Jordan Wolfson

"Do I think that I’m like Woody Allen?"
Interview by Asher Penn 
Portrait by Clare Ros

Since making his debut at 2006 Whitney Biennale at the age of 25, artist Jordan Wolfson has shown himself to be one of the most provocative artists of his generation. Eschewing an object-based practice in favor of video installations, Wolfson’s films works bring an unfamiliar poetics to the genre of pop art, navigating cultural touchstones such as Christopher Reeves, 9/11, Diet Coke, Kate Moss, Hitler, AIDS, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Dylan, and Richard Brautigan. Using the uncanny vernacular of cinema, animation, music and voice Wolfson’s films are polarizing in their seductive nature, manipulating  expectations  to a place that is sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes relevatory. 

What was your childhood like?
I lived on the Upper West Side in New York City until I was ten years old—across the street from the Museum of Natural History. My mom was a psychoanalyst and my father did different types of business things. He still does. I have three older sisters, but I only grew up with one of them. And then, when I was about ten years old, we moved from New York City to our country house, which was in Connecticut. That was in 1990.
Were you sad to leave the city?
I thought it was going to be fun because I used to love being up at the country house. But everything changed. When I lived here in New York City, I wasn’t as exposed to these systems of social hierarchy that exist between kids at schools in more suburban settings—I never understood the concept of popularity until I moved to Connecticut. 
Why wasn’t that a thing in New York?
I don’t know. It wasn’t fostered. I went to Columbia Grammar on the Upper West Side and there were like ten or fifteen students in the class. There was never an overall structure of cool or not. But once I went to this other school in Connecticut, which was a regular public school in an affluent town, I was always in learning disability programs.

Still from Rasberry Poser, 2012

In New York they told me I was special and creative and intelligent, but in Connecticut they said, “You have disabilities. And we’ll help you do your homework.” They weren’t attuned to what my actual needs were. It was completely unstructured. There were, for example, students with developmental issues in the classroom with me. Then there was this whole structure of popularity. It was like this vast network of students and dynamics that I had never been exposed to before. It was very horrible and very frightening to me. I think it really fucked me up and kind of made me who I am today. It gave me a certain distrust of people.
Were you medicated?
Yes, I’d been medicated since I was seven years old with Adderall-type medications for ADHD. We were only an hour outside of New York, but it was a very dramatic difference. I was Jewish and had learning disabilities. I felt like I had been played a really bad hand. But, when I was in New York City, I was still Jewish and had learning disabilities, but it seemed like I was on top of the world. It was traumatic and then I learned about conformity. And I exercised conformity.
What do you mean?
They’d all wear Umbros or Samba Classics and I had to fit in with them. Then I got a pair of Umbros and Samba Classics and felt whole. I looked down at my body and what I was wearing, and suddenly I looked like the other students. I felt somehow accomplished or settled, which is a type of conformity. It’s a negative thing.

Untitled (Bumper Sticker), 2010

You were skateboarding back then.
I think the skateboarding thing was a reaction. I would skate up and down on my block in the city but never knew any tricks. I always wanted to be a skater, but I didn’t really become one until I was thirteen or fourteen years old. And then I went crazy for skateboarding. I think it was what I needed to express my individuality and become autonomous from these other students.
Did you come to the city to skateboard?
I remember being at Brooklyn Banks when I was about fourteen or fifteen but I didn’t really start coming to the city often to skateboard until I was sixteen or seventeen. Before then I’d go to town centers or parking lots and skate around.
Were you making art then? Were you an arty high school student?

Not at first, but when I was 16 years old I became extremely into art making. Before that I was a hardcore skater. I wanted to become a professional skateboarder and I was good, but I didn’t have what it took to become a pro skater. I saw people who did and there was a huge difference between them and me. There were guys who were able to do these things that were totally fearless feats. I just could never imagine putting my body through that. I couldn’t even comprehend it. Once I started doing art, everything in my life changed. Then I didn’t care about skateboarding, and I began to lose touch with my skater friends and skate culture at large. Art making was just something that was bigger than all of that for me. I looked around and thought that all these people who were so serious about skating were misled, or just wasting time exercising another type of conformity. I had been part of this skate culture and I was a conformist. To a degree I was trading one badge for another, but making art was something I felt so connected to that my reality simply changed. 

Still from Con Leche, 2009

I’ve always thought that there is a side of skater culture that‘s actually very conformist.

Right, people don’t want to talk about that. They think what they’re doing is about individualism. And in some ways it is, but it’s also about a type of conformity. I used to feel like every day I had to wear a shirt that had some skate logo on it or I was betraying something. And it’s kind of ridiculous to think of that. But there are also hugely positive aspects of skateboarding that have translated into my art practice. For example: in skateboarding, you can decide to learn a trick or do a feat of some kind. And if you set you mind to it you will do it in some capacity. I remember spending days upon days learning or perfecting a trick. And now it’s the same in my art making. I will dedicate myself completely to figuring out or finding a solution to finish an artwork, and it takes time and sustained effort, but eventually I reach a solution.

What kind of art were you exposed to as a kid?

My grandparents were collectors, so they always had art around and they gave some to my parents.  They were into Larry Rivers, Red Grooms, and Alex Katz. It was all probably very commercial. I think Red Grooms was probably very easy to own. There was never any Andy Warhol, but there was Frank Stella. There was also Milton Avery. I was informed by that, as a kind of a precursor to pop art. But there was never any Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns or anything like that. 

But it still sounds like it’s a little bit more advanced than say Chagall or something like that.
But there was Chagall! There was a Chagall. I mean, my mom always had a Chagall poster up. It was of the two lovers flying over the village.
Was Jewish folk art a part of your upbringing?

Not really, but there was a lot of Ben Shahn around. It wasn’t so much George Grosz at that point. There’s a story about how my grandparents had this copy of Ecce Homo, this George Grosz book they were really proud of owning. Then suddenly, they got embarrassed because their friends were coming over and they had the same book. So my grandparents hid it. I think that’s a very negative way to relate to things. But that’s how my family was.
They were still trying to appease the WASPs?
It’s a vanity thing. They collect work and think it will somehow reflect on their character. I talked to a dealer who was talking to someone about Animation, Masks, and he told me that this collector kept asking, “Don’t you think it’s anti-Semitic?” And the dealer said, “no, I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic.” The collector was afraid to buy it because he didn’t want to be labeled as an anti-Semite.

Still from Animation, Masks, 2012

It’s a touchy work. I can’t imagine many careers where people have to stand behind a piece of art like that.

Some people have.  You can watch a film and love it, just like you can read a book and love it, but the general attitude around owning a piece of art is that it says something about you. 

What do your parents think of Animation, Masks?
They think it’s interesting. And I think they like it. I think they like what I’m doing because I’ve received acceptance for it. But they were very worried about Animation, Masks. When I was making it, they were very concerned for me professionally. But after it was done and they saw it, they cooled down. I think it also confuses them.
Let’s talk about college. We both went to RISD.
For me RISD was a mixed experience. I felt frustrated with the teachers who seemed really behind on art for the most part. But on the other hand the students were amazing, and there was a kind of culture within the students that was positive. You were definitely part of that culture.
I liked it at the time. You didn't?
I felt restless at RISD, mostly because of the way the school was broken up into departments. On the positive side though I felt that I was always able to make my best work in Providence. I didn't realize this until I left for an exchange in Stockholm.
Why did you go to Stockholm?
Because I applied to Cooper Union so many times and was rejected every time. So I thought Europe would be a more interesting place to go. I went to the foreign exchange office at RISD and looked around through different school brochures. I found this place called Konstfack in Stockholm and it just looked incredible. The student work was like nothing I had ever seen before.
What was the work like?

It was much more sophisticated than RISD work, probably because most of the students were older. They came to school when they were between 25 to 30 years old. First-year students at Konstfack were like first-year graduate students at Yale or something. 

Still from Infinite Melancholy, 2003

Can you tell me more about why you weren’t happy at RISD?

I felt that the school was sort of on the wrong side of art. I didn’t like how teachers saw the world, with a few exceptions. They would teach us what they thought was good, rather than what was relevant in contemporary art. Looking back, I guess they taught us what they thought was relevant, but it still troubled me. I was in the sculpture department, and they weren’t like, “This is Charles Ray.” They were like, “This is Martin Puryear.” They were interested in a certain type of craft, but they weren’t interested in the objectivity of what contemporary sculpture had become. They never talked about Duchamp.. But I’m positive, when you were in the photo department, they taught you about Cindy Sherman.

Yeah, Cindy Sherman was really big.
But was Jeff Wall also someone?
Jeff Wall is really hard to teach in college in general. People that studied Jeff Wall, that really studied him, were studying in painting departments. They were more equipped to understand that work. Instead they were teaching us about that guy that does the fake Jeff Wall photos that rip off Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Gregory Crewdson?
Yeah, exactly. It was useless.
I wouldn’t say that’s garbage. It’s from a certain moment.
What is it about Charles Ray though? I don’t know much about him at all.
He’s just incredible. It’s not just about the work, but the pacing of the works from one to the next. Then there is also the attention to detail, the kind of attention for him that is evident in each work. For most artists today it seems so much about the shows and the overall practice. So much can get filled into. It’s kind of like a plastic pumpkin full of candy: there are lots of different things inside, but you know it’s all candy, and it’s all in one thing. I don’t feel like that’s the kind of artist I am.

Untitled, 66 x 36.4", 2012, Archival inkjet on canvas

From Sex Magazine #2 Winter 2012
Labelled Art