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Catherine F. Wagner
(San Francisco, California, 1953 - )

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Catherine Wagner creates images that explore the relationship between art and biological science, utilizing tools ranging from a camera to complex medical imaging devices as instruments of aesthetic and conceptual investigation. To Wagner, the idea or insight embedded in the objects she depicts possesses greater significance than the physical data she records. She delves deeply into her material and choreographs the systems found in the objects, sustaining this intensity of focus until the beauty and order buried in her subject matter begins to emerge. Wagner then photographs the formal, pristine images for which she has become known. In addition to objects, Wagner previously depicted urban vistas, the built environment, and the paraphernalia of scientific research; most recently she has studied the role that new technology plays in unveiling the fundamental functions of living creatures.

Born in San Francisco, Wagner earned both her B.A. and her M.A. from San Francisco State University. In 1979, soon after receiving her graduate degree, she began teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California, and was awarded a full professorship by the college in1995. Her first project to receive critical attention dates from 1980 and focused on the construction site for the George Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. While the project was in its infancy, Wagner recorded the gargantuan structural framework, suggesting archaeology in reverse and the notion of future ruins. Subsequently Wagner embarked on a series entitled American Classroom, photographing environments ranging from elementary school biology classrooms to Police Academy lecture rooms. Continuing along this line of inquiry, her series Art & Science: Investigating Matter comprises black-and-white studies of test tubes, specimens stored in laboratory freezers, and hypodermic needles, photographed with meticulous attention to detail using large-format equipment. Her subject matter has varied, however, as the artist explains, “whether I choose a construction site, a classroom, a home, or more recently, the model of science, I’m choosing icons that are represented in contemporary culture; I see myself as a keen observer of the times in which we live, using these visual clues. That’s why the camera is the most appropriate tool for me.”1

In 1997, the San Jose Museum of Art awarded Wagner a Visual Arts Fellowship to fund a new body of work. The series, entitled Cross Sections, was presented in an exhibition that debuted at the Museum in 2001 and traveled to additional venues. To create the work, Wagner used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and SEM (scanning electron microscope) technologies to make images of fruits and vegetables, internal organs and skeletal structures, and individual cells. Working closely with scientists and technical specialists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and locally with Stanford University researchers, Wagner employed these medical imaging devices as her camera, in addition to recontextualizing preexisting scientific imagery.

Pomegranate Wall, the paramount work of the series, is an installation of ten four-by-eight-foot light boxes arranged in a curved arc and illuminating sectional images of a pomegranate made possible through medical resonance imaging. Developed in the 1980s, MRI is a diagnostic technique that provides high-quality cross-sectional images of organs and structures within the body in a noninvasive manner. Although human subjects would spend no more than 45 minutes in the machine, Wagner gathered these images over a period of six or seven hours, and as a result the detail of the images and gradations in tone are exceptional. The artist explains, “I’m using things like the pomegranate in the same way that the scientist is looking at cells. In fact, the reason I selected the pomegranate was for its interior structure which is extremely cellular looking.”2 Pomegranate Wall evokes a sense of wonderment in the viewer akin to the feeling that a child might have upon entering a planetarium and seeing the dizzying array of stars for the first time.

With Shark’s Tooth, Wagner appropriated imagery from research on biomineralization. Scientists had conducted a study to determine the properties of substances denser than bone, using a scanning electron microscope to capture extraordinarily detailed images. Wagner was fascinated by this aspect of the research, and selected an image of a shark’s tooth, removing the object from its context as a scientist would isolate data to arrive at a particular outcome. Wagner presents Shark’s Tooth outside its original conceptual realm, encouraging her audience to encounter it as an aesthetic object.

Wagner’s work celebrates the similarities between art and science, revealing the inner workings of scientific methodology and making it comprehensible to outsiders. In taking up the tools of medical science she blurs the line separating factual information from art, tacitly implying that no such division exists. Wagner thereby presents us with a portrait of our culture, caught in a moment of transition between the tenuous present and the uncertain future. —J.N.

1. “Catherine Wagner,” Art 350: The Language of Photography, (accessed 3 October 2002), 1.
2. Ibid., 3.

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

Catherine Wagner lives and works in Oakland, CA.

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