Speaking from Los Angeles, where he’s parked his car at a gas station, Jordan Wolfson would like to get one thing straight: “I’m not a bad person. I don’t commit bad acts, and I don’t have bad intentions.”
He’s speaking to a fate that many artists face: being confused with their work. That means, in Wolfson’s case, highly provocative video and sculptural installations depicting acts of mayhem and depravity. In a piece that became the sensation of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, viewers donned VR goggles to witness Wolfson beating another person to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat—a dummy, actually, but given the 360-degree field of vision afforded by the technology, the work’s verisimilitude certainly earned its title: Real violence. For his latest show, opening May 2 at Chelsea’s David Zwirner Gallery, Wolfson is presenting an animated video, Riverboat song, whose main protagonist, a cross between Huck Finn and Alfred E. Neuman, pisses into his own mouth. That same character appeared in Wolfson’s 2016 audio-animatronic coup de théâtre, Colored sculpture, as a gigantic marionette being mercilessly dragged around the room by thick chains suspended from a gantry.
“These things aren’t me,” says Wolfson, adding that “[Vladimir] Nabokov wasn’t a pedophile; he just wrote a story [Lolita] about one.” True enough. More problematic, however, is that Wolfson denies his work has meaning. Real violence was prefaced by a Jewish prayer, prompting some critics to see undertones of the Holocaust. The word colored in Colored sculpture, and the cruelty inflicted on the figure, suggests nothing so much as a lynching. Wolfson dismisses all of this. “My work is agenda-less,” he says. “It’s not provocative for the sake of provocation. I’m just expressing myself. It’s a kind of channeling—like you’re looking at the world and channeling it through you.”
Wolfson, 37, has known he wanted to be an artist since age 16: He suffered from ADD, and art “was the only thing I could get right.” Even then, his vision was dark. He recalls a school competition for which he submitted a painting of a bar interior featuring the grim reaper. He lost. “They were like, ‘Oh, your painting’s the best, but we have to give the prize to the kid who painted the apple, because yours is too weird,’ ” he says.
Born in New York City, he grew up in Connecticut with a psychiatrist mother and a father who owned a business that provided fabrics for the theater industry. His family includes such illustrious members as Harvard historian Harry Wolfson, humorist and Broadway legend Abe Burrows, and feminist writer Erica Jong, whom Wolfson credits with helping to shape his sensibility. “She’d always be so free with her ideas and judgments,” he says, “like the way she talked about sex. That made a huge impression on me.”
Though he hardly wears his background on his sleeve, Wolfson’s work has been castigated for a supposed air of entitlement. At a recent New Museum panel, audience members attacked him for, as one account of the evening put it, “[failing] to acknowledge the privilege that lets him reduce violence to an aesthetic form.” Defending himself, Wolfson notes that any knock on his privilege reveals the critics’ own. “Nobody has a monopoly on violence. I don’t think anyone is more or less privileged to depict violence than anyone else. That’s like saying movie stars can’t do violent scenes because they’re rich.”
His recent success represents phase two of a career that previously ran into heavy weather. A decade ago, he was a young star on the rise, appearing in the 2007 Whitney Biennial, before negative reception knocked him for a loop. “I was scared,” he says. “I thought all of my ideas were bad.
I surrounded myself with fear. But, finally, I said, ‘Fuck it. I’m not interested in making work to please other people.’ Ironically, that’s when opportunities opened up for me.”
These days, bad reviews don’t bother him (“I collect them,” he says), and he’s going full blast with elaborate, tech-heavy installations that require assistance from numerous animators and robotics experts. He even works with an engineer who supervised the practical effects in the film Avatar. “When you see something in your mind, and you push it to a place where it actually exceeds how you saw it, it’s a remarkable experience,” he says.
Also helpful is daily meditation and the occasional tarot reading. “It helps me deal with my fears,” he says. “I found this one tarot-card reader who’s pretty good, and the fact that she’s Republican makes me think she’s even more legit.”
Jordan Wolfson’s Riverboat song is at David Zwirner Gallery May 2–June 30 (212-727-2070, davidzwirner.com).