The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue

Merrill Wagner: Works from the ’80s

Merrill Wagner, Gorges, 1986. Casein, oil, acrylic, ultramarine, onslate blackboard fragments, 50 x 240 inches. Courtesy Zürcher Gallery, New York.

On View
Zürcher Gallery
March 13 – April 26, 2019

One of the most intriguing aspects of Merrill Wagner's work from the 1980s is its emphasis on painting from the perspective of three-dimensional space.

Whereas gestural abstract painters have historically dealt with finding a resolution within a two-dimensional picture plane à la de Kooning, Wagner goes for the materiality of painting as it becomes an object unto itself. This suggests that she is looking at her paintings as a form of objecthood in three-dimensional space rather than limiting them to a traditional picture plane. Pigments, such as casein, custoleum, oil, and acrylic, have not been applied to canvas or linen, but to hard surfaces that include slate, stone, marble, concrete, bluestone, and steel. Together these abstract objects have been placed indeterminately on the vast walls throughout the rambling raw space of the Zürcher Gallery in NoHo.

Merrill Wagner, Revisions, 1982. Oil pastel on slate, 2 pieces, 79 x 72 inches. Courtesy Z¨rcher Gallery.

But there is more to this exhibition than simply seeing and intermittently conjuring Wagner's oscillating forms on the walls. I refer here specifically to a large-scale singular work in this exhibition, titled Gorges (1986), an important work that some might understand as merely the result of "process." This was a term that emerged in the late 1960s by artists such as Robert Morris and Carl Andre who, at the time, chose to see their work less as a stagnant property than as the result of a carefully thought out series of material investigations involving time and space.

I am not convinced the term is appropriate to Wagner given that the holistic effect of this reasonably complex work, which has been shown both out-of-doors and indoors, painted on six indeterminate slate panels, is less about how it came to be than the visual impact it has in relation to its placement.

Indeed, Gorges—which no doubt is intended as the center-piece of the current exhibition given its symmetrical location against the longest wall of the gallery—projects a curious, if not eccentric material manifestation that exceeds the limited definitions of both painting and sculpture. Its sense of objecthood is what defines its presence, at least from a formal perspective. One tends not to think of this work as a visual field so much as a form capable of changing our perceptions of how we might come to terms with flattened space in a three-dimensional environment. At least, this is the explanation I find most appropriate in the context of an exhibition, surrounded by smaller object-works in which the play of materials and the manner of juxtaposing them is captivating and engaging.

Here we are given a hint at the possibilities for painting in the 1980s, not through "neo-expressionism," which ran parallel to this decade, but where the source of painting could re-emerge as a continuing form of primary structure without giving into the academic acolytes that had already suggested its demise. For Wagner, painting could only exist on its own terms without narrative content. Her sources came by way of what was considered essential to reductive painting in the sixties. Two decades later she set out to discover a way of altering the material structure of how we think about art. The result is the work seen in this exhibition.


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an artist, critic, curator, and art historian who paints, writes, curates exhibitions, and lectures on art history. Over the course of his career, he has traveled widely engaging in many aspects of his career. He has several books published by major publishers, i.e., Cambridge University Press, McFarland & Company, London, Allworth Press, New York, University of Minneapolis Press, The Johns Hopkins University Press, among others. His most recent exhibition was held at the Scully Tomasko Foundation, New York City (2022).


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues