After a brief but eventful career that embodies the hopes and humiliations of African Americans at mid-twentieth century, the hero of Ralph Ellison’s celebrated 1952 novel Invisible Man retreats to a secret basement room on the edge of the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem. There, in the novel’s eloquent prologue, he patiently composes and reflects upon the story that follows. “I am invisible, understand,” he explains, “simply because people refuse to see me.”
Making pictures out of stories was once the main business of the visual arts. The rising modernist tradition consigned the practice to the margins; for most of the past century, “illustration” has been a term of contempt. In this large, richly detailed and thoroughly absorbing photograph, Wall has all but single-handedly reinvented the challenge.
The novel’s prologue is short on specifics, except one: 1,369 light bulbs cover the ceiling of the narrator’s underground lair. Starting with this fantastic detail, Wall scrupulously imagined in his Vancouver studio the concrete form of Ellison’s metaphorical space. Ambitiously reviving a forgotten art, he made visible the Invisible Man.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)