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September 13, 2022

Virginia Dwan (October 18, 1931–September 5, 2022)

Virginia Dwan standing in the 'Language III' installation (May 24–June 18, 1969). Photo courtesy Dwan Archive

Virginia Dwan standing in the Language III installation (May 24–June 18, 1969). Photo courtesy Dwan Archive

Washington, DC—The National Gallery of Art announced today the death of visionary patron of the arts, Virginia Dwan, who passed away on September 5 at her home in Santa Fe, NM. The cause was cancer.

“I am deeply saddened at the passing of legendary arts patron Virginia Dwan. Her impact on the history of the art of the 1960s and 1970s is immeasurable. Opening galleries in Los Angeles and New York at a young age, Dwan produced groundbreaking shows of pop art and introduced the French nouveau réaliste artists to American audiences. Her shows of minimal, conceptual, and land art defined those movements. She was as much a patron as a gallerist, underwriting such iconic earthworks as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Walter De Maria’s 35-Pole Lightning Field, Charles Ross’s Star Axis, and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative and assisting with the construction of Heizer’s City: Complex One. She nurtured and fostered artists—at the time, dedicating her life to the support of their groundbreaking projects. Virginia’s generosity to the nation was realized in gifts to the National Gallery of Art over the course of 30 years and honored in the exhibition Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery 1959–1971. In addition to her outright and promised gift of some 250 works across several media, her bequest to the National Gallery includes the Dwan Archive. With these works of art and resources, the National Gallery will become the center for the study of Virginia Dwan’s extraordinary legacy.” — Kaywin Feldman, Director, National Gallery of Art

Recognized as a “legendary dealer, the grande dame of the avant-garde” (New York Times, May 11, 2003), Virginia Dwan was an American collector, art patron, philanthropist, and former owner of Dwan Gallery Los Angeles (1959–1967) and Dwan Gallery New York (1965–1971).

A Benefactor of the National Gallery of Art, Virginia Dwan began her involvement with the museum in 1992 with a gift of several works by Sol LeWitt. Her extraordinary 2013 promised gift includes 250 works by Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Yves Klein, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Robert Morris, Martial Raysse, Ad Reinhardt, Niki de Saint Phalle, Fred Sandback, Robert Smithson, Jean Tinguely, and numerous others.

The promised gift is comprised of 250 works by 52 artists, including 34 sculptures, 15 paintings, 159 prints and drawings, 39 photographs, two films, and one set of artist’s books. In addition, Dwan donated two outright gifts of sculpture by Robert Smithson: Glass Stratum (1967) and A Nonsite, Pine Barrens, New Jersey (1968), as announced in July 2013. Earlier this year, the National Gallery announced the acquisition of several works from the promised gift, which include a major painting by Ad Reinhardt, two collages by Robert Rauschenberg, and sculptures by Jean Tinguely, Edward Kienholz, and Charles Ross.

The Dwan gift significantly broadens the museum’s holdings of art and archival material from the 1960s and 1970s. Her generosity builds on the legacy of past transformative gifts of modern art made to the National Gallery, such as the collections of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff and of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel.

Among the many strengths of the Dwan Gallery collection is its remarkable holding of works by Robert Smithson, one of the great figures of land art and one of the most influential artists of the last half-century. In addition to three major sculptures, the National Gallery will receive unique photocollages, 24 drawings, and prints of Smithson’s film Spiral Jetty, which Dwan cosponsored. These gifts will establish the museum as a key repository for Smithson’s work.

Other highlights include five paintings by Yves Klein—this marks the National Gallery’s first acquisition of works by Klein, a leading member of the nouveau réalistes—paintings by Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, and Martial Raysse, sculptures by Ed Keinholz, Yves Tinguely, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Charles Ross, and Fred Sandback, two collages by Robert Rauschenberg, and drawings by Larry Rivers, Niki de Saint Phalle, Michael Heizer, and Sturtevant.

History of the Dwan Gallery

During her more than 11 years as a gallerist, Virginia Dwan mounted 134 shows that introduced viewers in Los Angeles and New York to the most challenging art practices of the time. Her contributions to postwar art in the United States and France are extraordinary. In 2016 the National Gallery of Art honored this history with the exhibition, Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery 1959–1971. The National Gallery of Art Library presented a concurrent exhibition that showcased documentary material drawn from its collection as well as from the Dwan Gallery Archives and the Virginia Dwan Archives in New York.

Founded by Virginia Dwan in a storefront in Los Angeles in 1959, the Dwan Gallery was a leading avant-garde space, presenting exhibitions of works by New York artists Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, and Claes Oldenburg, as well as by the Los Angeles-based artist Edward Kienholz. A keen follower of art developments in Paris, Dwan gave many of the nouveaux réalistes their earliest shows in the United States and introduced the work of Yves Klein, Arman, Jean Tinguely, Martial Raysse, and Niki de Saint Phalle American audiences. Her group show My Country 'Tis of Thee (1962) is among the earliest exhibitions of pop art, including artists such as Marisol, Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol. Another exhibition, Boxes (1964), marked the first occasion Warhol exhibited his iconic Brillo boxes.

Dwan moved to New York where she opened her second gallery in 1965, making Dwan Gallery the country’s first bicoastal gallery. If the Los Angeles gallery featured abstract expressionism, pop, and nouveau réalisme, the New York gallery became associated with other emerging tendencies. One groundbreaking show of minimal art was 10 (1966). Four Language shows between 1967 and 1970 heralded conceptual art, while Earthworks (1968) ushered in site-specific projects. A leading patron of land art, Dwan sponsored Michael Heizer’s monumental sculptures Double Negative (1969) and City: Complex One (begun 1972), Robert Smithson’s masterpiece Spiral Jetty (1970), Walter De Maria’s 35-Pole Lightning Field (1974), and Charles Ross’s Star Axis (begun 1971).

A contributing element to the success of Dwan’s geographical reach was the increasing mobility of the art world as a result of new modes of transportation, including jet aviation and the interstate highway system, during the late 1950s and 1960s. Artists, dealers, and works of art could move swiftly and with increasing regularity to Europe and between the East and West coasts. The Dwan story also encompassed remote locations in the American West and in the Yucatán, where artists made earthworks that Dwan sponsored.

By the late 1960s, Dwan Gallery could no longer be said to exist solely on West 57th Street in New York, but in remote locations at a far distance from the gallery. Virginia Dwan had set in motion a remarkable artistic exchange between Los Angeles, New York, and Paris during a seminal era of postwar art.

In 2018, the National Gallery honored Dwan again with another show, Spacesinspired by the installation art exhibited at Dwan Gallery during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The presentation featured five significant minimal and post-minimal sculptures. Several of the works had been donated to the National Gallery by Virginia Dwan or given in her honor, and each work was installed in a gallery of its own, highlighting the unique architectural character of the East Building and its exhibition spaces.

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