b. 1935, United States

Merrill Wagner Biography

Known for her nature-driven abstractions painted on unconventional surfaces, Merrill Wagner is an American artist and was wife of the late Minimalist and conceptual art pioneer Robert Ryman. Her work has been included in numerous prominent surveys of female American abstract artists.

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Early Years

Born in Tacoma Washington in 1935, Wagner went to New York as a young woman to study. After completing a BA at Sarah Lawrence College in 1957, she went on to study at the Arts Students League from 1959–63. Her teachers included figurative painters Julian Levi, Edwin Dickinson and George Grosz.

Emerging on the New York art scene in the 1960s, minimalism and post-minimalism were superseding abstract expressionism as dominant styles and Wagner's work began to respond to these movements. In 1969 Wagner wedded Minimalist painter Robert Ryman with whom she would remain married until his death in 2019. She continued to develop her own practice alongside Ryman's over the decades of their partnership.

Merrill Wagner Artworks

Wagner's oeuvre demonstrates an expansive approach to abstract painting, paying particular attention to colour, materials, site and the passage of time. Grounds for her nature-inspired abstractions have included canvas, linen, plexiglass, wood, slate, steel, snowplough parts and stone.

Abstract Paintings and 55 Mercer

Wagner's seminal paintings on canvas of the 1960s featured hard-edged abstractions and bright, contrasting colours with subtle compositional references to natural landscapes. Towards the 1970s Wagner began exploring new grounds, painting with acrylic on Linen while continuing to experiment with colour and form.

In 1969 Wagner became a founding member of artist-run gallery 55 Mercer along with Alice Adams, Donald Cole, Stan Kaplan and Stephen Rosenthal, among others. She exhibited with the group throughout the 1970s.

New Materials

From the mid-1970s, owing in part to the influences of post-modernist sculptor Eva Hesse, Wagner began experimenting with painting on unconventional materials, exploring their effects on texture, pattern and colour.

Slate became Wagner's primary medium through the late 1970s and 1980s after obtaining a hoard of discarded slate chalkboards and fragments from renovations of the MoMA PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island, NYC. In Outerbridge Crossing (1986), a four-part monumental assemblage that reaches six feet tall, an arrangement of panels in combination with painted fields of colour references the Staten Island-New Jersey bridge the work is named after, and its surrounding waters.

Wagner also experimented with tape as a component on paper and plexiglass in her works of the 1980s. Shaded or painted-over, the incorporation of tape severed the boundaries between form and process.

From the mid-to-late 1980s Wagner also began to work with compositions on stone and steel plates. In stone works like Untitled and Crooked Strait (both 1995) the artist brings together different stone pieces into a singular composition, much like some of her early slate works, uniting the composition with lines drawn or painted across their surface. In Steel works like Shoal (1995), Bay (1995) and Light Street (1999), Wagner works more exclusively in all-over colour field compositions that evoke nature.

These unconventional material compositions continue in her later works. In Tsunami (2010) and Vent (2011) the artist more directly references the source of her found materials while re-imaging them with natural allusions.

Outdoor Works

Wagner has undertaken a number of site-specific, outdoor projects. In these works, the natural elements and the passage of time become materials as well as subjects, as painted surfaces are left to the elements.

Her 'Summer Studio' works—Yellow, Summer Studio (1983–2003); Red, Summer Studio, (1984–2003); and Blue, Summer Studio (1985–2003)—document a process that began with the artist painting basic yellow, red and blue geometries on cedar fences lining a property she owned in Tacoma, Washington.

Over almost two decades, whenever the family returned to the property for the summer Wagner captured in photographs the changes to the surrounding grass, foliage, the fence and the paint as it progressively degraded.

Public Commissions

In 1995 Wagner exhibited Painted Sun Trails, a set of painted rocks on the grounds of Patterson College, New Jersey—one of her few projects for public spaces. As the environment and the elements took effect on the paint, the work changed and developed over time.

Awards and Accolades

Merrill Wagner has received a number of awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 1989, the National Academy of Design's Andrew Carnegie Prize in 2006 and an Academy Award in Art given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters the same year.

Exhibitions

Merrill Wagner has been the subject of both solo and group exhibitions internationally.

Solo exhibitions include: Merrill Wagner, David Zwirner Gallery, New York (2022); Looking at the Land, William Paterson College, Wayne, NJ (2006); Streets, Roads, Lanes and Floors, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (1991); Merrill Wagner, MoMA PS1, New York (1979).

Group exhibitions include: 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield CT (2022); Splendor of Dynamic Structure: Celebrating 75 Years of the American Abstract Artists, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca (2011); A Great Big Drawing Show, MoMA PS1, New York (1979).

Website

Merrill Wagner's website can be found here.

Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2023

Merrill Wagner
featured artworks

Small Flower With Grape Vine by Merrill Wagner contemporary artwork sculpture
Merrill Wagner Small Flower With Grape Vine, 2007 Rust preventive paint on steel
175.3 x 157.5 cm
David Zwirner Request Price & Availability
Untitled (#8) by Merrill Wagner contemporary artwork painting
Merrill Wagner Untitled (#8), 2001 Oil on linen
47.6 x 37.8 cm
David Zwirner Request Price & Availability
Assertion by Merrill Wagner contemporary artwork painting, sculpture
Merrill Wagner Assertion, 2006 Rust preventive paint on steel
247.7 x 245.1 cm
David Zwirner Request Price & Availability
2 Brands of Mars Violet by Merrill Wagner contemporary artwork painting, sculpture
Merrill Wagner 2 Brands of Mars Violet, 2004 Oil on slate and marble
61 x 61 x 7.6 cm
David Zwirner Request Price & Availability
Untitled by Merrill Wagner contemporary artwork works on paper
Merrill Wagner Untitled, 1975 Masking tape and pencil on paper
27.9 x 35.6 cm
David Zwirner Request Price & Availability
Outerbridge Crossing by Merrill Wagner contemporary artwork painting
Merrill Wagner Outerbridge Crossing, 1986 Acrylic and watercolour on slate in four (4) parts
185 x 168 cm
David Zwirner Request Price & Availability
Blue, Summer Studio 1985-2003 by Merrill Wagner contemporary artwork photography
Merrill Wagner Blue, Summer Studio 1985-2003, 2017 Suite of six (6) digital chromogenic prints mounted on Plexiglas
David Zwirner Request Price & Availability
Watch by Merrill Wagner contemporary artwork works on paper
Merrill Wagner Watch, 1992 Rust preventive paint on steel in two (2) parts
247.7 x 244.8 cm
David Zwirner Request Price & Availability

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