Art gallery owner and patron Virginia Dwan dies at 90
Virginia Dwan said she didn’t really like to talk about art.
But through her galleries in Los Angeles and New York as well as funding artists, especially Land artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, she had a huge impact on art in the 1960s and 1970s.
Dwan, who died of cancer at age 90 on September 5 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, dropped out of the University of California, Los Angeles where she was studying art and opened her own gallery. It was 1959 and female-owned galleries weren’t so easy to find – or manage. Dwan reportedly asked her husband not to attend events with her or people would assume he owned the gallery.
At Dwan Gallery in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Dwan has exhibited works by Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. It presented Yves Klein’s first solo exhibition on the West Coast, and in 1962 the gallery presented one of the first Pop art exhibitions, My country is you, which included work by Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. Dwan opened his New York gallery in 1965, making it the first gallery in the country to have a presence on both coasts. She closed the LA gallery in 1967, and in 1971 she also closed the New York gallery.
Dwan was born in Minneapolis in 1931. Her grandfather was a co-founder of the 3M company, and she was one of 18 heiresses, which allowed her to keep her gallery open even though, according to James Meyer, curator of modern art at the National Gallery of Art, it has been losing money year after year.
Meyer first met Dwan in 1991, when he interviewed her for his thesis on minimalist art (it became a book, Minimalism). She carried on because of her pure love of art, Meyer said in an interview with Hyperallergic, noting earthworks she later funded — like Heizer’s 1969″Double negative“and 1970 by Robert Smithson”spiral jetty” – were irremovable and unsaleable.
“She was one of the few people I’ve met who loved art and supported it wholeheartedly,” he said. “She longed to see new art and experience it in person. Her absolute foundation was love of art and respect for artists.
Meyer worked with Dwan on his 2013 donation to the National Gallery of 250 works, including paintings by Yves Klein, Agnes Martin, sculptures by Yves Tinguely and Sol LeWitt, and collages by Rauschenberg. In an interview with art forum in 2014, Dwan said the thought of her collection being in storage depressed her. “The idea is really for people to feel something about the collection,” she said. “When the works are finally on display at the National Gallery, the public will have the opportunity to linger, to soak in.”
Meyers also curated the 2016 National Gallery exhibition Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959-1971, which traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art the following year.
The show made Dwan’s contribution to art history evident, Meyer said.
“The proof was on the walls and floors of his huge impact on 60s and 70s art,” he said. “It was a great show.”
Dwan, along with artists Charles Ross and architect Laban Wingert, designed the Dwan Shrine of Lightdesigned as a peaceful space, which opened in 1996 in Montezuma, New Mexico.
Meyer says Dwan’s idealism and lack of interest in profit were rare.
“She represented a powerful and pure idea of art,” he said. “It was divorced from the market mentality that prevails today.”