To possess is to lose. To feel without possessing is to preserve and keep, for it is to extract from things their essence.
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
We call them “cave paintings” because that’s where we’ve found them, but there’s evidence, in fact, that the entire landscape that humans crossed was once coated in the scrawls of early people who left marks in their wake. Unsealed and exposed, most have faded or washed away. One can imagine that when Merrill Wagner rode the train twice each summer between New York and Washington the landscape blended into a semblance of this ancestral form: lakes rushing into horizontal cerulean strokes, mountains opening themselves into vast ochre plateaus, an endless forest of trees absent names like redwood, hornbeam, and fir, identifiable with a yet-unspoken word encompassing them all—indelible strokes of colored dirt spanning from coast to coast.
If painting is a way of extending a sensation through time, it was this very quality that it so imperiled throughout the 20th century. In contrast to the work of her husband, Robert Ryman, and much of the New York School, Wagner’s paintings seek not to transfer that quality into a realm of subjective expression. Rather, it was, perhaps, the train—that dubious engine of modernism—that gave her cause to celebrate painting’s timeless and transient nature. Much as paint fades over time—not just prehistoric marks on stone, but the yellowed masterpieces of Europe and discarded mandalas of Tibet as well—Wagner’s work is characterized by a geological approach. What is often named an interest in “materialism” seems to be, in fact, a desire to uphold its natural link and allow the earth itself to reduce her paintings to a base state, a process she merely expedites.
Galerie Zürcher’s selection is small, offering a slice of her luminous work in one room and an annex, but it’s enough. The totality would require an epoch and the universe. In the 1960s and ’70s, a majority of her paintings were made by laying strips of cloth tape over Plexiglass, which were then coated in muddy-hued oil pastels. Then, a second layer of tape was laid adhesive-down over the pastel and allowed to collect a residue. This top layer was removed and adhered to a second sheet of Plexiglass. The process was sometimes repeated, resulting in a positive and a series of negatives that appear to fade over time, as with each subsequent edition only more-steadfast pigment remained. In each, the orography remains, though details are flattened out.
An untitled painting from 1961, the earliest in the exhibition, shows how it all began. It was made when Wagner was enrolled at the Art Students League, where she learned to mix color from Edwin Dickinson. “If you wanted to paint a color,” she said, “he’d have us begin with its complement.” To make green, begin with orange. The result is a primordial porridge, lacking clarity and individuated perspective, but suggesting depth. The outliers are two untitled acrylics from 1965 and ’67, depicting geometric forms in unnatural colors. The thinly layered paint allows the canvas’ texture through, but they feel less apt than certain non-concurrent works. Following experimentation with stones and various natural surfaces—including the slate chalkboards removed during the renovation of PS1—in the 1990s Wagner painted rocks, tracing the shadows cast by the sun. Like cave paintings, her works were exposed to the elements and allowed to fade, a process documented in photographs. Elsewhere, graphite works of densely layered lines pile like tectonic cross-sections. In the corner of the annex sits Alizarin Crimson Corner Piece (1974), a painting made on canvas shaped to fit the three sides of a corner. It opens on the floor like a cavernous maw. Unconsciously, I backed from its edge.