On ViewDavid Zwirner
September 15–October 22, 2022
The remarkable coming together of painting and sculpture in the career of Merrill Wagner carries a steady and clear-cut certainty that reveals itself in an exhibition currently on view at the uptown Zwirner Gallery. As a predecessor to Wagner’s eventual use of grid-based seriations, her early engagement with abstraction and minimalism reveals what these abstract compositions may have been striving to achieve: an exploration of the relationship between nature and art, chance and process. In a parallel mode, this exhibition demonstrates beyond a doubt that Wagner’s focus on materiality has continued to expand and move forward since the early seventies.
In retrospect, the artist’s involvement with the unpredictable use of materials—particularly in the context of unconventional support structures, involving slate, stone, Plexiglas, and steel—is one of the major attributes for which this artist is known. The extraordinary current exhibition offers a visual (and visionary) layout that clearly shows us where the artist began and, indirectly, where she has traveled in relation to more recent, perhaps better-known, works.
Given Wagner’s maturation in the Pacific Northwest, it is not surprising that the natural landscape remained close to her. For some observers, suggested allusions to the natural world in her art lead clearly into some of her recent work, which has been done in outdoor site-specific environments. This includes Blue, Summer Studio, 1985–2003 (2017), a wooden fence painted with varying shades of blue in an 8 by 8 grid accompanied by two secondary rows of narrow rectangles. This work reveals the effects of time in changing the appearance of the original installation, implying that nature and material are not in opposition, but are complementary to one another. Nonetheless, the division between Wagner’s quest for materiality and her presence in the out-of-doors offers much to speculate on.
A work of a different order, Outerbridge Crossing (1986), is titled after the bridge between Staten Island and New Jersey, built in 1925. Here the use of material in Wagner’s work takes on a more obscure meaning. Wagner has painted “four parts” of her slate (measuring six feet tall altogether) with vertical bands of blue paint, using acrylic and watercolor. The painting is not the bridge and the bridge is not the painting, but somehow they conceptually go together.
The question might be raised as to the meaning of the transference from canvas to slate or from the bridge to the support—this is not dissimilar from asking the meaning of any so-called “abstract painting.” In either case, these questions have something to do with process and chance, two elements that function pervasively throughout Wagner’s discourse, and which have antecedents in twentieth century art from Duchamp to Robert Morris.
The intellectual rigor that supports Wagner’s work is essential to her aesthetic. The work goes beyond the obvious into a conceptualization of how decisions are made in art and how they determine the outcome of our thinking. It is as if Wagner’s supports were put together in the realm of nature and painted one at a time to discover the result. Or could it be as if nature was giving us answers without questions, or as if chance had made the process rather than the process encouraging chance? But then we would have to ask: What’s the difference? Of course, there is none. Merrill Wagner’s art shows us that the artist’s vision, the power of nature, and the operations of chance are as inextricable as the materiality of the work and its meaning.