in any of Jeff Wall’s work.’ (B. Fer. ‘The Space of Anxiety’, pp. 23-26, Jeff Wall, exh. cat., Chicago, Paris, Helsinki & London, 1996, p. 25). Diagonal Composition is one of Jeff Wall’s best-known images with other examples from the edition owned by the De Pont museum voor hedendaagse kunst, Tillburg, the Museum Kurhaus, Kleve and Tate, London.


In this striking picture, Wall has managed to create an image of incredible, formal harmony reminiscent of the De Stijl painters or the Suprematism of Kasimir Malevich, yet he has deliberately done so using as his visual cue a dirty sink in the cellar of his studio. It comes as no surprise to find that Diagonal Composition was used as an anchor for an exploration of Wall’s works in the essay, quoted above, by Briony Fer; it has received much attention from critics, in part because it is unposed, a contrast to the large character-filled, set-piece images more familiar from his work and also because of its complex relationship to painting. This is a subject that has often occupied Wall, not least in Restoration, created the same year, which shows a group of conservators working on the Bourbaki Panorama in Lucerne. Rather than tackle any grand expanse filled with posed figures, in Diagonal Composition Wall has focussed on a tiny corner of his own universe; yet, in terms of composition, he has made it very much his own. The various old materials, for instance the paint-encrusted lino and worn wood, serve here as colour planes reminiscent of Modernist paintings, allowing Wall to play an incredibly agile conceptual game, contrasting the emphatic two-dimensionality of the paintings of his forebears with the clear, essentially life-sized presentation of this basin, soap and shelf. Rather than construct this image of pictorial harmony, he has stumbled upon it. He allows this image to undermine the grandiose posturing and misplaced optimism of the modernists, showing the failure of the ideals and utopianism that they had espoused. Fer has even pointed out that the synthetic materials present in much of the view recall some of those artists’ embracing of technology and new media, yet here, they are presented in not only a composition, but a state of decomposition. In this way, Wall manages to bring a sense of grounded social realism to the formalism of the Modernists. Crucially, though, it is a mark of Wall’s incredible eye that, out of a scene of filth, he has managed to create an engaging image of pictorial harmony, converting even the most overlooked corners of our modern world into a revelatory celebration of beauty. It is a mark of Wall’s own appreciation of Diagonal Composition that, in 1998 and 2000, he created other pictures with the same title, each showing other corners of the everyday world elevated to echo the crisp planes and lines of Suprematism.

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