July 14, 2020, New York, NY – Pace is honored to announce that New York-based artist Merrill Wagner has joined the gallery’s international roster of leading artists. Pace has a long history of championing figures, such as Agnes Martin, Sol Lewitt, and Robert Mangold, among others, who have dared to expand the possibilities of abstract painting. Wagner’s unflagging dedication to redefining the abstract languages of Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, and Post-Minimalism makes her a vital part of this history. Pace Gallery looks forward to promoting global awareness of Wagner’s exceptional artistic contribution and to enriching the critical discourse on her practice through exhibitions and publications.
For the last six decades, Wagner has worked in a wide range of media, including drawing, painting, sculpture, books, and site-specific installation and intervention. Inspired by the great American landscape of the Pacific Northwest where she grew up, she has developed through continuous experimentation a poetic approach to abstraction that embraces non-traditional materials and exhibition formats. Her oeuvre consistently prods the limits of perception while exploring the tension between the natural and the man-made as well as the impermanent and timeless.
She began articulating her unique aesthetic in the mid-1960s with abstracted landscapes rendered in colorful, hard-edged geometric forms. Her investigation of materiality and perception deepened in the 1970s when she introduced tape as a key material in her work, as seen with her installations Green Landing and Burgandy Landing (1978) at MoMA P.S.1, New York. She soon went on to experiment with other atypical material supports, such as salvaged slate, stone, and steel, preserving these materials’ irregular edges and textured surfaces reminiscent of natural processes and forms.
The transformational effects of time, especially on matter, are key concerns in Wagner’s work, which often alludes to geology and entropic processes. With her renowned sitespecific intervention A Calendar (1983), for example, Wagner painted a series of yellow squares along a cedar fence in Gravelly Lake, near Tacoma, Washington, only to leave this image exposed to the ravages of time and the weather.
Susan Dunne, President of Pace Gallery, comments, “I have long been an admirer of Merrill’s work, having followed her career and visited her studio regularly for thirty years. Merrill’s decision to join us at Pace will further deepen this relationship as well as enrich the gallery’s diverse and historical program. I look forward to growing her audience while expanding the critical reception of her work globally.”
In 2021, Wagner will be included in 52 Women Artists: Revisiting a Feminist Milestone, curated by Amy Smith-Stewart and Alexandra Schwartz, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut (2021). Her recent one-person exhibition, Landscapes of Colour, was held at Große Kunstschau in Worpswede, Germany (2019) and curated by Jörg van den Berg.
Merrill Wagner (b. 1935, Tacoma, Washington) grew up in the Pacific Northwest, a place whose natural beauty inspired her work throughout her career. She moved to New York in the 1950s to study literature, receiving a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. She then attended the Art Students League studying primarily under Edwin Dickinson, a seminal experience that shaped her understanding of color, space, and form. In the mid-1960s, Wagner shifted from painting nature, still lifes, and portraits to creating abstracted landscapes, rendered in hard-edged geometric forms and bold colors. These paintings embodied a tension between the nature Wagner had grown up with and the urban environment she now found herself in. In this sense, they foreshadowed her later works’ blurring of dichotomies between, for instance, the real and the illusory as well as harmony and imbalance.
In the late 1960s, Wagner began to make paintings that, through their use of raw linen and paint, explored perceptual phenomena. In the diptych Untitled (1969), for example, she painted two square canvases in earthy colors akin to the natural tone of linen. By leaving the weave and color of this substrate material partially exposed, the distinction between paint and linen disintegrated, provoking an awareness in the viewer of the act of seeing itself.
While continuing her exploration of landscape through hard-edged geometry, Wagner began investigating the properties of unconventional materials. In the mid- to late 1970s, she, for example, experimented with tape, whose adhesive surface offered new possibilities for texture and mark building, as seen with Sanguine Five A (1977) and Sanguine Five B (1977). With works such as Viridian (1974), Wagner defies standard formats for presenting painting and radically breaks with the wall’s planarity by nestling a tri-folded canvas in the corners of the gallery space. She is also one of few women artists who created floor-bound works during this time.
Much of the complexity of Wagner’s work comes from her commingling of natural processes with her painterly and sculptural gestures. Her marks cohabit with the veins and ridges of stone, the oxidized colors of steel, and the naturally occurring play of light. Artificial forms contrast with the undulating topographies organic to her material supports. This aspect of her work was first sparked when Wagner was offered damaged slate chalkboards that had been removed from MoMA P.S.1 during its renovation in the 1970s. Using these surfaces instead of traditional canvas or paper, she produced a series of unorthodox works, including Zone (1986), a 30-foot installation made of slate fragments that were painted in cobalt blue and installed against the gallery wall. Awesome in scale and full of drama, this daring work, as Lilly Wei writes, “was sculpture, drawing, painting, and installation; it was cinematic, with time trailing in its wake as it unrolled before the viewer. It was abstract; it was representational. It was illusion; it was material.”
Drawn to metal as a raw element sourced from the earth, Wagner turned to painting on steel in the 1980s. These works examine the interplay between color and space and suggest fleeting experiences of the great American landscape, as if seen from a moving train or car. Many, such as Tsunami (2010), are composites of various metal pieces and, consequently, alternate between colorful bands of rust-preventative paint and untreated steel. Replete with marks and irregularities, their surfaces offer an engrossing record of these materials’ past lives, which are sometimes referenced in Wagner’s titles.
The artist also began a practice of site-specific paintings in 1979 with Seventeen W. 16th St Wall Piece (1979), located in New York City. Consisting of four vertical bands of yellow painted on brick, the work was left exposed to the elements and passage of time. This process was documented through photographs that were then compiled into publications and series emphasizing the temporal, almost narrative, quality inherent to the work. Wagner’s many publications include Oil & Water (2002), depicting a work in Greenport, Long Island in 1999; Time and Material (1985); Notes on Paint (1983–90), which features A Calendar (1983); and suites of photographs capturing the fading colors in Blue, Summer Studio 1985–2003 (2017) and Red, Summer Studio 1984–2003 (2017).
Wagner has had numerous solo exhibitions, including Landscapes of Colour/Landschaften der Farbe at Große Kunstschau, Worpswede, Germany (2019) and Merrill Wagner at the New York Studio School (2016). Her first traveling survey Looking at the Land was mounted at the Ben Shahn Gallery, William Paterson University
(2006), before traveling to the University of Rhode Island in 2007. Group exhibitions include: Postwar Women at The Art Students League of New York (2019); Between the Lines: American Abstract Artists Women’s Exhibition, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (2018); Minimal Difference: Selected Work by Women Artists 1960s-1970s, the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, New York (2018); and American Abstract Artists: a Selection, Kent State University, Ohio (2013), among many others. Her numerous site-specific works also include Runaway Redyellowblue at the C.W. Post Center at Long Island University, New York (1993); Painted Sun Trails at William Paterson College, Wayne, New Jersey (1994); and Skewer presented at the Islip Art Museum in New York (2002).
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