Virginia Dwan, a dealer whose short-lived gallery propelled many minimalist and earthy artists to fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s, died Sept. 4 after a battle with cancer. She was 90, a representative of her records said.
Over the past decade, Dwan has been canonized as one of the great American merchants of the 20th century for her sensitivity to risk and her willingness to put money behind game-changing works of art.
His gallery, which opened in Los Angeles and then moved to New York, only operated for just over a decade, but in that time it helped boost the careers of artists like Robert Smithson , Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, Fred Sandback, Carl Andre, William Anastasi, and more. Along the way, she amassed a rich collection of art from the era, which she gave as a gift to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 2013.
Dwan has been celebrated by museums, adored by artists, and acclaimed by dealers who are influenced by her. But she always kept a low profile, and New York Times Critic Holland Cotter reported that curator James Meyer had to persuade her to accept a 2016 exhibition on his gallery. The show ended up appearing at the National Gallery of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to widespread acclaim.
All of this may explain why prior to the 2016 retrospective, Dwan was considered an underrated character. The New York Times interviewed her in 2003 for an article entitled “The Forgotten Godmother of Dia Artists”. write in X-TRA in 2011, critic Jessica Dawson asked, “Why hasn’t Dwan been widely credited in the development of post-war art in Los Angeles?”
Virginia Dwan was born in 1931 in Minneapolis to what she said was a middle-class family. She was the heiress to the 3M fortune, not the heir but a heiress, as she pointed out in her 2003 Time interview, since there were 17 other people at his side. She briefly attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied art, then dropped out. She married a medical student and had a daughter.
In 1959, she opened her gallery in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. First, an exhibition by Yves Klein, the French painter of blue monochromes who had never had a solo exhibition in the United States before. “In 1959, I had wanted to have a gallery for some time, even though I didn’t know anything about it, really,” she said. art forum in 2014. “I just went ahead and did it anyway – the Innocent Abroad kind of thing.”
In 1962 Dwan moved his gallery to a new location in Los Angeles. That same year, she put together “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, which was considered one of the first pop shows in the United States. Capitalizing on interest in Andy Warhol’s famous Ferus Gallery exhibition earlier that year, which featured his paintings of Campbell’s Soup. cans, Dwan collected works that included “taboo” consumerist imagery. Pieces by Marisol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann rubbed shoulders with works by Pop precursors, including Jasper Johns and Edward Kienholz.
Dwan’s gallery expanded to New York in 1965, and in 1967 the LA space closed, leaving only the Manhattan one. It was in New York that Dwan cemented his reputation as a key supporter of Land art, which often involved intervening directly with the landscape in the form of sculpture. She said she funded these ambitious projects because it was a pleasure to see them come to fruition, rather than simply existing as unrealized concepts exhibited as works on paper in galleries. (Although some of these pieces, known as earthwork, are permanently installed, she also brought smaller related projects to her gallery.)
She paid $30,000 for Michael Heizer to do Double negative (1969), a trench dug in the Nevada desert. “I only saw it when it was finished,” Dwan told the New York Times. “That’s how I worked. If I believed in the artist, I trusted him. She later gave Heizer a loan for the first part of a project that would become the recently opened Town.
Dwan also financed the Robert Smithson film spiral jetty (1970), a sculpture composed of basalt, mud and salt crystals arranged in a spiral on a lake in Utah. This job too was something Dwan felt confident about, despite having little interaction with it.
“For earthworks,” she said Interview in 2016, “it was the very openness and the feeling that there were no boundaries that made it so exciting. For me, it was not a leap of faith.
These days, Dwan’s gallery continues to come under scrutiny for showing almost all men – an imbalance that was not entirely unusual at the time, even among female dealers. In several interviews, Dwan carefully conceded that the pushback was not entirely unjustified. But she told the Time in 2003, “I never thought in terms of gender.”
Dwan shocked the art world by closing up shop in 1971 – she just didn’t feel like spending more money on the business, she said. Instead, she devoted herself to art of her own making, taking pictures that have since been published in books. In 1996, with artist Charles Ross and architect Laban Wingert, she unveiled the Dwan Light Sanctuary, a chapel-like space in Montezuma, New Mexico that creates transcendent lighting effects using prisms integrated into the structure.
Over the years, Dwan has parted ways with works in her collections. She donated some works, including a version of De Maria lightning fieldat the Dia Art Foundation, which now shows many of the artists she worked with, and her 2013 engagement with the NGA includes some 250 works that have largely supplemented the museum’s permanent collection in post-war art.
When the NGA bequest was announced, interest in Dwan was reignited and a traveling retrospective followed, as did a biography of her and her gallery written by the late curator Germano Celant.
In a statement about the donation promised at the time, Meyer said, “Dwan was interested in new forms and aesthetic ideas. She was as much a patron as a gallery owner. His gallery represents an alternative to today’s scene, dominated mainly by commercial values.