A Teaser: James Crump on his New Jordan Wolfson Documentary

Cultured Magazine

james crump jordan wolfson
Still from Wolfson's Riverboat Song (2017), which is clipped in "Spit Earth: Who is Jordan Wolfson?"

How many ways can you use the pun enfant terrible in a headline? Jordan Wolfson forces the issue. The puckish artist—whose fan base, and infamy, seem to grow in equal portion with each new pillorying profile and bad review—is now the subject of a new kind of examination: a documentary by James Crump and Ronnie Sassoon. We got a sneak peek of Spit Earth Who is Jordan Wolfson?, the interview-driven film last week, as well as a chance to ask the director about his feelings upon completion.

Why him? I began steadily tracking Jordan’s work around 2013, after he signed with David Zwirner and debuted his first animatronic sculpture, Female Figure, in 2014. Later, Richard Flood, former chief curator at the New Museum, invited me and my partner Ronnie Sassoon to a personal visit with Jordan at his Red Hook, Brooklyn studio in the spring of 2017. We were both so struck by Jordan’s genius and how articulate he was in presenting his work and ideas. 

He is such a great character study. The more I read, the more fascinated and intrigued I was by Jordan’s work and by his complex, temperamental, some have said sociopathic personality. Jordan in public always exudes a kind of bullet-proof confidence, but in the many hours of interview footage we made, what emerges are Jordan’s vulnerabilities—his fractured sense of self and his constant struggle with his identity, his sexuality, his fears and anxieties. Jordan is always working on himself, in an attempt to understand who he really is: thus, the title of our film. 

What did you think of Dana Goodyear’s portrait in The New Yorker and how did it align (or not) with your own impression? I found Dana Goodyear’s New Yorker essay to be the most critical and damning profile of an artist I have ever read.

How did you assemble your team of subjects? I always search for interview subjects that have an original, authoritative opinion. In this instance, we really wanted a diverse group of individuals who would address Jordan’s complexities and his highly ambitious, highly leveraged practice. This cast made for a nice balance of voices, all of whom genuinely care about him. No haters were included.

You leave some pretty generous clips of Jordan’s videos in your documentary; what do these inserts add in your opinion?As we learned from Jordan and the interview subjects, Jordan takes very seriously his identity as an artist and creator. Jordan’s work is very, very personal and even though he is constantly denying that there is any autobiographical content in his pieces, once you go inside his mind and marry that with his output, the story is more intelligible.

There seemed to be a focus on Emma Fernberger’s account—is that something that developed out of shooting? Our interviews are generally less than 60 minutes in length. There was no focus per se on Emma but she possesses an intimate—as well as art world—perspective on many aspects of the story. Jordan suggested we reach out to other girlfriends, of whom there are many, and people he thinks hate him, but we were never going to produce a sensational smear film.

You were noted in saying that perhaps Jordan balked at the final edit of the film. What do you think he would’ve found so objectionable? I think it’s just very challenging for any person to take that look into the mirror. I’m not certain what Jordan’s expectations were, but we were clear with him from the beginning that the film would be an honest portrayal and not a puff piece. He saw our previous films and liked them, and this film is consonant in structure with all of them. Jordan, in my experience, is very mercurial. Who knows if he will like the film tomorrow or appreciate five years from now.

What was your impression of Cube and how do you think it will sit beside his other works? I witnessed Cube in its early stages in Jordan’s studio and viewed the conceptual video presenting the “scenes” it will perform. From what I’ve seen, it possibly promises to be Jordan’s most successful animatronic sculpture. Perhaps more so than his previous works, Cube participates most forcefully in the emergence of new art forms that are interactive and immersive in nature. I’m looking forward to experiencing it. 

Were there certain artist biography documentaries you were thinking about when making this? No. In our film Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art (2015) I wanted to explore the roots of conceptual art in the late 1960s and early ’70s and the contemporaneous interest in the dematerialization of the object. With this film, we were interested in the opposite side of that coin. Jordan’s work epitomizes objecthood. Where our earlier film, in a sense, looked away from the white-hot art market of today—where collectors increasingly take an investment view toward art objects and art is considered a new kind of investable asset class—Spit Earth Who is Jordan Wolfson? takes a dive into it. The film examines one of the most successful, though highly controversial and divisive, artists by delving inside his mind on a bi-coastal, behind the scenes journey as he prepares what might be his most ambitious animatronic sculpture to date.

Can you imagine making a Part Two, years from now? Do you think there will be more story to tell? After the New York Film Festival premiere of Troublemakers, Liam Gillick, over a martini, asked if I would consider making a six-hour director’s cut because there is always more to say about a subject. With Liam I demurred, and I feel similarly about Spit Earth. We are now in post-production for our next film, a documentary feature entitled Breuer’s Bohemia about the legendary twentieth-century architect’s post-war residential practice in New England in the wake of the Museum of Modern Art’s watershed exhibition, “House in the Museum Garden.” Dead artists and architects are much easier subjects.

Do you think there is anyone with a better Koons impersonation? There may be, but I’ve never seen it.