Minimalism as Marker

John Haber
in New York City

Merrill Wagner and Beverly Buchanan

You may walk right past a series of photographs on the way to Merrill Wagner and her paintings. You will have other things on your mind, but watch out: you will have crossed a fence.

It makes sense if you think of abstraction as about regular geometries and breaking boundaries. For Wagner, though, art is also a human intervention in a not so natural landscape. When she photographs fences from day to day (published as A Calendar), she is taking stock of herself as well. Even when she sticks to painting, she is marking time and space. Beverly Buchanan, too, uses Minimalism as a marker. For Buchanan, taking stock means assessing what black communities far from New York have won and lost. Merrill Wagner's Outerbridge Crossing (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, New York Studio School, 1986)

Good fences

Inside at the New York Studio School, Merrill Wagner has more than forty years of work, from pencil sketches to a field of blue the size of a wall. It only gains in intensity from swirls of bright pastel, oil pastel, and graphite across its three panels. More somber tones and more reflective surfaces lean against or spill off other walls. Even from that narrow entryway, one can see a circle of stones on the floor, each touched by a circle in acrylic. A crusty green mass of stone rests nearby, as if it had erupted on the spot. Painting has taken on color, weight, and material presence.

With all that ahead, it is easy to miss the photos across from the guest book. Just be aware that, in entering, you will have crossed that fence. More precisely, you will have crossed sixteen fences, set in four rows like postcards or a scrapbook. The camera captures them more or less head-on, beneath nearly blank skies and behind a small patch of water or earth. Ripples in the water and the rough surface of soil and stone interact with light, much like Wagner's paintings. You can see why their titles, too, so often refer to landscape.

The photos date from 1982, when she was in the habit of painting squares or rectangles on a fence and returning to watch them fade in the face of time and weather. Yet they also call attention to the fences. Each barrier marks off its surroundings, summons them into view, and subjects itself to their changes. It parallels abstract painting as a response to natural light for Agnes Martin—much as the pencil sketches, from 1971, parallel Martin's early grids. It has a parallel in earthworks from those years as well, without having to move as much as a shovelful of earth. One can see why she called a book Time and Materials.

They also make a good frame for the work inside. They have a striking resemblance to strips of yellow masking tape from 1975. As work sites, they also correspond to Wagner's turn to scraps of natural and commercial materials. Not that she necessarily distinguishes the two. The large blue painting, Meander from 1980, covers Masonite treated with slate. Red scrawls meet a small slab of marble.

One painting even salvages a screen, the kind for fencing. The bulk, though, since around 1990 consists of rust-resistant paint on steel. These are not shaped canvases, but they do use their materials to shape a painting. They apply close shades of gray and yellow or the contrast of purple, gray, and blue, as studies in light and texture. They recall metal panels in earthshaking white painting by Robert Ryman, Wagner's husband, and I dare not ask who influenced whom when. Then, too, Cordy Ryman, their son, paints on wood very much like fence posts.

Born in 1935, Wagner arrived in New York in 1957 and took to geometry in the 1960s—although the show picks her up only in 1970s, just as she is coming into her own. The curators, Cordy with Hanne Tierney of Brooklyn's FiveMyles gallery, do not have the space or resources for a fuller retrospective, but they do a terrific job with two rooms. Critics often spot her connection to landscape, speaking of plein-air painting or the sublime. Still, these are human interventions, like rust-resistant paint, working against time and change without being able to keep them quite at bay. Wagner calls one painting Outerbridge Crossing, which sounds like a creek in a remote wild, but names instead the southernmost bridge from Staten Island to industrial New Jersey. For New Yorkers, that still counts as the wilderness, and maybe it does, too, for art.

Beyond the fences

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. 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 Ryman as the painter of white on white—forgetting his range of materials from canvas and metal plates to the bolts holding them to the wall. For both artists, it takes looking at what lies right before one's eyes.

The New York Studio School makes the background to painting inescapable. Its show spans her career, including work from the 1980s on several panels—somewhere between painting, sculpture, and relief. It also includes those photos of fences in the New York metropolitan area, not so far from the verticals of cloth or masking tape. A gallery show six months later 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 a door away from his last paintings.

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 just painting. 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.

Ruins of the old South

The Brooklyn Museum does not lie in ruins, but its Sackler Center for Feminist Art does. It seems only right, at a moment of fear and uncertainty for feminism and the arts. They are ruins of the old South at that, from the hands of a black woman. They could be speaking directly to a racist president, with a dignity far indeed from shrill voices, ignorant threats, and gold toilets. Beverly Buchanan took her time rounding them up.

As ruins go, they are not particularly stately or painful to behold. They offer neither monuments nor devastation. They are their best at their very quietest—in the wing's outer hall, where one may pass on the way to something else. Beverly Buchanan's Untitled (Slab Works 1) photo from estate of the artist/Jane Briggs, private collection, c. 1978)A few lie about, as if left over from a construction site or a graveyard. More appear in wall projections, set on college campuses where people really do pass wit hardly a glance. Their stillness alone asks museum visitors to stop and to give them time.

Buchanan thrives on the ambiguity between construction materials and signs of destruction, not to mention art and life. She did not even call the works ruins. She preferred slabs or frustula, meaning fragments, and she cast them in concrete in the late 1970s from found objects such as bricks. She thought of them more as survivors—or testimony to survivors. "Here I am," she spoke of them as saying. "I'm still here."

"Ruins and Rituals" continues in the alcoves to either side of The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago. Maybe Chicago supplies the rituals. The two rooms fill out a career with other fragments of the South, including notes from her Guggenheim Fellowship in the Georgia marshlands and postcards after an uncle's photographs. Assemblages of used clothing and pills stand in for their wearers and users. Small model homes, churches, and schools catch up with Buchanan after 2000. They amount to full buildings, but also still to scraps, this time of painted wood.

Those late works bring her closer to folk art, and her oil pastel drawings have much in common with Art Brut. Yet she was never simply an outsider. Born in 1940, she grew up in Georgia, where her father was the dean of a black college. She studied with Norman Lewis at the Art Students League in New York, back when oil colors meant something, and befriended Romare Bearden, who knew something about the black community, painting, and collage. Her concrete plinths have obvious ties to Minimalism. Their casts from architecture also look forward to Rachel Whiteread.

Still, she returned to Georgia and drew away from New York, where she rarely exhibited up to her to her death in 2015. (Somehow, she still appeared in a show about the Great Migration.) Even now, her work remains modest enough even at its best that most will walk quickly past. The curators, Jennifer Burris and Park McArthur, include too few works on paper and too much memorabilia as well. Like Whiteread, though, Buchanan made casting into a kind of reversal—not just of mass and space, but also of neglect and recovery. Even after Donald J. Trump, maybe the rest of us will still be here.

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Merrill Wagner ran at the New York Studio School through January 8, 2017, and at Zürcher through June 24, Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks through June 24, Jill Moser at Lennon, Weinberg through June 17, and Beverly Buchanan at The Brooklyn Museum through March 5. More of Buchanan's shacks, in wood and in oil pastel on paper, ran at Andrew Edlin through April 15, in an inspired pairing with photographs by William Christenberry.


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