"Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959-1971": National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

By Crow, Thomas | Artforum International, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

"Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959-1971": National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


Crow, Thomas, Artforum International


Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959-1971"

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, DC

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, reinforcing 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. …

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