Virginia Dwan at LACMA

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The role of the art dealer is often overlooked in concentrating on the talents of important artists. But certain dealers are just as important to art history. Virginia Dwan was such a figure. Her contributions are explored in Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery 1959-1971.

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Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, 1961
Photo courtesy Dwan Gallery Archive

Organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the show has been expanded by LACMA curator Stephanie Barron to emphasize the importance of Dwan's position here in LA. After moving here from Minneapolis to study at UCLA, Dwan opened her first gallery in 1959 in Westwood and expanded it in 1962. Until relocating entirely to New York in 1967, it was the one of the only galleries in LA to exhibit serious contemporary art. Unlike the more recognized Ferus, she did not concentrate on LA-based artists but imported artists and exhibitions from New York and Europe. Her instincts in retrospect seem flawless.

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Arman, "Alarm Clocks (Reveils)," 1960
Alarm clocks in painted wood box, 23 1/2 x 47 5/16 x 5 in.
© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Photo © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

The exhibition at LACMA tracks the progression of her record as a dealer and collector from her initial support of abstract artists Ad Reinhardt and Yves Klein to Pop artist Claes Oldenburg to the French Nouveau Realistes like Arman to a 1964 show called Boxes that brought together a wide range of artists working with the cube from Andy Warhol to Larry Bell.

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Edward Kienholz, "The Illegal Operation," 1962
Polyester resin, pigment, shopping cart, wooden stool, concrete, lamp, fabric, basin, metal pots, blanket, hooked rug, and medical equipment, 59 x 48 x 54 in.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
© Kienholz / Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

In 1965, Dwan opened a space in New York and operated as a bi-coastal presence for two years. Ferus co-founder Ed Kienholz had joined her gallery in LA and his recreation of the bar Barney's Beanery was her sensational debut in Manhattan. Dwan continued to keep up with the changing nature of contemporary art in the '60s and '70s. She championed the Minimalists and Conceptualists. Her single greatest contribution would have to be her blind faith in those artists wanting to construct monumental earthworks in the Southwest.

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Robert Smithson, "Spiral Jetty," 1970
Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah
© Holt-Smithson Foundation/licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni

She helped fund Michael Heizer's "Double Negative," (later donating it to MOCA), Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" and Walter de Maria's first "Lightning Field." Since these works were designed to evade the market system, her role as a dealer morphed into something akin to philanthropist. Dwan closed her gallery and remained a behind the scenes activist.

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Robert Grosvenor, "Untitled (yellow)," 1966/2016
Aluminum and epoxy enamel; 13 x 8 x 24 ft.
Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
(in cooperation with Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin and Karma, New York)
© Robert Grosvenor
Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

LA's role in contemporary art history is often blurred or misunderstood by East Coast curators and institutions. Barron's unparalleled knowledge adds significant dimension to the show. Among her additions is the recreation of a cantilevered yellow steel beam by Robert Grovesnor that was shown at Dwan but also shown by LACMA in 1967 in American Sculpture of the Sixties.

Many works by Kienholz, a figure of tremendous importance in LA, were added. The role of LA collectors Michael and Dorothy Blankfort, LACMA trustees, is shown in the documentation of their support for a performance/sculpture by Yves Klein.

On every level, however, the exhibition draws attention to the role of Dwan as a dealer and an often overlooked figure in the cultural history of L.A. On view until September 10.