With great pleasure, we announce the Harwood Museum of Art's summer 2013 exhibitions! Jim Wagner: Trudy's House.
“And this time of year, I have to fish too.” – Jim Wagner (b.1940)
Two images come to mind when closing my eyes and thinking about Jim Wagner. One is a sketch by Ann St. John Hawley done near the end of her life—a drawing of her own hand with tiny little flakes in the palm. I asked her what they were and she said “magic.” The other image is of Mark Twain. Twain’s genius was his philosophical search for truth in the human condition through an obsessive dissection of the cultures that surrounded him. The combination of ‘magic’ and ‘deep roots’ and ‘obsession’ (not to mention his burly handsomeness) help me understand the importance and depth of Taos icon Jim Wagner.
Jim William Wagner was born May 4, 1940 in Wauseon, Ohio. His mother, Maxine Powell, was a music teacher. His father, William Shartzer Wagner, was a high school principal. Jim’s father had a vision for Jim’s life and it did not include becoming an artist. During the years 1940 – 1952, Jim moved with his family to Bowling Green, Ohio. In 1951 they relocated to Monmouth, Oregon. It was in Monmouth Elementary School where Jim had his first artistic callings.
During third grade, Jim’s first epiphany came through an elementary arts educator. Jim described the experience (all Wagner quotes are from an interview with Stephen Parks for ARTlines). “I’ll always remember this – I had a teacher who would come in on Fridays and teach art. One day, I was drawing a ballerina, and I got down to the bottom of the paper, and I had to bend her legs across. I asked the teacher about that, if it was all right to do that, and she said, ‘You can do anything you want to do with that piece of paper.’” The vision came again in sixth grade: “It was more than just art. It was a bright light. I had it happen to me once in prison too. It was a bright light in my head, and it said, ‘Everything is all right. You can do anything.’”
The years 1952 - 1957 were spent with his family in the Pacific Northwest and included taking art classes at The Portland Museum of Art. In 1957 his family moved to Los Gatos, California. It was there that Jim Wagner met Agnes Martin. Martin had a close friend teaching school in Los Gatos. It was through her visits that Wagner first heard of Taos, New Mexico. “I had always heard about her, living in mud huts and doing paintings in New Mexico. She told me, ‘if you want to be an artist, you have to go live in Taos.’ After two years of college I came out here and started doing it.”
When Wagner arrived to Taos in 1961 he was 21 years old. Immediately he was thrown into the maelstrom that was The Taos Moderns. Serious painters like Andrew Dasburg, Louis Ribak, and Emil Bisttram became mentors, teachers and critics for Wagner, as they were for so many young artists of their time. During Wagner’s three decades in Taos, he had many distinctive phases, primarily based on his life experiences at the time. They included explorations into landscape, constructions, furniture, printmaking, drawing, sculpture, ceramics and basically anything he could get his hands on. The purpose of designing “Trudy’s House” as a home installation is to demonstrate the degree in which Wagner covered every surface available to him. During the Taos years Wagner worked hard and played hard. “There were all kinds of marvelous bars in Taos then - El Patio, El Gaucho, Tano‘s, Antonio’s—now they’re all T-shirt shops. La Cocina was our headquarters. None of us made any money then, nobody was married, but we were happy. We drank to laugh and giggle. I think people nowadays, especially artists, take themselves too seriously. Even drinking and smoking pot has become too serious. But Jim and I gobbled up the late 60s and early 70s with relish. We enjoyed our grape juice.” (R.C. Gorman)
Wagner’s offbeat, often naïve meanderings on canvas, wood, and ceramic reflected in unrivaled depth the trials he faced in life. Wagner was dealt a cruel hand and was forced to confront more than a few bitter lessons. In 1977, Wagner shot a reputed pedophile, in defense of his son, and was convicted of assault with intent to commit a violent felony. He was pardoned in 1978 by Governor Anaya. A testimony to Wagner’s unrelenting creative spirit revealed itself during his incarceration. He learned woodworking and ceramics and completed a series of pencil drawings called Prison Series. Later, he also became involved in a prison reform effort, training and joining forces with inmates to create and sell their own art. In 1980, the son he was previously trying to protect was shot and killed. Wagner was devastated.
Grief, at full scale, is too big for us to take in; it literally cannot be comprehended. The thinly veiled dimension of Wagner’s metaphysical struggle with what author Michael Chabon has described as “mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief” —drove Wagner to put his demons to rest with addictions. He battled alcoholism and drugs, conquering both with a “Wagnerian” power of will. The work he produced during those years is a true and authentic manifestation of the redemptive powers of art and the creative spirit.
In 1996 Wagner moved to Hotchkiss, Colorado. Then, after years of living in Colorado, Wagner returned to Taos, which held his artistic roots since the early 1960s. “I left because I thought Taos was getting too big and the fishing was better up north,” Wagner explains, “but then I fell in love with a woman here, and now I don’t fish as much as I used to.”
Jim Wagner belongs to Taos. In recent years Wagner’s work has evolved into a melody of colors and free-form brushstrokes. He continues his autobiography of Taos playing with motifs that have occurred on and off throughout his life; such as fish, frogs, ducks and crows, mountains, canyons, women, and churches. Nobody paints a culture in the same way Jim Wagner does. It is evident that this man embodies the deep joy and compassion one accomplishes by overcoming some of life’s most difficult struggles. In his life-embracing work Wagner takes what is irretrievably broken and, with objective introspection, pieces it onto a canvas, chair, mirror, or whatever he can find to paint on. As Chabon once wrote, “to understand and demonstrate that the magic of art, which renders beauty out of brokenness, disappointment, failure, decay, even ugliness and violence—is authentic only to the degree that it attempts to conceal neither the bleak facts nor the tricks.”
As Wagner puts it, “It’s faith. I knew everything was going to be all right.”
—Jina Brenneman, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions