A Look Back at “Dwan Gallery,” the Fabled Cradle of Modern Art
Photo: Virginia Dwan in her gallery during the exhibition Language III, Dwan Gallery, New York, May 1969. Photo: Roger Prigent. Courtesy Dwan Gallery Archive (detail).
For just over a decade, Virginia Dwan changed the landscape of the American art world at a critical period in its development. In 1959, at the age of 28, she launched Dwan Gallery in a storefront in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. Dwan was a natural, inasmuch as she worked on instinct. She had the dream of opening a gallery and she went for it, embracing the guts and nerve of the avant-garde.
Focused on the latest from Paris and New York, Dwan Gallery introduced Los Angeles to a definite selection of Abstract Expressionists, Neo-Dadaists, Pop Artists and Nouveaux Réalistes including Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, Yves Klein, Niki di Sant Phalle, and Jean Tinguely. Her 1962 group show My Country Tis of Thee has gone down in history as one of the earliest exhibitions of Pop Art and her 1964 exhibition Boxes marked the first time Andy Warhol presented his famed Brillo boxes.
Dwan’s success enabled her to open a second gallery on West 57n Street in New York in 1965 where she presented groundbreaking exhibitions of the latest artist movements including Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and Land Art with works by artists including Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Charles Ross, and Robert Smithson.
But she did not stop there. As a proponent of Land Art, Dwan took up remote locations in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, where she sponsored iconic earthworks including Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Michael Heizer’s Double Negative 1969), and Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field (1974).
As a leading force in the art world during these pivotal years, Dwan’s story and legacy have been largely unexplored until now. Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959–1971 is currently at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., where it will be on view through January 29, 2017, before traveling to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (March 19-September 10, 2017). In conjunction with the exhibition the University of Chicago Press and the National Gallery of Art have published a definitive catalogue by James Meyer that examines the incredible history and influence of Virginia Dwan at her height. The exhibition and catalogue are nothing short of remarkable studies of the power of personality to change the landscape of art.
The catalogue includes a history of the gallery, plates, Dwan’s writings and chronology, as well as an exhibition history and checklist of works in the exhibition. Each section is meticulously researched and presented with a precision that adds layers to the experience of the art itself. For behind the work are the minds themselves, the people who responded to their times with a sense of innovation that belies the freedom of art itself, and in doing so changed the rules for creating and presenting work.
Dwan writes of Pop Art, “I did not approach this as a movement. Rather, I was engrossed by each person’s unique vision. It was their individual genius that involved me. For me it was a grand adventure to take part in the realization and the presentation of their works.”
This spirit of collaboration and camaraderie speaks to the brilliance of Virginia Dwan. Hers is a singular force that moved mountains through passion and will, through a dedication of the belief that art is worth dedicating your life to. The artists she championed have gone on to become some of the foremost names in Modern art—which speaks to her intuitive knowingness. In reviewing the catalogue, it becomes clear: Dwan Gallery shows were works of art unto themselves.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.