There was no way it was ever not going to be a mess: eleven years of one of the most influential American art galleries, condensed into a 100,000 square foot section of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion. Consider the fact that many of the artworks in the 134 exhibitions held over those eleven years turned out to be canonical Modernist masterpieces, and were acquired by museums or major private collections around the globe, many now unwilling or unable to lend them. Others were destroyed, or lost, or are too delicate to go on public display. Some – not all of them masterpieces – entered LACMA’s own collection, so of course they wound up in this show, whether they fully deserved to be there or not.
Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery 1959–1971, is the story, in exhibition form, of the gallery run by Virginia Dwan, located first in Los Angeles and later in New York. It moves from the gallery’s Abstract Expressionist beginnings, with great paintings by Philip Guston, Franz Kline and Matsumi Kanemitsu, through Dwan’s Nouveau Realiste phase, which included Yves Klein, Martial Raysse and Jean Tinguely, to her important engagement with Conceptualism, in particular the language-based work of Joseph Kosuth, Mel Bochner and Lee Lozano. From there, the museum visitor enters a section devoted to the Land Art projects of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, and then a greatest hits of Minimalism (based on Dwan’s 1967 exhibition ‘10’) featuring Jo Baer, Fred Sandback, Agnes Martin and Sol Lewitt, amongst others.
Everything is too tightly hung and gloomily lit (perhaps because of its delicacy) but there are some magnificent treasures among the clutter. An unrealistic demand, I know, but I would have loved to have seen the Martin and the Sandback, for instance, in galleries on their own. Nearby, a reconstruction of a huge, slanting yellow fin by the Minimalist sculptor Robert Grosvenor, which is cantilevered at an angle from an overhead support, and stops in mid-air, a foot above the ground. Untitled (Yellow) deservedly had Dwan’s L.A. gallery almost to itself when it was first exhibited in 1966. Here, it is beset on all sides by other artworks and ephemera; behind it, the rock of Michael Heizer’s permanent outdoor Levitated Mass installation looms through the window shades.
The strikingly beautiful and dynamic Dwan was only 28 years old when she opened her gallery. Naturally, she came from money: her grandfather was one of the founders of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (better known as 3M), and her considerable inheritance had been burning a hole in her pocket since her 21st birthday. She was supported in her artistic interests by members of her family. Her mother-in-law, Vera Lazuk, owned a gallery on Long Island where Dwan’s sister-in-law, Eugenie Thompson, had worked; when she moved to Los Angeles, Thompson agreed to serve as co-director of Dwan’s space.
All of this is worth mentioning because LACMA’s exhibition, which was co-organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and is accompanied by a fat catalog, takes Dwan’s visionary exceptionalism as a given. (The fact that she is still living, and was involved in lending works for the show, may explain this.) There is no doubt that she supported some of the most important artists of her time; she introduced the West Coast to Paris and New York-based artists, and, significantly, in turn introduced those artists to the West Coast. L.A. made a considerable impression on Claes Oldenburg, who in 1963 organized a ‘happening’ in a parking-lot off Beverly Boulevard for cars and motorbikes called Autobodys. Larry Rivers, Mark di Suvero, John Cage and Merce Cunningham also all enjoyed the Pacific view from Dwan’s Malibu beach-house, where they set up their studios in a spare room. This exhibition begins with a charcoal portrait of Dwan by Rivers, dedicated “to my great dealer + her sun + surf”.
Dwan’s real affinities seem to be with New York, where she lives today. Two years after she opened her New York gallery, in 1965, making her one of the first gallerists to operate bi-coastally, she closed her L.A. space. Relatively few of Dwan’s artist roster were SoCal residents; Ed Kienholz, perhaps the most prominent among them, defected to Dwan from the Ferus Gallery in 1960, and eventually defected from L.A. for good in 1973.
As a young woman in the male-dominated LA art world (think of the macho Ferus ‘Studs’), Dwan’s achievements deserve recognition. But she does not appear to have made careers, so much as supported and encouraged already established or ascendant figures. She promoted few female artists. And, as Dwan herself admits in a video in the exhibition, while her modest financial aim was to break even, she never succeeded.
Dwan might best be remembered for what she did outside of her gallery, rather than in it. The eleven years that coincided with her adventure into the business of selling art also happened to be the years in which Modern Art progressed from the large, saleable Ab-Ex paintings of the 1950s to the ungainly assemblages of the Duchampian Pop artists of the 1960s, then on to the dematerialized language art of Conceptualism, late in that decade, and finally to the site-specific anti-monuments of Land artists which were situated miles away from the gallery. In short, it was a lousy time to try and sell art.
In 1968, Walter De Maria sent Dwan a telegram:
DEAR VIRGINIA MANY LAND SENSATIONS AND PROJECTS ALREADY REALIZED SO VERY POSITIVE I URGE YOU TO CONSIDER CLOSING OF GALLERY AND TO CONSIDER WORLD WIDE OPERATIONS
Dwan did not heed the advice – at least, not for a while. Instead, she proceeded to fund a series of hugely ambitious (and unsellable) “land sensations”, as De Maria called them, including Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969), which entailed the removal of 240,000 tonnes of earth, and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Film documentation of Spiral Jetty featured prominently in the Dwan Gallery’s final exhibition, in June 1971. Nearby was work by the Land artist Charles Ross, whose extensive architectural project Star Axis was begun in New Mexico that same year, and, like De Maria’s Lightning Field (1974) and Heizer’s monumental City (1972- ongoing), was graciously supported by Dwan.
The history of the Dwan Gallery is, then, hardly an example that many young gallerists would choose to emulate today. Like so many stories about the patronage and dissemination of art, it does not feature anyone making sacks of cash, but rather someone who was bold and committed and generous (and, crucially, rich) sharing her wealth seemingly without consideration of her personal gain. It is heartening to imagine that some of today’s most magnificently unsuccessful galleries might one day be celebrated in a museum, half a century after they go out of business.
Jonathan Griffin is a British art critic based in Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor for Frieze magazine and he also writes for Art Review, Art in America, Art Agenda, the Financial Times and other publications. His book On Fire is out now, published by Paper Monument.