Catherine Wagner

In all my work I use beauty as a strategy to engage the viewer.

Catherine Wagner is a San Francisco Bay Area artist best known for photographs of the built environment and the creation of site-specific public art installations. She acts as a social anthropologist, documenting, taking inventory, and categorizing places and things, and creates ah ha moments from the mundane. American Classroom, for example, is a critically acclaimed series of black and white photographs dated 1986. It shows empty classrooms in schools and colleges across the country. Without teachers or students, what is left are blackboards with chalked lessons, graffiti on a wooden desk, toys buried in a sandbox. “This evidence of human presence speaks of our endeavors and aspirations, addressing who we are as a culture,” Wagner has said.

Wagner was awarded the Rome Prize Fellowship in 2013. From the American Academy in Rome she traveled to Bologna by train to visit artist Giorgio Morandi’s home and studio. “Morandi’s still lifes exemplify a kind of perfect simplicity, as they are so elegantly and conceptually correct,” she has said. His consistent re-use of the same objects in his paintings intrigues Wagner. She is drawn to the concept of repetition. Over a two-year period, she created photographs, wrapped objects, and maps, all documented in the 2017 exhibition catalog titled In Situ: Traces of Morandi.

 Shadows is a series of monochromatic landscapes Wagner created by photographing shadowed projections of Morandi’s vases, bottles, and jars against a wall. She was able to suggest illusory colors like grey lavender, rose, tawny yellow, and mauvey brown using gels with her camera lens. The photographs are recordings of time and place, objects and nostalgia, imbued with elegance and beauty. “Catherine Wagner is a conceptual photographer who loves order. [This] shadowy series seems to turn photography into painting, yet she photographs everything almost as a scientific experiment,” wrote artist Tom Marioni in Vision, Volume #6.

In 2016, Wagner was chosen to create a public artwork for the Yerba Buena/Moscone stop of the San Francisco Central Subway Project. Photographs from Wagner’s 1978 series, Moscone Center, were used to create sculptural reliefs in granite. Wagner said that for the Moscone Center she “was working with the idea of future ruins, or archaeology in reverse, investigating construction as process and as metaphor for change.” The new public artwork Arc Cycle is close to the convention center, and it brings Wagner’s artistic exploration of a place to full circle.

Catherine Wagner was born in San Francisco. She studied at the Instituto del Arte, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 1970-71, and also studied briefly at the San Francisco Art Institute. She received a BFA in 1975 and an MFA in 1981 from San Francisco State University. She has taught at Mills College since 1986, and in 2017 was awarded the inaugural Nancy Cook Endowed Chair in Photography. Her work is held in many collections including those of the de Young Museum, San Francisco; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Tate Modern, London.  Wagner received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award in 1987 and the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome in 2013. In addition, Wagner has completed many public art works, most recently a site-specific installation in the new Yerba Buena Museum subway station, San Francisco. Catherine Wagner lives and works in San Francisco. She is represented by Jessica Silverman, San Francisco.


  • Catherine Wagner at Crown Point Press

    Watch Catherine Wagner in the Crown Point studio working on her 2021 photogravure project.

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