Selections from the Gordon Wagner Papers (Collection 1594) and the text of an oral history interview done by the Center for Oral History Research are currently exhibited in Library Special Collections on the A Level of Young Research Library.
Gordon Wagner was born in 1915 in Redondo Beach, a popular Southern California seaport and tourist destination. He spent the early days of his youth exploring and working at the piers and amusement zones of the local beach cities, gleaning experiences that would later manifest in his paintings, poetry, and assemblage art. As a young man Wagner was influenced by his mentor and fellow painter, Norman S. Chamberlain, with whom he traveled to France and met renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso and Maurice de Vlaminck. Afterwards, Wagner began exploring the work of surrealists such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp, preferring their sense of mysticism and fantasy over the cubist styles of Picasso and Vlaminck. Wagner studied engineering at UCLA and Berkeley, later attending the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Starting in 1934 he worked as a tool and design engineer for various engineering firms such as EMSCO Derrick Equipment Company, where his father had been a sales manager, Hughes Aircraft Company and Rocketdyne before he began his career as a full-time artist and art instructor in 1958.
“The only place where you really understand about civilization is in a dump. You can go there and you can find things. It tells you whole histories of towns and people that lived there before you.” — Gordon Wagner
Wagner’s early art of the 1920s and 1930s, comprised primarily of landscapes and marine paintings, evolved into more three-dimensional work during the late 1940s, demonstrating the influence of his engineering background in his creation of mobiles and assemblage pieces. Along with Wagner’s sketch notebooks, the collection contains many blueprints and layout drawings for his box assemblage pieces and other works, offering revealing glimpses of Wagner’s merging roles as artist and engineer.
Wagner’s work was inspired by a wide range of influences, including Catholicism, mysticism, Native American spirituality, dream interpretation, and psychedelic culture, providing a broad array of symbolic imagery. His travels to Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped to inform his understanding of cultural legends, rituals, and Indian myths, and coincided with his exhibitions and journeys to England, France, Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands. Wagner’s observations and descriptions of his stays in Europe are documented in several notebook diaries, punctuated with drawings and found paper objects pasted in among the text.
Wagner’s most well-known work is his assemblages, the earliest of which were whimsical, mystical compositions created with found objects he discovered while beach combing. His later pieces executed in the late 1960s, following his increased popularity and exposure to European influences, were more narrative in nature, comprised of fabricated objects and backgrounds. In addition to his work in the visual arts, Wagner produced several volumes of poetry and staged performance pieces, all of which embraced Wagner’s interests in dream imagery and the illusionary world of amusement parks and mystic cultural influences. In 1967 Wagner married his second wife, Virginia Copeland, whose interests in Tai Chi, meditation and forms of dance were occasionally combined with Wagner’s teachings and performance works. Wagner’s work was exhibited primarily in California, Arizona, and New Mexico from the 1950s until his death in 1987, with several exhibitions held in Europe during the 1970s. His prolific career influenced the developing community of assemblage artists such as Betye Saar, Bruce Houston, George Herms, and Michael McMillen.
“I know that if you have enough pieces and you find just one new piece there’s a possibility that you have ten more to relate to it somewhere that make a whole.” — Gordon Wagner
In addition to creating art, Wagner regularly taught classes in painting, mixed media, sculpture, and assemblage art at the Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, Everywoman’s Village in Van Nuys, the University of Southern California’s Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, the Junior Arts Center at Barnsdall Park, the Laguna Beach School of Art and Design, Los Angeles Harbor College, and the Palos Verdes Community Arts Association.