Cover story: Jordan Wolfson

Representation, arousal, violence, theatricality—all are called into question by the artist’s works, created by choosing to always feel more.


Beatrix Ruf: Jordan, I was wondering if we could start with Infinite Melancholy (2003). When I first saw Colored sculpture (2016), I was reminded of all the works you have done with melancholy, sadness and anger, but also of the tools you used for creating a space where you deal with melancholic content.

Jordan Wolfson: I never set out to make melancholic, sad or violent artwork. I just found that there was a kind of euphoric physical expression one could have when looking at things that carried a certain kind of movement, a certain type of spectacle. For example, with Colored sculpture, the violence isn’t simulated violence. It’s real violence, and I think that has the potential to have a euphoric effect on the viewer. And in works like Infinite Melancholy, there’s a similar type of dropping sensation, and also a formal or visual expansiveness that’s happening, which also makes a kind of encounter with the viewer’s body. I won’t say the works aren’t melancholic or sad, but I never think of them that way. I’ve never tried for that.

So melancholy not as a goal, but as part of a movement, almost as a theatrical element?

It’s just the shape the work took as it came out of me. Maybe it’s the shape of my paintbrush, or even myself at the time—and that shape changes; it becomes different because I’m different too. I think the emotional texture of my work now that I’m 36 is different than it was when I was 24.




But some things come back. The film with the endless waves taken from Walt Disney movies, Dreaming of the dream of the dream (2004),  has the Hollywood frame in common with some newer work. Can you talk about that context a bit?

Well, that earlier work somehow related to Female Figure (2014). I thought the idea of people creating the representation of water was very interesting; there’s this formalist object that people are rendering, making representational images of.  It also had these Jungian links to the unconscious, death, drowning—all these things that water carries around—but the fact that human beings were so obsessed with creating this representation was beautiful to me. And then with Female Figure, I was interested in how the representation of the female form—like a drawing of something, a sculpture of something, a rendering of something—could be equally rousing. I was fascinated by that; I’ve been deeply fascinated by that since adolescence. For example, I used to be obsessed with this kind of pornography that was comic pornography. I remember thinking, isn’t it interesting how human beings can be aroused and moved so strongly by representation? Especially when it’s not even real—it’s translated and re-represented through another sentient being, for another sentient being. But I was never interested in looking at Hollywood as other artists have. I think there was this movement in art where you’d look at cinema, look at it as this meta-representation of some kind of cultural unconsciousness. This was a trend in contemporary art from approximately the mid-‘90s to I don’t know when, maybe 2005. There were a lot of artists who believed that cinema had mutated into this indifferent unconsciousness of contemporary life. If that kind of art was made today, it wouldn’t be looking at cinema—it’d be looking at Instagram and Facebook, looking at social media as a new representation of this social unconsciousness. But I was never interested in that kind of thinking. I was interested in individuals. It has to do with human beings: our brains, our bodies, what’s pre-programmed.

Interesting. “Pre-programmed.”

It’s the same as when someone sets up a fake fox in their yard, frozen in a pose, to scare away geese. Through representation, this fake, plastic, totally inanimate fox will still create anxiety for the geese, and they’ll stay away from that area. It’s the same thing as people getting aroused by representation of a certain physical form. It’s primitive, which is really the difference between those two works. Female Figure is primitive, and Dreaming of the dream of the dream is maybe more analytical.

It is interesting because in Female Figure, there is actually no attractiveness. It’s quite dirty, in a way.

It’s dirty, but it has the mask. The mask is about inverting that sense of titillation, inverting that primitive sense of arousal, almost defuncting it. The arousal could be tangentially or even directly related to fertility, and the mask could be tangentially or directly related to infertility. You could say the witch maybe represents the infertile woman. So with a woman wearing the witch’s mask, these two things sort of charge each other as opposites charge each other, creating a kind of distortion.




Can we talk about Animation, masks (2011)? The directness of addressing people in your work is quite prominent, but with Animation, masks, I find it extreme, how uncomfortable one is when presented not only with representation, but with the reading of representation. It’s interesting because it distracts somehow from the direct and brutal content you’re talking about.

A few years before I made Animation, masks, there was this project I was working on. I think you saw it—it was two people in the park, and they’re looking directly at you. I realized that if the viewer had eye contact with the subject of the artwork, then it somehow created this formal bridge that  allows almost any kind of content to pass through indiscriminately. So with Animation, masks, the question was, how do you look at this character, then how do you take away the objectivity of looking at this character, and how do I have these two different versions of content travel through to the viewer? But I never actually thought of him as a “character”—I thought of him always as a sculpture. I always saw the work in terms of its sculptural qualities.


When I was making that piece, what I thought I was really up against was Jeff Koons’ Rabbit. It might sound funny, but I really thought this shylock character had to be as powerful as that rabbit. So not only did I treat the character as a sculpture, but I also considered the monitor a sculpture, which was always an oversized monitor in a naturally lit room, leaning on the wall. I never treated it as cinema per se.




Let’s look into animation further. There lies the beginning of your work, and it continues to be present in your more recent film works—there’s always animation.

It’s funny, because I’m not an animation-phile or cartoon-phile, but I’ve always been interested in the fact that people were making these things and that it’s representation.  There’s something contrived about it, which I always found to be interesting and profound. Even as a little boy, I always felt that the greatest achievement one could ever have was to make a cartoon, just because it seemed so unattainable. It’s one thing to shoot something with a camera, but to actually organize and produce a cartoon would be the greatest achievement, creatively or artistically. There’s something very alien about making a cartoon that has the quality of the world outside of art, that has certain commercial qualities and a sort of abstraction to them.

What do you mean by “commercial quality”?

I mean the level of contemporary cinema, like Pixar or Disney. I always saw it as unattainable, so it fascinated me.

So then what makes you use the animatronics? I’m particularly curious how it relates to theater, because it’s very difficult to hold back from the idea of theater when you see those works.

I was never really interested in animatronics. I’d seen artists like Paul McCarthy use it in their work, and I thought that was interesting, but I was never really interested in it for myself. But then I saw these animatronics at Disney World, in the Hall of Presidents. There was one of Barack Obama, just talking and moving his hands. It was like a sculpture, but it carried this physicality that I became infatuated with. It moved me; I felt more from this physicality than I’d felt from animation or other things that had inspired me. This physicality overwhelmed me, and I immediately became impregnated with the obsession to make something that had this physicality.

Does this still have to do with representation?

Yeah, I guess it does, because everything we’re seeing is made. It’s not organic, it wasn’t born naturally—it was made by human beings, contrived and made to be looked at by other people. Everything is made, everything is contrived.





Is the cartoon interesting because it enhances specific identifiers: our fears, our anger are presented and heightened?

Well, it’s a dream world where anything is possible. It’s a completely distorted world, and I think that’s the magic of cartoons : there’s this constant potential for distortion and mutation. It’s an incredibly profound art form. So yeah, the cartoon of an angry wolf is the signifier for something, and a cartoon of a gentle sheep or a naïve pig signifies something else. That’s the nature of distortion in cartoons—it can represent a character in a linear way.

I know you are not the biggest fan of the word “theater,” but to encounter highly condensed, abstract characterization is something that comes back in your work a lot.

Well, I don’t dislike the word “theater.” I just think that what people fail to recognize is that art is theater. It is purely theater. They’d want to deny it, but it is. The only difference is that here, the audience is onstage with the objects, whereas in conventional theater, people enter and sit in the auditorium. I mean, if you don’t think Walter de Maria had it in mind how the viewer approached the work with perfect symmetry and rhythmic organization of objects, or Donald Judd with the boxes… I mean, that’s theater. It might not be “theatrical” in the conventional sense, but in art, it’s the viewer onstage with the object, for sure.

Let’s talk about the shift from Female Figure to Colored sculpture. With Female Figure, when you enter the space and these eyes are spotting you, there’s no escape from this direct involvement. But with Colored sculpture, there are more elements at play. You have the bigger setting, more space where something can happen; the figure can still spot you, but there is animation happening in the eyes; and of course the amazing musical element of the chains moving. The chains are dancing, almost more than the figure itself. What were you thinking?

Initially, I was thinking the eye contact in Colored sculpture would be equally impactful. It didn’t play out that way, but it was still OK. I was also thinking about this idea of a figure going between figuration and abstraction. Then, as I was making it, I realized very early on that it wasn’t just the figure that was the sculpture: it was a total sculpture, where the chain was just as much a character as the boy. It wasn’t just the boy being controlled by the chains; it was also about the chains having a relationship to the sculptural figure. Both elements were equally sculptural; what was important was looking at the entire artwork compositionally. Of course, there was a number of specific details that were very important. For example, reaching a level of detail where you obtain real violence, obtain true eye contact, or silence, or abstraction. But then it’s also about conventional ideas of composition, chronological composition and timing to the whole piece. There’s also the idea of the artwork actually doing what it does—being able to withstand being dropped, to handle this abuse, because it is real abuse, real violence.




This cartoon character looks angry, he is a nasty little boy and definitely a real character. That’s something that comes up in your work a lot: it’s always about a character.

I never thought of that. I mean, it is. But what else would it be about?

Well, it could be about many things: abstraction, narratives…

I guess I’ve always liked characters.

Is it personal?

I’d say it isn’t actually personal, but it’s almost personal. I think if it were truly personal, it would be mine, for me alone. But it’s not—it’s a composition.  And if I do say so myself, I think I have this ability to brush the almost-personal with the indifferent. That’s maybe a small talent of mine. With Colored sculpture, it was about feeling more. Every decision I made in making this artwork, I didn’t ask myself intellectually, I asked myself intuitively and physically, what did I feel more for? Did I feel more for it being shiny or matte? Did I feel for more speed in a violent scene or for less? Did I feel more for it having red hair or orange hair? Should it have color, or should it be monochrome? What felt more? What do I feel more? That’s really how I gauged the whole piece: just using my gut and always choosing to feel more. That was really my compass.

Where did the boy’s character come from?

He’s kind of a hybrid of Huckleberry Finn and Alfred E. Newman and Howdy Doody. He’s really kind of a “nothing” character, more of a type or a caricature.

With Colored sculpture, I felt the most brutal moment was when the music started in. It’s so much against what music usually does, in terms of supporting images, supporting atmospheres or a narrative.

Right. That’s an example of feeling more. It’s like throwing a wrench in the motor. Isn’t it interesting when the music comes in, that it’s not at the beginning of the song? Maybe it’s interesting intellectually, but the immediate physical reaction for the human mind is to track: what’s the song, where are we in the song, knowing it’s not the beginning of the song. It’s like starting a dialogue mid-sentence: you distort the dialogue and it becomes more interesting. In the end, we’re really just coordinating things for the viewer’s mind and body. We’re trying to create this moment of presence for the viewer, where they lose their mind and their body, and they have this present experience with the object. That’s really all it comes down to in making art. It’s not about proving a point or teaching a lesson. It’s about really making contact. You don’t have anything without that. But for me, it’s not about punching them in the face, or kicking their teeth in, or tickling them. It’s about taking this contrived thing, this work of art, and actually processing it intuitively. When it’s successful, it’s equal to nature. Because when you look at a cliff, you never wish that a rock was moved from one place to another. It’s perfect as it is. That’s the highest achievement for art—when it can be reprocessed through intuition, taken out of this contrived humanness that we all have, and have it come out as nature. I believe that’s what all great artworks carry.

Big words!

But it could be anything, you know? It could be a self-portrait of Rembrandt, or a video by Bruce Nauman. It’s about this delivery, this contact, where you’re letting go of the contrived self and making contact with intuition, and it comes out, and that’s it. I think that’s the greatest achievement that man can have artistically. 



Jordan Wolfson (American, b. 1980) is an artist who lives and works in New York. He is represented by David Zwirner, New York, and Sadie Coles HQ, London. Wolfson’s Colored sculpture is currently on view at LUMA Arles through 10 October. Later on, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam will present Wolfson’s two-part solo show “manic / love” from 27 November 2016–5 February 2017 and “truth / love,” opening on 4 March 2017.

Beatrix Ruf is the Director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and, since 2010, a member of the think tank core group of the LUMA Foundation. Previously, she was Curator at Kunstmuseum Thurgau, Warth, from 1994–1998 and Director of Kunsthalle Zurich from 2001–2012. In 2006, she curated the third edition of the Tate Triennial in London and in 2008, she was Co-Curator of the Yokohama Triennial.

Portraits by Jason Nocito (Creative Direction: Alessio Ascari; Production: Camilla Venturini)

Works in order of appearance: Infinite Melancholy, 2003 (video still); Female Figure, 2014 (detail); Animation, masks, 2011 (video still); Colored sculpture, 2016 (detail). All images courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner, New York, and Sadie Coles HQ, London.