On ViewDavid Zwirner
September 15–October 22, 2022
One doesn’t know, initially, how often Merrill Wagner painted these paintings and how often they painted her. The hallmark of a true artist is someone who meets the material and the idea to be embodied in it halfway, and in so doing allows the material to speak and renders its qualities visible.
At the top of the stairs at the Zwirner galleries on 69th street, Watch (1992), a monumental steel painting, inhabits the foyer and the stairwell. Its unexpected gradation of bands holds the space—assertively. The darkest one takes command—from there you can cascade down the gradient or, alternately, pierce the clean edge above to enter a field whose subtle lines trace the surface of a sea. Either way, the sensation of multiple horizons emerges with vistas.
What looks to be the raw surface of the steel, both in the band below and the one above, take on quite different light in their respective locations in the composition and so consequently in the room. Are they treated or painted—raw or worked? Did she find the steel like this and let it inspire the flat matte areas of the other bands in this simple striped painting? These thoughts and questions arise in the free association enabled by the space the work offers up. Remarkably, for all the landscape references inherent in her chosen format, the reflexive space of Wagner’s works is essentially the viewer’s space, the space in front of the so-called picture plane.
Born into a generation of artists that was charged with the dictums of Clement Greenberg, including the question of flatness, Wagner dances around the question. Neither succumbing to the formalist’s demand nor confronting it with a counter position, Wagner rather contextualizes the plane in a weighted metal surface, while her deft handling of paint renders a myriad of dimensions visible. In the process the flatness of the surface takes its place as one among many aspects of her painting. It is sumptuous, reminding us that we have digested, assimilated, and gone beyond the canonized work of the minimalist era without ever having lost the need for a pristine surface, the singing of geometry and the warmth of a material worked by hands.
It’s a pleasure to see this work standing on its own for the first time. In the city now several exhibitions are bringing attention to work from a generation of women who are Wagner’s peers. At Karma in Painting in New York: 1971–83, an exhibition organized by Ivy Shapiro, work by Pat Steir, Suzan Frecon, Joan Snyder, Mary Heilmann, Harriet Korman, and a wealth of others sets early works by some of today’s major players in the context of another milieu; at Morgan Presents, Cora Cohen’s paintings from the eighties give an in-depth view of a single artist. It appears we are at a juncture where the feminine gestures from the time can finally be seen.
What does it mean to look at Merrill Wagner’s work now, to discover her photographs of color samples painted on the back yard fence—Blue, Summer Studio 1985-2003 (2017)— made during her summers in Tacoma while teaching at Princeton. These works make explicit her engagement with environmental change as she documents how the paint fades or weathers, how the wood grays over a period of years. Indeed, each of her works in this exhibition asks us in different ways to take notice of our environmental relations whether through the play of light on a plane of steel, the reflection of the perceiver in the gloss of paint, the samples brought back from an excursion in the woods or the resonance of a geometric construction with the built world.
In “Red Circle” (1990), a series of geometric shapes comprised of the painting’s raw-steel support circumscribe a central polygon painted in red enamel; each vying for the role of figure over ground. The raw-steel shapes stand out, while the red sinks back (red doesn’t sink back on its own accord). Step in front of it and you become the figure when your reflection appears on the shiny red ground. Active all around its circumference, this gem of a painting is not going to sit still—somehow like Wagner herself.
Untitled (1994) is a 48 inch square piece of steel whose patina speaks of solvents and the depths they engender when let flow and settle as they will. How little was done here for how much we can see in it. Forms of nature jump out from the chance occurrences that make up the surface pattern. How can we tell if Merrill labored to achieve these effects, or discovered by selection this pattern that suited her need for making? More pictorial than most, this work never underlines an insistence or intention to evoke the natural world, but rather begs the question, “What did Merrill do and what did she not do?” The painting’s indifference, rather, opens itself to thought in the space Merrill left behind.
Untitled (1979), a Plexiglas piece in two parts measuring 63 by 127 inches, makes Wagner’s artistic position quite clear. On the left side, the sheen from the Plexi atop dark “oil stick on tape” reflects the space the piece hangs in, creating a dialogue not only with the perceiver but also with the other works in the room. You’ll see yourself in fine detail if you stand close enough here; the intensity of the depth deepens your breath. All the while the crimson tape bands on the second part, matte and vibrant, push out into the room with an embracing warmth. The resulting tension moves one from left to right and back again; thus, from reasoning to a felt sense.
These intrusions into the environment are accompanied in the front room by actual things—found or chosen from their surroundings. They shed light on another aspect of Wagner’s work: the tendency, distilled in works like Crooked Strait (1995) to qualify, to contextualize, as if to clarify that the qualities of surface—light, density, materiality, shape, form, and temperature among others—are not singular, but experienced in situ in the world we live in. If extracted singly, they would paint a false picture of who we are and what is.
Early works such as Untitled (1966) reveal the artistic journey Wagner made from image as subject to a transformation through substance. Outerbridge Crossing (1986), a group of standing stones on the upper floor, recalled for me one of Wagner’s insistent yet resistant impulses. Again and again she doesn’t allow herself to take over, rather she leaves room for the Other to speak. In her balanced gesture she receives from the stone the desire to let it be seen, adding enough, decisive enough, to allow it to be seen in a new light.