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Obituaries : Gordon Wagner; Created Art From Junk

Times Staff Writer

Gordon Wagner, a veteran Southern California assemblagist whose fantasy skyscapes and shadowy figures rose from the artful junk he collected throughout his life, has died.

He was 72 when he died Friday of cancer in Los Angeles and at his death had exhibited odd bits of wood and mangled office machines in one-man shows through five decades. Most recently he and his fellow collectors of the curious were represented last year in “Southern California Assemblage: Past and Present” in Santa Barbara. His last solo show was believed to be in San Pedro in January.

In a 1981 review of his work, Times art critic Suzanne Muchnic called Wagner “a devotee of the double meaning, the remembered fantasy, the pregnant vacuum.”

Considerable Volume

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If assemblage is the art of displaying what most people would have consigned to the trash heap, then Wagner with his bizarre eye (ships that disappear when viewed through a peephole) would be a display artist of considerable volume.

An abstractionist who once incorporated his lithographs and poems into a book of visions he entitled “Memories of the Future,” Wagner later took doll houses and placed them amid painted skies in both sarcastic and Surrealistic modes. Framed by symbols of saints and eggs, they also carried overtones of “cute.”

He built miniature buildings, placed them on stork-like pilings and made them cities of imagination. Many of his assemblages were of carnivals and their ever-present roller coasters, a nod to the past when Wagner at age 16 was thrown from a cyclone ride, one of three persons aboard to survive the disaster.

Richard Candida Smith, who had been interviewing Wagner for the oral history program at UCLA, wrote: “Wagner has used his artistry to confront his fear of death and to embrace life as ongoing transformation climaxing in the mystery of death/rebirth.”

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Wagner was a middle-aged aerospace engineer when he was able to turn his assemblage avocation into a full-time job.

He spent most of the last years of his life rescuing junk from beaches and railroad tracks, touring Europe and returning to create odd boxes from strange materials.

Studied With Navajos

Wagner was raised in Redondo Beach and as a youth combed the beach there with a gunnysack picking up old pieces of boats that had been twisted into ghost-like shapes by the sea. He moved to Arizona after World War II and studied with and painted the Navajos, returning to California in the late 1950s. There followed trips to Mexico where the Day of Dead holiday intrigued him and brought forth such drawings, collages and paintings as “The Devils Workshop” and “Death of Angels Flight.”

All this led to the imagery that dominated most of his latest work, which at his death had been represented in dozens of museums and corporate collections and in 500 private homes in the United States, Mexico and Europe.

A funeral service will be held at noon Friday at St. Philip the Apostle in Pasadena. His wife, Virginia, asks contributions in her husband’s name to Santa Teresita Hospital, 1210 Royal Oaks Drive, Duarte, CA. 91010.


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