Return to Articles


November 17 - December 30, 2007 at Tobey C. Moss Gallery, West Hollywood

by Jeanne Willette

"Mexican Night Clerk", 1960-65,
assemblage, 80 x 32 x 3 1/2".

"Yellow," 1957, assem-
blage, 33 x 22 1/2 x 4".

"V.R.", 1954, assem-
57 x 24 x 5".

“Seven Actors,” 1952, assem-
blage, 30 1/2 x 8 x 11”.

The fate of Gordon Wagner was to be “part of the group” of assemblage artists in Los Angeles. Occasionally inserted after Wallace Berman and George Herms, he is usually omitted from standard histories of post-war L.A. art. Wagner has been dead for twenty years, giving his exhibitions something of a memorial air, but this show is one of several this season--at the Centre Pompidou, the Hammer, at LACMA, and at the Orange County Museum of Art--continuing the discourse on Los Angeles art from a historical perspective.  

A native of the City of Angeles, Wagner grew up as an orphan with minimal supervision.  His childhood was spent wandering and collecting, as though he was trying to find and build a life out of what others had left behind. There was the dump at Westbridge and the beaches of Redondo and Venice, where strange and magical fragments came to rest, torn from any context and retrieved by an inventive child. Wagner never lost his sense of wonder over these mysterious found objects, and this show focuses on the fetish-like quality of his totemic works. Typical of his penchant for creating a family of “others” is “Seven Actors.” The totem seems to give information, through its title, but then delivers only seven mysterious knobs fixed to a curving piece of wood. How do the “actors” act? We are given no instructions.

Wagner and his fellow L.A. assemblage artists have traditionally been compared to their counterparts in New York. The New York artists were in agonistic relationships with their predecessors. Painters instated the canvas; assemblagists toyed with the artful gallery object derived from debris. The L. A. artists were bricoleurs of the ruins of Dada and Surrealism, taking up the quest for the raw object. Like a gift from the sea, Surrealism drifted into Los Angeles and was adopted by the artist-scavengers. The Surrealist artist was always on the search for the marvelous, and always worked towards transformation.

Wagner retained the original mystery of the objets trouvés and their distinctive rusty brown patina. “Piece of Pieces from the Sea” (1958) is a tower of detritus almost five feet tall that is narrow, secretive and self referential. The artist explained, “In a gunny sack I collected unrecognizable objects, polychromed wood, ship and boat parts, rusty machinery, all so battered and twisted by the sea they became new forms.” “Piece of Pieces” resembles a stranded machine that no one remembers how to operate.

“L.A. is probably one of the most surreal places we could have. Nothing is related to anything else,” Wagner once said. But his appreciation for magic, another element of his work, seems to have come not from this city, but from his trips to Arizona and Mexico to examine Native American sites before they were overrun by tourists. The alchemical combination of the shamanistic and the silly gives the objects a human presence in terms of both size and character. We encounter something akin to a personage with a mysterious past. “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” one of his last works (1985), suggests a visage emerging from a floating veil. But revelation is mere appearance. The myriad of elements, added in a process of layering, create strata of meanings that cannot be penetrated. Although “The Mexican Night Clerk” of the mid-Sixties seems to invite the visitor with a “vacancy” sign near the open door, the door is always closed and no one can check in.

Although many see humor in Wagner’s works, there is also a frenetic quality to assemblages that bristle with possible menace, as in “V. R.” (1954). The two red letters are the only mark of color on a tall humanoid in a state of agitation and dis-ease. During the Cold War, Los Angeles, with its military industrial complex, was considered a potential ground zero where all lives were in peril. The paradox of Wagner’s assemblage art is that works aim to preserve the past even as they simultaneously acknowledge the impermanence of art, things and people in dark times. Such is the mindset of orphan art.