Wall was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada. While studying art history at the University of British Columbia in the 1960s, he became interested in Vancouver's experimental art scene and taught himself photography, seeing it as the best tool for expressing his conceptual ideas. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1968, and his Master of Arts degree from the same university in 1970. From 1970 to 1973 he did postgraduate research at the Courtauld Institute, University of London. In 1974 he accepted his first teaching position, at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, subsequently teaching at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, 1976-87, and since 1987 at the University of British Columbia. Early group exhibitions include 1969 shows at the Seattle Art Museum, Washington, and Vancouver Art Gallery, and New Multiple Art at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 1970. His first one-man show was held at Nova Gallery, Vancouver in 1978. Other solo exhibitions have been held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1984, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1995, which toured in 1995-6 to the Jeu de Paume, Paris, the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.
Wall has said, 'The only way to continue in the spirit of the avant-garde is to experiment with your relation to tradition' (Artnews, Nov. 1995, p.222). In 1977, during a visit to the Prado in Madrid, he was moved by the paintings of Velázquez and Goya. He felt that, due to what he saw as the dominance of photography and film, it was no longer possible for modern artists to paint like the great masters. Seeking a new method to represent everyday life pictorially, Wall found a suitable medium in advertising hoarding lightboxes, and made his first backlit transparencies in 1978. Early works, such as The Thinker (1986) based on Rodin's sculpture of that name, referred directly to great works in the history of art. Recently, he has more actively explored the literary and filmic aspects of his art. The majority of his pieces are set in Vancouver and contain references to art, the media, and socio-economic problems.
'Jeff Wall', exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1995Lee Robbins, 'Lightbox, Camera, Action!', Artnews, vol.94, no.9, Nov. 1995, pp.220-3
Kerry Brougher, 'Jeff Wall', exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1997