Virginia Dwan

Virginia Dwan on her life and work

Left: Virginia Dwan and Robert Smithson, New York, 1969. Photo: R. Prigent. Right: View of “Yves Klein: Le Monochrome,” 1961, Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles.

Virginia Dwan’s philanthropy was of another art world. In 1969, she financed Michael Heizer’s Double Negative and provided funding for the publication of Carl Andre’s Seven Books of Poetry to publisher and dealer Seth Siegelaub. A year later, she sponsored Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Also well known in the 1960s as a dealer, Dwan opened her first Los Angeles gallery in 1959, giving Yves Klein his debut West Coast solo show in 1961. In 1965, she opened a new space in New York with Ed Kienholz’s installation Barney’s Beanery and produced landmark Minimal, Conceptual and Land art shows. After closing her gallery in 1971, Dwan assumed another social role and began to make films with and about artists, including Sturtevant, John Cage, Mark di Suvero, Andre, and Heizer.

This past fall, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, announced Dwan’s bequest of 250 works—paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, films, and artists’ books—to the museum. Selected pieces will be featured in “From Los Angeles to New York: The Dwan Gallery 1959–1971,” an exhibition curated by James Meyer, which will open when the museum inaugurates its new East Building galleries in 2016. Recently, Dwan spoke about her life while sitting in her Upper West Side apartment, which today holds just a fraction of her groundbreaking collection but is nonetheless a jewel-box museum of postwar abstraction, nouveau realism, Minimalism, and Land art. In the first of this two-part series, Dwan speaks about her gallery.

By 1959, I had wanted to have a gallery for some time, though I didn’t know anything about it, really. I just went ahead and did it anyway—the Innocents Abroad sort of thing. A few years later, when I was no longer “innocent,” I built another space in Los Angeles that was much larger and had wonderful walls, lighting, floors, everything. Unfortunately, that building has been torn down now, but you entered into it through a tunnel. I loved the idea that people could cool down their eyes before seeing a show.

In that era, there weren’t many precedents for women to own galleries, and feminism was only just beginning in the US. I wasn’t so concerned about that, but I do remember telling my husband that he shouldn’t go to parties or dinners with me, as people always assumed it was his gallery. Of course, I wanted people to know that it was mine—and he was very understanding about that. But history can be cruel: Art historians and critics have tended to compare and contrast me with “female dealers.” Betty Parsons had a wonderful gallery, but it was a completely different time and place.

Yves Klein and Ad Reinhardt had perhaps the strongest influences on me. Yves came for his first show in Los Angeles and made new works there. My husband and I met Yves one summer in Nice, France, and he introduced me to many artists there: Arman, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Jean Tinguely. I learned back in the in US that there was a strong reaction against showing Europeans. For instance, the first exhibition I produced with Yves Klein didn’t receive much press.

Reinhardt would always visit from New York when we had his openings, too. When I selected my second gallery, which was in the Westwood area of Los Angeles, I did it with him in mind: I wanted to make sure that the ceilings would be high and that his paintings would fit, as at the time they were very tall. I had an area of white marble along the floor, in front of the hanging area—to keep the viewer at a distance so one could not touch his surfaces. But then he showed up with the “ultimate” paintings, which are sixty inches square. On November 22, 1963, two days before that show was to open, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and we decided not to have an opening party. Then later on people came and said: “Oh what good taste, to show only black!”

View of “Ad Reinhardt: Recent Square Paintings,” 1963, Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles.

In New York, I became very interested in and involved with Minimalism and gave solo shows to Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, and later Robert Smithson. When I moved the gallery to West Fifty-Seventh Street, I didn’t have enough space for them to do very large works, so I kept the gallery in Los Angeles with my assistant John Weber still working there, and I sent the artists out there to put up their shows. A favorite memory was when Merce Cunningham, John Cage, David Tudor, and Robert Rauschenberg drove from New York in a Volkswagen bus for one of Robert’s shows. They parked it in front of my house in Malibu and out of this bus came nine people. It was like a circus bus with endless people emerging. They had all driven from New York to Los Angeles and stopped along the way giving performances. I didn’t know how they all fit, yet there they all were in the bus.

In New York, many artists started reaching out to me; several were making interesting, contemplative, and quiet works. I thought that so many of these artists were wonderful, but I couldn’t show them all. I hated visiting studios and seeing people’s work for that reason. Still, I realized that I could help artists in different ways. In 1969, Robert Smithson told me that he wanted to do something at the airport in Fort Worth, Texas, and that he was involved with some engineers who were going to be working there. He had asked Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris to also propose works for the airport site but then the project fell through. Nevertheless, Smithson, Nancy Holt, and I began to look at sites around New York and New Jersey and further south into Virginia. We ended up taking a number of trips together in search for land on which to make works. In 1968, when we could not find land that was available, we were inspired to organize the “Earth Works” show in the gallery. In 1969 we traveled together again, to the Yucatán, where Smithson produced his series of mirror works known as the Nine Mirror Displacements. When Smithson told me he was going to make Spiral Jetty, I wanted to make funds available for him to do so. And I wanted to be there for it.

“Earth Works” was a beautiful and important show, and there were all kinds of effective works. Smithson presented a few of his non-sites, and Robert Morris worked with a pile of dirt, wire, and gasoline oil, which he had collected from right around the corner from the gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street, where a building was being constructed. Michael Heizer showed big transparencies of work he’d already done, which was considerable.

Left: View of “Earth Works,” 1968, Dwan Gallery, New York. Photo: Walter Russell. Foreground: Robert Morris, Earthwork 3, 1968. Right: Nancy Holt and Virginia Dwan in the Yucatán, 1969.

From March to April of 1969, Walter De Maria showed his Bed of Spikes in the gallery—five steel panels on the ground with different numbers of spikes projecting from them. The show was essentially a herald for his Lightning Field. Because the works were very sharp, each one essentially a bed of nails, we drafted a release that visitors would sign as they entered that would absolve the gallery of responsibility if they were injured. People laughed about that, but the spikes were actually dangerous. Later, in 1974, Walter installed the first Lightning Field on the property of Burton and Emily Tremaine near Flagstaff, Arizona. It was made of thirty-five stainless steel poles. But when we weren’t able to sell it, I ended up with these gorgeous, twenty-foot stainless steel poles in my storage space. Eventually I gave them to the Dia Foundation.

Agnes Martin was the primary artist I really wanted to work with but didn’t. It was bad timing. I showed one of her works in “Ten,” in 1966, but then she left New York, saying to Robert Elkon that she was never going to paint again. And I should know now that when people say things like that, they don’t really mean it! Duchamp is a case in point.