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Public Symposia: Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959 – 1971

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Alex Potts, Max Loehr Collegiate Professor, University of Michigan. For the public symposium held on November 19, 2016, in conjunction with the exhibition Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959 – 1971 at the National Gallery of Art, Alex Potts explains how new exhibition spaces and the experimental staging of work at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and Virginia Dwan’s bicoastal galleries gave Edward Kienholz an opportunity in the early and mid-1960s to realize his large-scale tableaux. The powerful effect these works had on the viewer was not just formal, as in minimalist art, or simply a result of their often-provocative, in-your-face presentation, but was also related to deep undercurrents of socially and politically charged content. Eventually this set the tableaux at odds with the prevailing climate of the American art world and its increasingly systematic bracketing of a politics of content in favor of a politics of form. Virginia Dwan’s active promotion of some of Kienholz’s more ambitious, highly charged tableaux — including The Beanery, which she showed in 1965, and the disturbing State Hospital, shown in her exhibition of his concept tableaux in 1967 — testifies to a particularly rich moment in her take-up of new art. Later Kienholz found himself having to shift the installation of ambitious new work from New York and Los Angeles to venues in Europe.

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Julia Robinson, associate professor, department of art history, New York University
Accounts of postwar art have, until now, positioned Virginia Dwan as a figure of the late 1960s, focusing on her New York gallery (through 1971) and her extramural projects thereafter. But this slant tends to leave Dwan’s carte blanche leadership unexplained, offering no sense of it as something achieved after a lengthy honing of instincts, or as a process that began well before her East Coast chapter. What Dwan offered to her artists, the celebrated attitude of latitude, the many manifestations of so-called negative space, did not come from nowhere, not exactly. For the public symposium held on November 19, 2016, in conjunction with the exhibition Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959 – 1971 at the National Gallery of Art, Julia Robinson argues that the challenges of late ’50s Los Angeles—far from the international art world—galvanized Dwan Gallery’s founding years and its outré stance. Learning from scratch, Dwan took on an international stable of artists and mounted a decade of remarkable exhibitions. Perhaps not coincidentally, this happened in alignment (geographically and chronologically) with the founding of Artforum. As Dwan’s striking show announcements appeared in its pages, that magazine assumed the leading role in the critical reception of advanced contemporary art. Although both entities would change coasts within a few short years, the West proved a robust testing ground: the ultimate anteroom, not only to New York, but to the vast, heretofore unfathomable “venues” certain artists had resolutely in their sights. Describing this underexplored trajectory, Robinson considers how Dwan transformed brute LA givens—space, latitude, and attitude—into farsighted aspirations.

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Pamela M. Lee, Osgood Hooker Professorship in Fine Arts, Stanford University. In 1969 Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson collaborated on their first video together, East Coast, West Coast. Clocking in at twenty-two minutes, the video featured the two artists playing the roles of East Coast intellectual and West Coast hippy respectively, trading perspectives on art and life as a series of bicoastal clichés. Virginia Dwan, Smithson’s most important patron, occupied a singular position relative to the art scenes of Los Angeles and New York. For the public symposium keynote address given on November 18, 2016, in conjunction with the exhibition Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959 – 1971 at the National Gallery of Art, Pamela M. Lee revisits the history of the Dwan Gallery as a negotiator of two distinct but converging art cultures and the formative role Virginia Dwan played in bringing them closer together.