A few years ago, when I was working in Los Angeles, I came across an intriguing assemblage sculpture by the little-known California artist Gordon Wagner (1915-1987). At the time, I was exploring the extensive archive of Wagner’s sketchbooks, notes, and ephemera, which is held at UCLA. But this rickety figure – entitled Railroad Man – also spoke to my fascination with the history of the railways that once brought workers, tourists, and dreamers to the American West. Now that I’m embarking on a project about the American Midwest, the Historic Preservation Movement, and ideas around regional identity in the US, Railroad Man has piqued my interest once again.
Wagner was a painter and assemblage artist who worked in California from the 1940s to his death in 1987. A keen beach comber, he often gathered discarded materials for his assemblage sculptures at Redondo Beach, south of Los Angeles, but he also found materials at the massive city dump in the Mojave Desert, and the railway freight yards nearby. Railroad Man is made up of rusting and discarded items, including a conductor’s hat, breakman’s lanterns, railroad spikes, watch, work gloves, metal sign, and a tin model train. Wagner found many of these bits and pieces in an abandoned mining town called Keeler, out in the Southern California desert on the way to Death Valley. Everyone’s heard of the California gold rush, but Keeler was mainly involved in silver and zinc mining, which had led to equally dramatic rushes. Situated near the former Cerro Gordo Mines, Keeler was home from 1907 to the Four Metals Company smelter and mill, which processed ores before transporting them to Los Angeles; the Carson and Colorado Railway arrived in Keeler in 1883, in order to transport valuable commodities to Los Angeles. But when the mines closed in 1957, the railway had no purpose: the last train ran on the Keeler line on 29 April 1960. The export of water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles resulted in the drying up of Owens Lake and alkali dust storms that drove most residents from Keeler. The town, like its railway station, was left all but empty. Wagner described the result in an oral history interview: in Keeler ‘there’s a railroad station and it has a train, but it doesn’t have any tracks’. By the time he visited in the early 1960s, Keeler was a ghost town.
The railways had featured heavily in the development of the Owens Valley, as they had in Southern California more widely. Their closure was symbolic as well as logistical. For Wagner, Keeler’s empty station invoked a nostalgic memory of the lost industrial past, one shaped by the utopian ideals of the American west. At Keeler, the industrial structures and transport infrastructure that drove the boom were rendered inert and obsolete, reduced to the status of junk. In Railroad Man, that junk is assembled into a jaunty and playful figure, but one that nevertheless seems to me precarious: it lilts to one side, balancing on three spindly legs; the toy train that articulates the arc of its shoulders balances on tracks that go nowhere; and the whistle hangs limply and silently by the figure’s side. All of its parts are rusted from lack of use. The ruins of the railways are reanimated in Wagner’s figure, but, just as the Carson and Colorado line to Keeler eventually met its demise, so Railroad Man seems already on the verge of collapse. Although he was making work in the 1960s, and harking back to a period several decades earlier than that, Wagner’s work still seems pertinent today. His interest in California’s railways raises broader issues of regional development, the changing landscape, the role of preservation, and the impact of progress and technology on the individual. Surely these are all things that we can relate to, even in the twenty-first century.
Lucy Bradnock (Lecturer, Art History)