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 revelatory. 
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.
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.
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. 
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.
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. 
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.
So what kind of artist are you?
What I feel I'm doing is a sequential line of works. I see it as a path. I want the works to become autonomous, independent. They should exist independently of any exhibition. It might be more similar to how an author works. Or a musician doing records, one after the other.
Or a filmmaker. Like Woody Allen, who does one film a year.
What’s your take on Woody Allen?
I think he’s great. I think that he’s really funny and really, really smart. I love his movies. And I think it’s incredible what he did. It’s amazing to me that he made Sleeper. And it’s amazing to me that he made Annie Hall. There’s a whole transition between Sleeper and Annie Halls when he got Bergman and Sven Nykvist—Bergman’s cinematographer that started working with him later on in the eighties. The look of his films changed dramatically. Do I think that I’m like Woody Allen? No. I don’t.
I wasn’t going to suggest that.
But people often do, especially in Europe.
They compare you to Woody Allen?
Because I have glasses, I’m Jewish-looking, and I’m funny or something. I love Woody Allen probably like anyone else loves Woody Allen. But I don’t really study Woody Allen.
What about film in general?
I don’t really think of myself as a filmmaker. Even at RISD, I was in the sculpture department because I wanted to have the choice to make anything I wanted to. And they asked me to leave at one point. They said, “Why don’t you go to the film and video department?” But I never felt like I was a film and video person. I don’t imagine my work being in film festivals, or in the realm of commercial cinema or advertising. I’ve always thought of myself as a visual artist. My influences aren’t so much film and video.
That’s weird because you always struck me as somebody that had a real and deep appreciation of filmmakers. When I was working for you, we were always talking about them. Bergman…
I love Bergman. That’s different though, at least to me. Bergman is hardcore art. Bergman is so different from all other cinema. He’s so removed. He was a commercial filmmaker, but he surpasses the standards for what we consider commercial filmmaking today—or even back then. I don’t have any ambition of being a commercial filmmaker and leaving the art world to make movies. My brain doesn’t turn that way. I don’t think about interesting stories that could be made into movies. That’s the farthest thing from my brain. I think of images in flashes. That’s what I’m inspired by.
You’ve made work about commercial films. I remember hearing about this one piece at RISD, I never actually saw it. You recited every word from the script of Home Alone.
Oh, yeah, I did that in my senior year of RISD. I also did Infinite Melancholy, the Christopher Reeve video.
You did them both at the same time?
I did them both at the same time.
But you only showed Infinite Melancholy.
I kind of never finished the Home Alone thing. There were some technical problems and I had no time. I had to choose one or the other to show.
It sounds closer to Animation, Masks in a way, than the Christopher Reeve piece—certainly in terms of dubbing yourself on the voiceover track.
I watched some of it recently with a friend and it seemed really amateurish. But when I made it, it was a really massive project to me.
If I think about it, Animation, Masks seems really connected to the history of video art: Alex Bag, the performance video, the body on screen, the video image.
Yes, in that case, although I don’t feel like that about other works, for example, Infinite Melancholy. Sometimes you spend your time making something that looks like art. It looks good to you because of other art you’ve seen or know about, and what you know about art history. Eventually though, after time and practice, you get over it and break off on your own: You make your own work. It seems really scary at first because there’s no one to tell you what’s right except for yourself. You can show it to your friends, and they can say, “That’s great,” but it’s not like you can open up some art history book and prove that what you’ve done is great: “Oh, look, so-and-so did it like that, and I do it like that, so therefore it’s a success.” 
So Infinite Melancholy was a leap of faith?
Did you feel nervous making it and putting it in front of people?
I was totally freaked out. When I first did it I had to render it at the computer lab at school. It took eleven days to render on this one G4 computer. Originally, it was this flat-planed landscape with a blue sky. And then I distorted it—I pulled up at the horizon lines. The result was that when you viewed the piece it pulled you in, almost physically. There was no horizon. There was a visceral feeling to it.
It’s uncanny. Your other videos have these uncanny moments, too.
Yeah, it's strange. The uncanny effect seemed to start happening when I gave up control in the works.
What kinds of people like your work?
I’m always surprised by it because I always feel that the things I want to do no one is going to like. Maybe that’s just an insecurity of mine—I get worried that people aren’t going to get it or that it will be too much. And when I end up doing them because I know I need to do them, because I need to follow through—those are always the best works. I really didn’t think Animation, Masks was going to be as critically successful as it was. I didn’t think Con Leche was going be as successful as it was either, both critically and commercially. And when Animation, Masks was finished I knew that this was how the piece had to be. I didn’t care if anyone was going to like it or not. That was a really important place for me to get to, and also a scary place to be. It’s hasn’t been easy. I had a really positive, strong response from friends on the piece. But the first night I showed it in Dusseldorf, there wasn’t as strong of a response. Or at least I wasn’t so sure. I was really nervous. Later I showed it at Frieze and it was received very well. And after that the show with Alex Zachary and Peter Currie was overwhelmingly well received too. I didn’t expect it to go like that. 
Do the people critical of your work ever confront you directly?
No, not really. I think a lot of the people who would criticize me or my work wouldn’t do it to my face. They tend to be the kind of people who avoid confrontations.
So when you finish a piece, is there some kind of self-acceptance that happens?
It’s not so much about acceptance; it’s more that I have this thing that I’ve been working on for a certain amount of time. I reached the final deadline, which could hypothetically be an exhibition. Or I just came to the conclusion that I knew it was finished—it’s as good as it’s going to be and I did my best possible job at it. And then it’s finished. And now it’s in the world. I can still change it here and there, fix it up a bit, that’s my privilege, but that’s the piece- it's done. It’s very assuring and comforting to be finished and able to go on. I’m super critical of myself and the work, so I go crazy and don’t want to see anybody while I’m working. I have to get to a point where I accept the work as an artwork. And then I accept it as finished.
Alright. I feel like I’m getting you exhausted, let me ask you one more question—we haven’t talked about bringing Judaism into art or even into the conversation of art. Frank Stella is a Jewish artist but often isn’t recognized as such. His cultural background is irrelevant, but is also very present. On the other hand you’ve brought your Jewish identity forward in a dramatic way.
Because I made Animation, Masks?
Not just because you made that piece; it was already there. You talked about it with The Crisis, with the fact that you’re in that video talking inside a church…
Oh, the Jewish guy talking inside a church, right.
Judaism is very foreign to the conversation of art.
It’s not interesting to the conversation of art. I thought it was interesting in terms of The Crisis, in terms of a Jewish guy in a church, having a kind of binary function. It’s just two things that cross each other out. I’m not a religious person, but within a church I feel like an outsider. Ironically, I feel the same in a synagogue. Anyway, I’m not really interested in Judaism and bringing Judaism in. I don’t practice Judaism, either. For Animation, Masks I went to a rabbi to talk about Judaism, but I realized it was a mistake for me to have done so. He couldn’t tell me anything except…
Weren’t you trying to live with a Hasidic family?
No, I visited an Orthodox household. Again, I got no answers. I was lost and didn't realize that the answers for the work had nothing to do with actual Judaism. For the most part I was confused about what I was doing. In the end, I realized that the answers were inside myself. There weren’t going to be any specific notes of knowledge that were going to enlighten me as to how to complete the artwork. It was simply a matter of what my own personal directives were, how I saw the world. And that was it. Everything else was wasted time.
You tend to waste time when you work.
Yes, unfortunately.
You make a lot of stuff that you don’t use.
Like the bicycle piece. Yes.
The bicycle piece. I don’t know what the fuck you’re ever going to do with that. I hope you do something with it.
A lot of extra stuff gets cut out like crazy. I waste a lot of money and time, but I think it’s all in the hope that I get to some unique place in the end.
And you do.
Thanks, I hope to.