6.19.17 — Beyond the Fences

Merrill Wagner had a secret weapon in her paintings from the 1970s, their support. And if it is hard to keep a painting’s physical presence secret, that is precisely the point. Many make use of tape on Plexiglas. Another distances canvas from a stretcher to find new support, in the walls and floor, where three dark squares mark out a corner of the room, at Zürcher through June 24.

Like much of the tape and her brushwork, the squares have ragged edges, just in case one was tempted to overlook their presence. And it is tempting, just as one can write off Robert Ryman, whom she married, as the painter of white on white—forgetting his range of materials from canvas and metal plates Merrill Wagner's Outerbridge Crossing (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, New York Studio School, 1986)to the bolts holding them to the wall. For both artists, it takes looking at what lies right before one’s eyes.

Six months earlier, the New York Studio School made the background to painting inescapable—and I have wrapped this into my earlier report on its show as a longer review and my latest upload. That one spanned her career, including work from the 1980s on several panels, somewhere between painting, sculpture, and relief. It also included photos of fences in the New York metropolitan area, not so far from the verticals of cloth or masking tape. This show hones in instead on a crucial decade, when she turned thirty, making them together a fairer retrospective. It shows her as, first and foremost, a painter. No wonder it takes looking.

Wagner does not appear in “Making Space,” a survey of women in abstraction, but she could have appeared if only MoMA had taken more care to collect her. (She did appear there that very decade in a Christmas show.) She, too, is making and marking space, in line with the period’s emphasis on art as object. The verticals have their parallel, so to speak, in stripes by Frank Stella, the dark squares in Ad Reinhardt. A red square, for that matter, deepens into black. Even her forays out of doors have a parallel in the economy of plant studies by Ellsworth Kelly, back in Chelsea at Matthew Marks a door away from his last paintings through June 24.

For all that, she has little of their austerity—precisely what can tempt one to see only painting. One can come up close to watch the red vary and deepen, rather than wait for it to pop out of a near uniform blackness. One can stand back to compare its dimensions, brushwork, and tape marks with other colors set against uniform squares of Plexiglas. Not that they form a single work or even a series, but creative hanging invites a closer look. Paired yellow verticals look worn by earth or fire, while other works stick to competing fields and tones of black and gray. The show’s largest canvas stands alone, and its broader verticals dissolve at the edges like horizontal bands for Agnes Martin.

She is also not above illusion, as long as it can coincide with the literal. The corner piece looks at first like a translucent black cube, before falling back to canvas. It matters, though, that it still looks solid and painterly as loose fabric. It matters, too, that the weathering in earth tones on yellow depends on a combination of chance and her own hand. While other artists use tape to give geometry its clean edges before peeling it away, she uses it to mess things up. Where the fences make one aware of all her work as making space, here she is marking time.

Jill Moser marks time in abstraction, too, with a record of her art’s making. Twenty years younger than Wagner, she survived a long stretch of silkscreens and appropriation, when painting was out of fashion. She incorporates them into her work at that, along with oil on canvas. She, though, is appropriating only herself, in what can pass for painting, just recently at Lennon, Weinberg through June 17. Thin drips and curves contrast with underlying broader patches—and the opacity of the first with the translucency of the second, like passing showers in front of clouds. Together, they offer at least two versions of the definite or the ephemeral.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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