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 Rory Wagner  (1950 - 2010)

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Lived/Active: New Mexico      Known for: cowboy genre and Indian motif painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Rory Wagner (1950-2010)

The following information, submitted by Mel Mart, is excerpted commentary from a retrospective exhibition sponsored by the Great Bohemian Gallery in Taos, New Mexico, just after the death of Rory Wagner.  Titled "Remembering Rory…A retrospective of the works of award winning artist Rory Wagner", the opening was August 18th, 2011.

Rory Wagner, acclaimed Taos painter, died at 60 in September, 2010.

Recognized as a Taos icon and recipient of the 2006 New Mexico Governor’s Award, the late Rory Wagner will be honored for his contribution to the arts. . . . According to Rob Nightingale curator of the show, the date chosen for the reception is significant because it is the Thursday before Santa Fe’s Annual Indian Market.

The time is also significant because Navajo artist and fellow Taoseño, R.C. Gorman, traditionally had a show on this date.  Rory was a protégé of R.C’s whom he met in Taos in the 1970’s and they became life-long friends.  R. C. became his mentor and helped him get settled in the Taos art community.  In 1991 Gorman commissioned Wagner to paint Aunt Mary for his personal collection. 

As committed to his art as his mentor, Rory was known to destroy a canvas if it did not satisfy his intense scrutiny and standards. Often labeled as an eccentric and a recluse, particularly in the last decade of his life when he suffered from poor health, he withdrew from the social scene he once enjoyed. “He just holed up in his studio and would paint.”

Uncompromising in his work he produced between six and twelve canvases a year. Each canvas was said to “glow” with Rory’s passion and his unique style.  As a self-taught painter he was drawn to the works of the Dutch master of portraiture Vermeer whose style Rory captured but made his own: painting rich, realistically rendered figures.  The countless hours he spent researching the smallest details, his meticulous attention to these details, the authenticity of the glint in the eyes, the tiniest detail in the clothing and bead work, the care he took in building each image – each vital in its own place in order to produce the intense, historically correct images that hold our gaze, our almost disbelief that it is a painting and not a photograph.  Rory Wagner is missed by all who knew him and he has left a void in the art world but his art will continue to intrigue and to entertain today and for all time,” reflects Rob Nightingale.

Rory painted primarily large canvases. . . .  It is not surprising the Rory Wagner, who was raised in Florida, chose Taos as his home 30 years ago.  Taos has, after all, long been a mecca for those in search of life at it's largest; those who refuse to compromise, who demand freedom in their daily existence. Nor is it a surprise that one of his favorite early subjects was the cowboy,  that American icon of don't-fence-me-in heroism. . . .In 2006, Rory received the New Mexico's Governors Award for Excellence in the Arts.

When asked to sum up his longtime friend in a quote, Wilder Nightingale recalled Wagner's self-deprecating humor:  Asked to describe Wagner, Wilder Nightingale told a story that unfolded many times in the gallery, where Wagner showed his work for more than 15 years.

"He would come in the gallery, always smoking and he would drink wine out of a coffee cup. People would look at him and say, 'Who is that guy and what is he doing here?' while they were looking at his paintings," Wilder Nightingale said. "Then I would say, 'Hey Rory, can you come here?' and then they'd ask him for his card. You can't judge a book by its cover."

Wagner was uncompromising in his work. If he was not satisfied with a painting he was known to destroy it and start anew, completing six to twelve canvases a year.  He often built his own stretchers and stretched each canvas himself. The next phase was the application of titanium white over multiple layers of sanded gesso. After this step the subject was sketched in and the painting began. Rory blended the complex skin-tones by rubbing pigment onto the ground. (Wagner often joked that he rubs instead of painting.) To achieve the authenticity of bead work and feathering Wagner often used small double aught brushes. “It takes me hours and hours, day upon day, to complete every one of them”.

Of his painting, African Trade, it was written:  Since the mid-eighties the faces of indigenous peoples have replaced his cowboys. As always, Wagner did his homework. With the same meticulous care used to build each image, he researched the smallest details of the subjects he painted. Wagner was fascinated by the commonalities of tribes located thousands of miles apart, while living in different regions of the world.


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