Virginia Dwan, a dealer whose short-lived gallery propelled many Minimalist and Land artists to fame during the late ’60s and early ’70s, died on September 4 after a battle with cancer. She was 90, a representative for her archive said.
In the past decade, Dwan has been canonized as one of the 20th century’s great American dealers for her risk-taking sensibility and her willingness to put money behind game-changing artworks.
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Her gallery, which opened in Los Angeles and later moved to New York, was in operation for only a little over a decade, but in that time, it helped spur 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 pledged as a gift to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 2013.
Dwan has been feted by museums, beloved by artists, and touted by dealers who are influenced by her. But she has always kept a low profile, and New York Times critic Holland Cotter reported that curator James Meyer had to persuade her to agree to a 2016 show surveying her gallery. The show ended up appearing at the National Gallery of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and was widely praised.
That all may explain why prior to the 2016 retrospective, Dwan was considered an underrated figure. The New York Times interviewed her in 2003 for an article titled “The Forgotten Godmother of Dia’s Artists.” Writing in X-TRA in 2011, critic Jessica Dawson asked, “Why has Dwan gone largely uncredited in the development of postwar Los Angeles art?”
Virginia Dwan was born in 1931 in Minneapolis to what she said was a middle-class family. She was an heir to the 3M fortune—not the heir but an heir, as she pointed out in her 2003 Times interview, since there were 17 others alongside her. 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 Los Angeles’s Westwood section. First up was a show by Yves Klein, the French painter of blue monochromes who’d never before had a U.S. solo exhibition. “By 1959, I had wanted to have a gallery for some time, though I didn’t know anything about it, really,” she told Artforum in 2014. “I just went ahead and did it anyway—the Innocents Abroad sort of thing.”
In 1962, Dwan moved her gallery to a new L.A. location. That same year, she mounted “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” which has been regarded as one of the first Pop shows in the U.S. Capitalizing on interest in Andy Warhol’s famed Ferus Gallery exhibition earlier that year, which featured his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, Dwan brought together works that included “taboo” consumerist imagery. Pieces by Marisol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann hung alongside works by Pop’s forerunners, among them Jasper Johns and Edward Kienholz.
Dwan’s gallery expanded to New York in 1965, and in 1967, the L.A. space shuttered, leaving just the Manhattan one. It was in New York that Dwan cemented her reputation as a key backer of Land art, which often involved making direct interventions in the landscape as a form of sculpture. She said she funded these ambitious projects because it was a thrill to see them actualized, rather than simply existing as unrealized concepts exhibited as works on paper in gallery settings. (Although some of these pieces, known as earthworks, are sited permanently, she also brought smaller, related projects to her gallery.)
She famously paid $30,000 for Michael Heizer to make Double Negative (1969), a trench dug in the Nevada desert. “I saw it only after it was finished,” Dwan told the New York Times. “That’s how I operated. If I believed in the artist I trusted him.” She later provided Heizer with a loan for the first part of a project that would become the recently opened City.
Dwan also put up the funds for Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a sculpture composed of basalt, mud, and salt crystals arranged into a spiral pattern on a lake in Utah. That work, too, was something that Dwan felt confident about, despite having very little interaction with.
“For earthwork,” she told Interview in 2016, “it was the very openness and feeling that there were no boundaries that made it so exciting. For me it wasn’t a leap of faith.”
These days, Dwan’s gallery continues to weather some scrutiny for almost exclusively showing men—an imbalance that was not entirely unusual for the era, even among female dealers. In several interviews, Dwan carefully conceded that the pushback was not entirely wrongful. But, she told the Times in 2003, “I never thought in terms of gender.”
Dwan shocked the art world by closing up shop in 1971—she simply didn’t feel like spending more money on the venture, 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 embedded in the structure.
Over the years, Dwan parted ways with works in her holdings. She gave certain works, including a version of De Maria’s Lightning Field, to the Dia Art Foundation, which now shows many of the artists she worked with, and her 2013 pledge to the NGA includes some 250 works that have vastly rounded out the museum’s permanent collection in postwar art.
When the NGA bequest was announced, interest in Dwan was sparked anew, and a traveling retrospective followed, as did a biography of her and her gallery written by late curator Germano Celant.
In a release about the pledged gift at the time, Meyer said, “Dwan was interested in new aesthetic forms and ideas. She was as much a patron as a gallerist. Her gallery represents an alternative to today’s scene, dominated primarily by commercial values.”