Catherine Wagner is an American conceptual artist whose process involves the investigation of what art critic David Bonetti called “the systems people create, our love of order, our ambition to shape the world, the value we place on knowledge, and the tokens we display to express ourselves.” Wagner has created large-scale, site-specific public artworks for the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Kyoto, Japan. She is currently working on commissions for the cities of Santa Monica and Seattle, as well as an installation for the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Central Subway Public Art Program. In addition to being a practicing artist, Wagner has been a professor of art at Mills College in Oakland, California, since 1979. She has received many major awards, including the Rome Prize (2013–14), a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and the Ferguson Award. In 2001, Wagner was named one of TIME Magazine’s Fine Arts Innovators of the Year. Her work is represented in major national and international collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Wagner began her photographic career with Early California Landscapes, photographs of the rapid development of California in the mid-seventies. Mark Johnstone sees in this work “a purity of line, form and shape, [that] are exercised with great clarity, and exemplify her long standing fascination with the materials of architecture.” In her departure from the tradition of landscape photography and an imbued interest in constructed, gritty, urban, and even architectural environments rather than natural or sublime environs, Wagner’s early works relate to those of the New Topographers (several photographers participating in a 1975 show entitled New Topographics), rather than photographers of the American West such as Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan.