Merrill Wagner with John Yau and Eve Aschheim
On the occasion of her traveling survey, Looking at the Land, which will be on view at the Ben Shahn Gallery, William Paterson University (October 29–December 2006), and the University of Rhode Island (January 15–February 28, 2007), Merrill Wagner welcomes the Rail’s art editor John Yau and painter Eve Aschheim to her studio to talk about her life and work.
John Yau: I’d like to begin with your landscape paintings, since landscape seems to be central to your work, no matter how you’re painting. You’ve painted on objects, on canvas and on metal, but the constant throughout is landscape. Is that a fair description of your work?
Merrill Wagner: It isn’t always, really, because one thing can lead to another. Like, the large steel paintings—many of them seem to reference the landscape, even though their format and composition is very simple. They’re often made up of two sheets that are four by eight feet and I divide them in the middle, then paint half of each sheet a different color and leave one bare, or one semi-matte black and the other half bare steel, and vice-versa. They have just as much to do with materials and geometry as they have to do with landscape. But I think when we’re driving to our country home in Pennsylvania, I’m always looking at the landscape; or even in an airplane when we fly to Seattle three times a year, I’m looking out the window at the marks of farms and roads that human beings have made on the land. I don’t know why that seems really interesting to me. Maybe it is because I’m moving and the landscape in motion affects me in a much different way than it would if I were looking at the land standing or sitting still in one spot.
John Yau: But there’s also the landscape in which you grew up—the Northwest.
Wagner: Sure. It’s very overpowering, and more dramatic.
Aschheim: On the ferries this summer from Seattle to Orcas Island, I took some photographs out the square windows, and the view really reminded me of the light, color, and form that you’ve been dealing with.
Wagner: Looking at Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of the sea has made me realize that the landscape is full of straight lines and very simple geometries.
Aschheim: But I also see, in the metal paintings, as well as the relief and floor pieces, a real sense of the urban: texture, materials, weight, light, and verticality.
Wagner: Well, when I first came to New York City, I studied at the Art Students’ League from 1958 to ’63. Then I got a big loft—and I thought I’d do something more substantial, partly because I really missed the Northwest. But I was in the city, consciously trying to do work that would integrate the urban environment, which is all straight lines, gray colors, and man-made, with the landscape that I came from. I went out to Long Island a couple of times to see the sea, only to find that the experience was overwhelming. This really bothers me, as it used to bother me as a kid. I remember going up to Mt. Rainier, and as I got closer and higher up, the mountain got even more intimidating and it made me angry. And I thought to myself: “This is really an inappropriate thing. Why am I feeling angry?” Later I realized that I was disturbed because I didn’t like the fact that it was so overwhelming. You can have an apple tree, or some plants, and you can have this and that, but the mountain is another matter.
Yau: Let’s get back to your experience with the Art Students’ League. We know that you studied with Edwin Dickinson, a great painter, a subtle tonalist who doesn’t fit in with any situation or movement.
Wagner: Yes, but he was painting at the same time as Hopper and Walter Murch.
Yau: The sentiment found in Hopper is accessible to popular reading, because they suggest narrative, but both Dickinson and Murch have never been absorbed into the mainstream of American painting, perhaps because they address perception.
Wagner: I agree. There was a symposium on Dickinson at the National Academy, when they had that retrospective in 2004.
Yau: He must have been interesting as a teacher.
Wagner: Yes. He kept a certain distance from all of his students. He had a very particular manner. He wore three-piece suits and half-glasses, and he would come up to you and say: “This is not unbeautiful.” And you would say: “Oh. What does that mean?” You’d have to try to translate his words for yourself. He was very formal.
Aschheim: You often talked about color and his ideas about mixing colors. Would you elaborate more on that?
Wagner: He always wanted us to get as refined a color as possible, and to consider how one spot of color looks next to another. Even in the early stages of painting, he would insist that we put down areas of color that we had mixed and then say things like: “Use line if you’re going to draw a coat-hanger, otherwise, use value,” or, “put away the brushes and just mix and paint with knives.” The things he said about painting were extremely memorable.
Yau: You said he wanted to get to colors that were unnamable, right?
Wagner: Yes. For instance, we worked a lot from the figure in the class, and he thought that flesh—particularly Caucasian flesh—was very interesting because there was such a variety from one human being to another, and because its color was unnamable. You couldn’t say: “What color is your cheek?” You just have to mix it, using the colors that you had on your palette, and consider each color in relation to the color that was going to be next to it. Even the colors on one side of the face would be compared to the colors on the other side. Same thing goes for the piece of cloth and whatever else appeared in the painting, including the background. Everything had to be considered in those terms. Sometimes, if you wanted to paint a color, he’d have us begin with its complement. Let’s say, if you wanted to mix a green, he might have us start with an orange. Some other classes at the League thought that the Dickenson class used colors that were gray and muddy. They’d comment on his unorthodox way of teaching color, but as a result, we got a much more interesting, refined coloration to work with and look at.
Aschheim: Did he talk about color in relation to space, and atmosphere?
Wagner: Yes. But it always depended upon what you saw. One important thing was that he wanted us to look at things as though we’d never seen them before, whether it was a figure, a still life, or a landscape. You didn’t have to think in terms of “this is further back,” or “this is behind that”; although things appeared that way. But if you could mix a color that you saw, and what was next to it—or at least get that relationship right—it would show space. But you wouldn’t think of it as: “I’m going to paint space, now, I want this to look like it’s behind that.” You might think that at first, but that wasn’t the way you should approach it when you started to paint.
Yau: So it’s very abstract the way Dickenson thinks about painting. He’s not simply setting up an architectural space with organized objects in it, he’s making an interesting tension that resists depth and adheres to shallow space. And do you think that had an influence on you as an abstract artist?
Wagner: Absolutely. But what I had learned from him doesn’t just apply in modern and contemporary painting. I mean, this applies to earlier masters’ paintings as well. You can look at the negative space in Rembrandt’s or Vermeer’s paintings and see how they hold their presence and operate in relation to the positive forms. George Grosz was there at the League, too, and he was more involved with line, but he talked about the negative space and the figure also. Dickinson would also talk about the “interstices”—the hole in the doughnut, the negative shape.
Aschheim: Have you seen the Dickinson drawing with the large window in Michael and Juliet Rubenstein’s collection?
Wagner: Oh yeah, it’s very hard to figure out. It’s got an amazing sense of space and structure. He depicted the window’s reflection of what was behind the easel and behind the painter, as well as what was seen through the window, outside. It’s remarkable.
Aschheim: Could we talk further about your metal paintings, which evoke a certain industrial presence and sense of void or emptiness that is contrary to the intimacy of the small landscapes?
Wagner: I don’t know whether my metal paintings and small landscapes can be seen as opposites in that way. I went to the U-Cross Foundation for a summer and I took some little canvases, and I was doing the Dickinson method of observing as though you’d never seen anything before, placing color next to color and so on… When I finished, I thought that I had been painting just what I saw, but the paintings ended up looking nothing like the awesome landscape in front of me. So I got very discouraged and I thought: “I’m not ever going to be able to do this.” And we were talking earlier about the Northwest—I tried painting the trees, which are so tall you can’t really see them at once from top to bottom. Even Hudson River painters, like Bierstadt, I think, were trying to do that, but they really couldn’t.
Yau: Yeah, but many of them idealized their images and obeyed convention in order to make their paintings picturesque.
Wagner: True. But some of the paintings were massive in scale, which can be powerful to the viewer. The earthworks that were being done in the ’60s were powerful. At the Sandpoint Naval Station in Seattle there’s a large collection of sculptures that look really big and powerful when installed indoors, but when they put those things out against the landscape, they all look like delicate line drawings.
Yau: So one of the issues for you would be how to get that kind of expansive, overwhelming feeling into certain paintings?
Wagner: Well I did try it for a while, but I think I’ve given up. There was no resolution, really. I applied to U-Cross, saying that I had done these big paintings and that I wanted to study the landscape in Wyoming. I said that I thought it would provide something meaningful for me to look at because the landscape there is along the lines of what I am interested in. But I couldn’t capture it—there are certain things that can’t be resolved.
Aschheim: What about the painting Interruption?
Wagner: I was thinking about Mt. St. Helens and how, when the top came off in 1980, everything became dark. We weren’t there when it happened—I used to take the kids out to Seattle in the summers, but, of course, it blew up in May just before we got there. There were some other events where it blew up a couple more times, and there was this big mushroom cloud. All of those mountains are in fact volcanoes. They all could blow up at some point, and they would cover up everything with ash and lava. So I ended up painting Interruption, but not until 2005.
Yau: It’s moody without being too overtly expressed. It’s the color of the actual landscape. It’s like the landscape imposes the mood on what you’re looking at…
Wagner: Or imposes the mood on the viewer. Interruption is one of a series. I’m working on a series now of different brands of Davies grey. There are four different areas painted with four different brands of Davies grey—I was shortcutting Dickinson’s method of laborious mixing by using just something out of the tube—but the different brands of Davies grey are of different color and tonal values. Each one is different. That, too, interested me as kind of a formal issue. If you want to buy a particular color, each brand of that color will look slightly different from the next. From one year to the next, the color can change within the same brand.
Aschheim: Your paintings seem to engage the concept of memory and displacement. You look at one area of Interruption and it is like a memory of another part of the painting; you can’t remember what you just saw, and you keep going back and forth. The paintings change so quickly because their surfaces are so sensitive to changing light.
Yau: And even though they retain a very strong horizontal movement, the paintings are mostly square, which is quite interesting. Mondrian shifted to the square format in his final synthesis of what he’d been through with analytic cubism and with his earlier landscapes. In a way it goes further back to the Dutch painters—a few of them achieved amazing harmony in the square format. Some of Jacob van Ruisdael’s landscapes were done in a square format.
Wagner: I just think the square is always a satisfying configuration, and Dickenson said it was the hardest to compose in. Even sometimes when I am working on a canvas that’s not square, I like to incorporate a square. It’s just one of the ways to approach composition. It’s incredible to see Mondrian’s evolution with the paintings of the chrysanthemum, or the pier and ocean, and how he ended up with his rectilinear compositions. Right now, I’m thinking more about the square simply because that shape seems to allow flexibility. When looking at subject matter or a scene, I cross my fingers to make an aperture that’s square. It helps me to find a square in the subject matter or landscape, and then I feel that I’m on firm ground. And when I sort through pieces of found steel in a metal shop if I can find a square somewhere within the pieces, I think: “Yeah, that’s good.”
Aschheim: Well, it’s a neutral shape. Often a horizontal shape identifies itself with landscape, and the vertical with figure or architecture, so the square is somewhere between the two or outside of these identifications. The square resists becoming a window and becomes more like an object in the space of the room. But one of the things that I thought about is that you engage perceptual phenomena in your work. The metal surfaces reflect light, like water—at one moment it’s all dark blue, a mass; and then all of a sudden the wind blows and makes waves and you see light reflecting from the surface. So it changes in a split-second, literally as quick as you can look at it. Similarly, in your painting, a band of whitish paint becomes limpid, distant atmosphere, then suddenly becomes cloudy, foggy, moves very close to you, and suddenly it appears to become hard slate; depending upon which band you see first, the sequence of looking, and how close or far you are, there is a displacement, recalibration.
Wagner: I tend not to think too much about how natural light will effect how my painting looks. The metal painting is a more changeable painted surface, but even oil paintings on canvas, or on any other medium, are subject to change by light. We can’t control all of the conditions paintings are seen in. All I’m trying to do is get it to work. As you know, it often doesn’t happen right away. It always takes a while. It’s because you’re fussing with the color, turning it upside down, making the areas bigger or smaller.
Yau: But another thing about your work is that the metal paintings often come from separate parts, not one whole sheet. They are put together, like collage, in order to become a whole. Can you talk about that?
Wagner: Well, sometimes I try to find a whole sheet so that it won’t be too much of a headache to put together but, more and more often, I have to use many different pieces together. And with the larger paintings that are two pieces of 4 × 8—those are manufactured. They are what they are. But the steel looks different from one sheet to another. During production, I am told water is poured down the middle of each sheet to cool the steel, and it sometimes makes these blue patterns that are quite beautiful. To me, they often look like a landscape in themselves. So, that’s another factor. Of course, the patterns of color on the steel might change over a long period of time, depending on the natural oxidation process. In any case, when I see a piece of steel, I often get attracted to its shape. Like the pieces that I’m doing now—they’re negative shapes left over from other customers in metal shops. I find these shapes lying on the floor, or on shelves of scraps. And the recent works that you saw in the studio: I very consciously put those together as flowers, which I haven’t really ever done before.
Aschheim: Where do you think that new urge came from?
Wagner: I don’t know. Some of them are very tall, and totemic. Some of them are ten feet tall and look very funny. Perhaps it makes me feel good, at this time, when there’s a lot of grief in the world. If you can look at a ten-foot tall flower, maybe you can, for a moment, start to laugh and feel not so bad about all this stuff that’s going on. But I don’t see myself as making flowers out of the shapes that I find in the metal shop for an unlimited time. The place where I get metal is not cutting that steel anymore, so my work depends on what they do; but it is terrific to be able to use things that are cast off from the industrial processes.
Yau: What was it like for you, after your training at the Art Students’ League? At that time, you began to paint independently, against the background of, let’s say the late ‘60s to the mid ‘70s, when Greenbergian formalism was so dominant and when Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Ken Noland were making so-called “field paintings.” But there were also many other artists like Richard Tuttle, Alan Shields, Ron Gorchov, Mary Heilmann, who found it necessary to find another way of painting, and that’s when painting became more than just painting on stretched canvases. They took the canvas off its stretcher and tacked it to walls, wrapped it around rooms, and poured paint onto it on the floor!
Wagner: I remember responding to the new excitement and ideas that came from conceptual art, minimalism, sound works, earthwork, and process art. I remember Ian Wilson would make work that took the form of conversations so that there would be no product at all, there would just be thought. For instance, he would hold a conversation in a gallery and it was completely open to anyone who would sit in. He talked about the known and the unknown, and what is known to be unknown and vice versa. I found it to be quite interesting. So the work I was doing at that time was primarily concerning the basic nature of materials I employed. I was making paintings that were the same color of the linen with some linen exposed on the surface, so the viewer couldn’t tell the difference between the painted and unpainted areas in a glance. I was also making tape paintings where I’d mask off areas that I didn’t want to paint, then once it was painted, the work looked free and interesting. But once I took the tape off, it would become very formal and stiff. So I made some paintings using only tape applied to paper and glass.
Yau: Yeah. You did a tape piece on the windows of the stairway landing at P.S. 1, part of “A Great Big Drawing Show” in 1979, and other similar work in the early 1980s. How did that get started?
Wagner: Probably around 1978. It began with my backyard in New York, and then in 1982 to 1983, I started a site-specific project called A Calendar, where I painted six rectangles of slightly different yellow paint on a cedar face running into the fresh water of Gravelly Lake near Tacoma, Washington. Two of each were painted with either oil, tempera, or watercolor. The idea was to see how each yellow would materially hold up to the duration of time and weather, and under water when the lake rose. After that I did several more of the outdoor projects. The photo records of these became books: Notes on Paint (1983-90), Time and Materials (1994), Painted Sun Trails (1994), and Oil and Water (1999).
Yau: Tell us a bit about your traveling show?
Wagner: It’s called “Looking at the Land.” The idea came from several people at roughly the same time: Robert Morgan, Leslie Heller, and Nancy Einreinhofer. They thought that it would be interesting to show the small landscapes alongside the abstract paintings. It’s a small survey of work from 1986 to the present, including six small landscape paintings, five steel paintings, one piece that’s made up of eleven slate fragments leaning against the wall, and one big square abstract painting on canvas.
Yau: I also am interested by the fact that the landscape paintings you’re doing now are quite small. They’re 9 × 12 inches, or 12 × 14. You do those outside, in the landscape. And that forsythia painting has so many different yellows—I realize that it resonates, in a way, with your Davies gray painting. In other words, the yellows are very close in value, but also very distinct from each other. That’s the way you’re making the painting. But why did you choose to work in that format, 9 × 12 inches? They’re so extremely different from the larger pieces.
Wagner: That’s true about different tones of one color. But as far as my landscape paintings being small, it’s just simply that I have a hard time throwing anything out. I had some scraps of linen, and I wanted to use them, rather than go out and buy more. I didn’t want to throw them out. The paintings on linen done from observation need to be small enough to carry around outdoors along with paint, an easel, brushes and a palette. They are explorations of a landscape. The large steel pieces are explorations of color and space. The color is often reminiscent of seasonal color in the landscape. I had not thought of hanging these two bodies of work together, but now there is an opportunity to do so, and I am very busy thinking of how to install these different kinds of work so that the exhibition will make sense.