IN THE PRESENT-DAY REALM OF ART, confusion proliferates between public and private, between profit and nonprofit. Commercial galleries mount loan shows that would distinguish any museum, while museums mortgage themselves in the service of privately amassed collections, and collectors rebrand their possessions as museum holdings. Entangled interests make for endless ethical quandaries. But the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has mounted an indispensable exhibition that celebrates a collector and commercial gallery, yet revives disinterested probity as an example for our current moment.
The gallerist and collector Virginia Dwan announced in 2013 that the heart of her collection, with accompanying archives and papers, would be going to the NGA. For the opening of the renovated I. M. Pei East Building last fall, curator James Meyer mounted an illuminating and visually impressive selection from her gift (the exhibition is currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) that made clear its astonishing value. The import of the donation lies quite obviously in the piece-by-piece importance of the works Dwan perceptively kept back for herself from one landmark show after another. It also lies in the demonstration of sustained intelligence implicit in her commitments: how a determined individual anticipated so much of our present-day understanding of art history without help from a supporting critical consensus or evidence of commercial potential. If one were seeking to introduce a novice to what mattered in Western art over the past six decades, this exhibition would be the place to start. The fact that Dwan has not asked for a dedicated space or her name on the wall makes that demonstration all the more convincing and appropriate to the nation’s repository of art (and a balm in the face of the abominations currently inhabiting both the adjacent Capitol and the nearby White House).
In keeping with a national theme, the trajectory of the Dwan Gallery spans both coasts, beginning in Los Angeles, where she first occupied a modest storefront in Westwood Village in 1959. What gallery scene then existed in the city lay six or seven miles east, along La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, home to Ferus Gallery, Felix Landau, and Eugenia Butler, among others. But Westwood enjoyed the adjacency of the University of California, Los Angeles, campus, offering a degree of intellectual concentration rare in the sprawl of the region. And early passersby would have enjoyed the startlingly unusual sight of large canvases from New York, an example being Robert Goodnough’s dense overlays of linear markings (the 1956 Abstract No. 4 “Pipes” features in the LACMA installation of this survey), which took over her entire space in 1960. Such initial allegiances might seem to have betrayed indifference to the burgeoning vitality of the local scene, but Angelenos were in fact grateful for direct contact with a variety of East Coast works they had largely seen only in magazine reproductions. The boon expanded that fall with a roundup titled “15 of New York,” featuring, among a diverse array, de Kooning, Philip Guston, Pollock, and one of Dwan’s first favorites, Franz Kline (highlighted in Meyer’s hang).
Dwan remained in the Westwood neighborhood, re-inforcing her splendid isolation by fashioning an airy, light-filled new space nearby. Barely had her New York imports sunk in when she turned her sights to Europe. Taking advantage of Yves Klein’s presence in the US at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, and in the wake of the bruising he endured there, she brought his monochromes to the West Coast for a contrastingly warm reception. The local mainstream press, which had lauded her New York artists, predictably dismissed Klein as an arrogant poseur, but that was not the case among local artists, chiefly Edward Kienholz, who had transferred his loyalties to Dwan after relinquishing his stake in Ferus, pitching in as an all-around assistant. Klein and Kienholz collaborated on several pieces, and the latter’s rough-hewn assemblages resonated with other French figures whom Dwan also embraced: Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Arman.
In light of the fact that Robert Rauschenberg had led the disparagement of Klein in New York, it reveals much of her poise above the battle that Dwan would give Rauschenberg a major show of his Combines early in 1962. Before the year was out, she would also mount a prescient show of emergent Popunder the Americanizing rubric of “My Country ’Tis of Thee”virtually coincident with Walter Hopps’s justly celebrated “New Painting of Common Objects” at the Pasadena Art Museum across town. Dwan’s sensitive antennae had brought to her awareness Claes Oldenburg and Patty Mucha’s installation of stuffed domestic items at Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery, their first breakout from the downtown underground, and she arranged for two pieces, including the giant Floorburger, 1962, to be shipped out for the show. The couple themselves followed shortly afterward, housed and equipped by Dwan in preparation for a landmark exhibition of new work early in 1963 at her gallery.
It would be easy to go on interminably detailing the rich particulars of all her actions as a gallerist (dealer doesn’t seem quite the right word), but the artful sampling in the Washington show was enough to set her apart from virtually all her contemporaries where mobility, acuity, and alacrity of judgment were concerned. Her moving to New York in 1964, for a time operating spaces on both coasts, exhibited timing of a certain genius as well. The exhibition, devoted to the Dwan holdings of the NGA, could not include the first work to be shown in New York, a single, mammoth California product in the shape of Kienholz’s The Beanery, 1965. This grotesquely life-size, room-filling tableau rendered the Los Angeles scene from its underbelly, with all the scabrous incidents of a print by William Hogarth. As that monumental undertaking found its way to Europe, where taste was more in line with the artist’s vision, Dwan’s evolving sensibility, aided by her assistant (and then director) John Weber, began to resonate with visually austere, antibaroque tendencies then coming to the fore in her new surroundings. Los Angeles could take the measure of this tendency when she showed Robert Morris’s white geometric solids and John Chamberlain’s enduringly influential foam-rubber pieces during 1966, her penultimate year in the Westwood space.
Back in the New York gallery, there was a rush through more varieties of Minimalism, three on-the-cusp shows devoted to language- and diagrammatically based practices, and the arrival of Land art in the fall of 1968. That last and most consequential of her later commitments brought out some of the show’s most creative moments: Meyer seized on the need to provide photographic documentation with wall-filling murals that opened the scale of the show in dramatic analogue to the expanding scope of Dwan’s initiatives, which came to encompass the distant external sites toward which artists such as Dennis Oppenheim, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, and, most searchingly, Robert Smithson were leading her. She formed a partnership with Smithson and his artist wife, Nancy Holt, that went exceptionally deep; Dwan’s own evocative amateur film from their joint expedition in the Yucatán affectingly brought this home in the course of the installation.
The selections on display from her Smithson holdings had the potential to recomplicate even so well examined a figure. Among them, the poster-size movie treatments for the Spiral Jetty, 1970 (the last Smithson work shown by Dwan), contain such surprises as a clipping from Rolling Stone’s epic account of the Manson family and its crimes, unveiling a dark strain of the dystopian counterculture running though the complex imagination behind the piece. And Meyer’s highlighting of the hieratic constructions and light experiments of the greatly overlooked Charles Ross ought to prompt a serious further look at his legacy.
The exhibition has a natural ending with the close of the gallery in 1971. Inherited wealth may have given her the freedom to step away (as it did in permitting her to run continually at a loss), but the logic of Dwan’s trajectorythat is to say, its extraordinary pace of changehad accelerated an enlargement of consciousness well beyond what the confines of any gallery could accommodate. The achievement of the NGA show was to draw the sympathetic visitor into that process of perpetual re-vision.
“Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959–1971” is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through September 10.
Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.