Through September 10
With an exhibition title like “Dwan Gallery: Los Angeles to New York, 1959–1971,” you’d expect to find a show featuring classic paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and films that once might have graced the pages of Artforum, the influential art journal which, like the gallery in question, migrated from Los Angeles to New York during the late 1960s. And that’s exactly what was on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., last autumn and winter: sterling examples of Pop art and Minimalism, conceptual pieces, assemblages executed in California, a smattering of Abstract Expressionism, and even some Nouveau Réalisme from France.
When Virginia Dwan, the prescient dealer, visionary collector, and generous benefactor, first showed this art, it was practically wet from the studio. By the time Dwan donated 100 or so works to the nation—that is, to the National Gallery—in 2013, most of her gifts belonged to the history of art. On view in the lower galleries of the East Building at the NGA, the display was somewhat workman-like, plain and unadorned. Some people graciously called it academic.
Anyone who missed seeing “Dwan Gallery: Los Angeles to New York, 1959–1971” in D.C. can now catch it at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through September 10. The magic has returned, and then some.
At LACMA, its head of modern art, Stephanie Barron, has super-sized the show with 27 more works. Some, first shown at Dwan’s initial outposts in Westwood, actually belong to the museum. A series of photographs record Yves Klein by the Seine in Paris in a performance piece that was commissioned by a former LACMA trustee. Adding some punch to the proceedings is Robert Grosvenor’s Untitled (yellow), from 1966/2016, a lengthy aluminum diagonal stretching at an oblique angle from the ceiling almost to the floor that was initially shown at Dwan and then featured in LACMA’s legendary “Sculpture of the Sixties” survey in 1967.
In another fascinating section, Barron has restaged Dwan’s 1964 group show “Boxes” with a number of the original objects, including three Brillo boxes by Andy Warhol that were being shown then for the very first time. As for photographs of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1970), two Earthworks that Dwan sponsored, not many institutions can call attention to these pieces near a window through which gallerygoers can view Heizer’s Levitated Mass (2012), which is permanently installed just outside, on LACMA’s grounds.
Moreover, this survey, which has been augmented further by documentation from LACMA’s archives, now has become, not a tale of two cities, but more like a story of two coasts. In D.C., chances are that you arrived at the museum after taking a train or the Metro. You probably wore a heavy overcoat and gloves if you visited during the winter months. It was dark out by the time the museum closed. Back in the day, when I went to the Dwan Gallery on West 57th Street, I took buses and subways. You rode an elevator to get to the gallery. The streets were crowded and noisy. When I went to see the Dwan exhibition at LACMA, I drove a car and listened to classical music on the radio. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the streets were lined with palm trees. Though it was April, like everyone else, I wore summer clothes. Looking at paintings and sculpture under these conditions could not be more relaxing. No wonder the art scene in Los Angeles is ascendant.
At the NGA, the Dwan Gallery show was jam-packed into I.M. Pei’s East Building galleries. There were no windows, no vistas that allowed you to see the sweep of the survey show. At LACMA, you immediately know something is different as you approach the entrance to the open spaces of the Resnick Pavilion. From a distance, you walk towards Charles Ross’s translucent, upright group of Six Prisms from the Origin of Colors that are about 8 feet tall and were executed in 1970/88 from Plexiglas and mineral oil. Dwan gifted the Ross to LACMA, where it is installed so that it can be experienced processionally. A lot of selfies are being taken here, too.
Upon entering the exhibition in L.A., you can see, at a glance, the different sections of the show. Dead ahead are a group of assemblages by Edward Kienholz, one of the reigning stars of L.A. art throughout his multi-decades career. Almost immediately, you are introduced to some first- and second-generation Abstract Expressionists as well as early plaster pieces by Claes Oldenberg that Virginia Dwan brought to California from New York. There is also a splendid Robert Rauschenberg work executed with materials the artist scavenged in L.A.. In the distance, you can see Robert Grosvenor’s yellow riddle of a sculpture. By the time you enter the space set aside for paintings and sculptures by the Minimalists Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Robert Ryman, and Jo Baer, the austerity and rigor of these works could not be been more pronounced. Shown together, they deliver the same shock they initially gave to viewers back in the day. Though represented by photographs, drawings, and other documentation, the Earthworks section that brought the show to its close reminded visitors just how large and radical these projects once were.
At LACMA, “Dwan Gallery: Los Angeles to New York, 1959–1971” leaves you with a nuanced taste for the period under review. In the beautiful, adaptable pavilion built by architect Renzo Piano, it also gives you a great feel for the vaunted light and space of the art scene in Los Angeles.