Michael Heizer, exhibition poster for “New York/Nevada,” 1970.
In the second segment of this two-part series, Virginia Dwan addresses the closure of her New York gallery in 1971 as well as the bequest of her collection this past fall to the National Gallery of Art. In the first segment, Dwan discussed her life as an art dealer and philanthropist. “From Los Angeles to New York: The Dwan Gallery 1959–1971,” an exhibition curated by James Meyer, will open at the National Gallery’s newly renovated East Building in 2016.
THE QUESTION of why I closed the gallery always comes up. I just ran out of energy to do it. I call it burnout. I liked having a gallery, though: I enjoyed producing shows, coming up with the advertising, and things like that. I certainly loved being with the artists. But the business of art dealing was something I was never good at. I came to realize it was really hard work for me. I suppose I would have enjoyed being a curator, but I would have had to have a free hand, which you typically do with a gallery, but not with a museum.
Many artists were leaving New York by 1971. I’d heard that some said they were fed up with the art world and wanted to get away from it, though no one ever said that directly to me. But I do know many wanted a bigger canvas. They wanted more space to work with. Particularly most of the artists I was involved with—Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, especially.
I knew all along that I would give most of the major works I’d collected to a museum, and I found the offer that James Meyer and Harry Cooper were making from the National Gallery very compelling. In essence, they wanted to open a newly renovated building with a major show and catalogue about the gallery. On top of that, I learned that the National Gallery never can deaccession works. I couldn’t refuse.
There’s the idea that things could sit in storage for many years to come, and not be out in the world where people can see them and be moved by them. It depresses me. I’ve previously given works to museums: Heizer’s Double Negative, for instance, to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, as well as six of his large-scale projected photographs (Actual Size: Munich Rotary, 1970) to the Whitney Museum. I’ve given works to the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Walker Art Center, among others. But I’ve always felt that I wanted the collection to have the widest possible viewership—perhaps for some it will even be an introduction to Minimalism. The idea is really that people should feel something from the collection. When the works are finally shown at the National Gallery, the opportunity will be there for the public to linger, to absorb.
History should be constantly rewritten, and I hope that happens for the gallery. I shared many important feelings about art and artmaking with the artists I’ve worked with. I cared deeply about them, and part of my way to express this concern was by presenting their work. Of course the artists were always primary, absolutely. But I was never a disinterested bystander.
Virginia Dwan’s philanthropy was of another art world. In 1969, she financed Michael Heizer’s Double Negative and provided funding for the publication of Carl Andre’s Seven Books of Poetry to publisher and dealer Seth Siegelaub. A year later, she sponsored Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Also well known in the 1960s as a dealer, Dwan opened her first Los Angeles gallery in 1959, giving Yves Klein his debut West Coast solo show in 1961. In 1965, she opened a new space in New York with Ed Kienholz’s installation Barney’s Beanery and produced landmark Miminal, Conceptual and Land art shows. After closing her gallery in 1971, Dwan assumed another social role and began to make films with and about artists, including Sturtevant, John Cage, Mark di Suvero, Andre, and Heizer.
This past fall, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, announced Dwan’s bequest of 250 works—paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, films, and artists’ books—to the museum. Selected pieces will be featured in “From Los Angeles to New York: The Dwan Gallery 1959–1971,” an exhibition curated by James Meyer, which will open when the museum inaugurates its new East Building galleries in 2016. Recently, Dwan spoke about her life while sitting in her Upper West Side apartment, which today holds just a fraction of her groundbreaking collection but is nonetheless a jewel-box museum of postwar abstraction, nouveau realism, Minimalism, and Land art. In the first of this two-part series, Dwan speaks about her gallery.
By 1959, I had wanted to have a gallery for some time, though I didn’t know anything about it, really. I just went ahead and did it anyway—the Innocents Abroad sort of thing. A few years later, when I was no longer “innocent,” I built another space in Los Angeles that was much larger and had wonderful walls, lighting, floors, everything. Unfortunately, that building has been torn down now, but you entered into it through a tunnel. I loved the idea that people could cool down their eyes before seeing a show.
In that era, there weren’t many precedents for women to own galleries, and feminism was only just beginning in the US. I wasn’t so concerned about that, but I do remember telling my husband that he shouldn’t go to parties or dinners with me, as people always assumed it was his gallery. Of course, I wanted people to know that it was mine—and he was very understanding about that. But history can be cruel: Art historians and critics have tended to compare and contrast me with “female dealers.” Betty Parsons had a wonderful gallery, but it was a completely different time and place.
Yves Klein and Ad Reinhardt had perhaps the strongest influences on me. Yves came for his first show in Los Angeles and made new works there. My husband and I met Yves one summer in Nice, France, and he introduced me to many artists there: Arman, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Jean Tinguely. I learned back in the in US that there was a strong reaction against showing Europeans. For instance, the first exhibition I produced with Yves Klein didn’t receive much press.
Reinhardt would always visit from New York when we had his openings, too. When I selected my second gallery, which was in the Westwood area of Los Angeles, I did it with him in mind: I wanted to make sure that the ceilings would be high and that his paintings would fit, as at the time they were very tall. I had an area of white marble along the floor, in front of the hanging area—to keep the viewer at a distance so one could not touch his surfaces. But then he showed up with the “ultimate” paintings, which are sixty inches square. On November 22, 1963, two days before that show was to open, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and we decided not to have an opening party. Then later on people came and said: “Oh what good taste, to show only black!”
View of “Ad Reinhardt: Recent Square Paintings,” 1963, Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles.
In New York, I became very interested in and involved with Minimalism and gave solo shows to Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, and later Robert Smithson. When I moved the gallery to West Fifty-Seventh Street, I didn’t have enough space for them to do very large works, so I kept the gallery in Los Angeles with my assistant John Weber still working there, and I sent the artists out there to put up their shows. A favorite memory was when Merce Cunningham, John Cage, David Tudor, and Robert Rauschenberg drove from New York in a Volkswagen bus for one of Robert’s shows. They parked it in front of my house in Malibu and out of this bus came nine people. It was like a circus bus with endless people emerging. They had all driven from New York to Los Angeles and stopped along the way giving performances. I didn’t know how they all fit, yet there they all were in the bus.
In New York, many artists started reaching out to me; several were making interesting, contemplative, and quiet works. I thought that so many of these artists were wonderful, but I couldn’t show them all. I hated visiting studios and seeing people’s work for that reason. Still, I realized that I could help artists in different ways. In 1969, Robert Smithson told me that he wanted to do something at the airport in Fort Worth, Texas, and that he was involved with some engineers who were going to be working there. He had asked Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris to also propose works for the airport site but then the project fell through. Nevertheless, Smithson, Nancy Holt, and I began to look at sites around New York and New Jersey and further south into Virginia. We ended up taking a number of trips together in search for land on which to make works. In 1968, when we could not find land that was available, we were inspired to organize the “Earth Works” show in the gallery. In 1969 we traveled together again, to the Yucatán, where Smithson produced his series of mirror works known as the Nine Mirror Displacements. When Smithson told me he was going to make Spiral Jetty, I wanted to make funds available for him to do so. And I wanted to be there for it.
“Earth Works” was a beautiful and important show, and there were all kinds of effective works. Smithson presented a few of his non-sites, and Robert Morris worked with a pile of dirt, wire, and gasoline oil, which he had collected from right around the corner from the gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street, where a building was being constructed. Michael Heizer showed big transparencies of work he’d already done, which was considerable.
From March to April of 1969, Walter De Maria showed his Bed of Spikes in the gallery—five steel panels on the ground with different numbers of spikes projecting from them. The show was essentially a herald for his Lightning Field. Because the works were very sharp, each one essentially a bed of nails, we drafted a release that visitors would sign as they entered that would absolve the gallery of responsibility if they were injured. People laughed about that, but the spikes were actually dangerous. Later, in 1974, Walter installed the first Lightning Field on the property of Burton and Emily Tremaine near Flagstaff, Arizona. It was made of thirty-five stainless steel poles. But when we weren’t able to sell it, I ended up with these gorgeous, twenty-foot stainless steel poles in my storage space. Eventually I gave them to the Dia Foundation.
Agnes Martin was the primary artist I really wanted to work with but didn’t. It was bad timing. I showed one of her works in “Ten,” in 1966, but then she left New York, saying to Robert Elkon that she was never going to paint again. And I should know now that when people say things like that, they don’t really mean it! Duchamp is a case in point.
Artist-comedian Justin Cooper and artist-comedian–professional magician Ross Moreno are the coconspirators behind Chuckles+, a comedy/performance project they commenced in 2011. On February 9, 2014, they will perform at Harbor Gallery in Queens, New York. Here, Cooper and Moreno speak about their upcoming performance and its hybridism.
CHUCKLES+ began as a simple framework to explore different approaches toward performative projects; since 2011, it has evolved into an ongoing investigation into the intersection between comedy and art. We think conventional “showbiz” structures—the variety show, the comedy club, the telethon, etc.—are beautiful sorts of things unto themselves. But they’re also fantastic vehicles for far weirder impulses, such as experiments with duration, repetition, and disjointed narrative. The name Chuckles+ implies that our project will deliver on the funny but with an addition. The definition of this “plus” is what we attempt to articulate with each new event. The experience is deeply rooted in the history of performance art, but it’s also a place where one can laugh.
For the next iteration of Chuckles+, we have been exploring the dynamics of the host-performer relationship. In it, the “next guest” introduction will be repeated over and over again and the traditional roles associated with the variety show format will constantly shift. Our long-time music collaborator, DJ Joey B, and April Bruckner, a talented ventriloquist, will also be part of the performance, which is really like A Prairie Home Companion on acid.
We’ve been fortunate enough to perform at various major institutions—Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; SculptureCenter, New York; Neues Museum, Nuremberg—but these opportunities have not necessarily carried more importance than our performances at our friends’ backyard birthday parties. There’s no hierarchy for us. We bring the same level of gravitas to each performance because what we do can be shaped to fit virtually any kind of venue and any type of audience. We don’t ever want Chuckles+ to classify our viewers, like the “art” audience versus the “mainstream” audience, for example. If we’re successful, each type of audience will take away something unique and deeply personal—a curated emotive experience that has played with their expectations. With an art audience, we’ve found that there is a collective sigh of relief when they realize we’re out to make them laugh. There’s so much tedious, tortuous performance art out there that it’s pretty easy to get those people onboard if they know we’re going to be funny.
In David Robbins’s book Concrete Comedy, he outlines a definitive history of “high entertainment” but does not present strategies for the artist-cum-comedian-practitioner. We recognized that a viable place for a pure hybrid of art and comedy hadn’t really been established at the start of Chuckles+. Now there are a few others, like Scott and Tyson Reeder, the creators of Club Nutz—the world’s smallest comedy club, held in spaces like broom closets and booths at the Frieze Art Fair. They, as well as Jim Drain and Naomi Fischer, have been great allies and collaborators. There’s certainly no dearth of talent out there to invite to the “clubhouse,” so Chuckles+ will always have a built-in refresh button.
Beverly Semmes, Pink Pot, 2008, paint on magazine page, 7 1/2 x 10 6/8".
Beverly Semmes is a New York–based artist who has exhibited internationally since the late 1980s. Her latest shows span the US: Los Angeles’s Shoshana Wayne Gallery is presenting two of Semmes’s large-scale dress works, produced in 1992 and 1994, from January 11 to March 1, 2014. In New York, Semmes will show selections from her ongoing Feminist Responsibility Project, as well as ceramics, at Susan Inglett Gallery from February 6 to March 15, 2014.
IN THE EARLY 2000S, I inherited a stack of 1990s-era porn magazines. It’s a long story in itself, but basically I was helping a friend in upstate New York who wanted to get rid of them but was too embarrassed to take them to the town’s recycling center. I took them home. Not long after, I was working in my studio and I thought: I need these. As I was cracking them open, I had the idea to get some paint out. The first pieces were essentially cover-ups—fluorescent censorships. This is how the Feminist Responsibility Project began. I wanted the FRP works to have a protective aspect: protective to the viewer, protective to the subject. The covering up is nurturing—in a grandmotherish way—and it’s complicated. The redactor is spending a lot of time with the imagery, censoring to keep you from getting/having to see the original material. The images break out of the control: There are rules, but these codes keep getting broken and content slips forward.
I’m often putting this body of work to the side while I focus on another project, but then I end up returning to it. At this point it’s been more than ten years, and I’ve made hundreds. They’ve taken on a painterly surface; they are structured in response to the absurdly concocted magazine scenarios. I make these drawings at the kitchen table. There’s a lot of editing afterward. I’m rethinking and reworking them all the time. There will be pieces in the “not working” category that later become my favorites. It evolves.
I recently installed my show at Shoshana Wayne in Santa Monica—the main gallery is an expansive rectangular space—and the 1994 piece I’m showing there, Buried Treasure, fills the room. Re-seeing this work after many years, I was struck by how much of a drawing it is. There’s one long sleeve and it drapes around the floor. The black crushed velvet is very light-absorbing; it has an oily burnt wood quality, a superblack, like vine charcoal. Many of my sculptures from the ’90s were designed to take up space. The viewer is pushed way to the side; you can’t really walk into the room. Like the FRP, there is a graphic sensibility to my sculptural work of this time. The Feminist Responsibility Project is more intimately aggressive.
As the Susan Inglett Gallery show in New York approaches, I continue to ask myself about the relationship of the drawings to my ceramics. The question has been hanging over my head for at least five of the ten-plus years I’ve been doing the FRP drawings. Ceramics has been my most consistent medium—the one I continue to return to. I began working in clay right after I finished school. The pieces are hand-built. I begin with a lot of very wet clay and then build them up over time, adding handles. They are heavy and off-kilter, and there’s no goal of perfection or lightness as with traditional craft. The glaze has a skin-like aspect; the works are extremely tactile. The ceramics enter into the gallery space as outsiders, as “anti-,” and on some level I’ve always thought of the FRP drawings as doing the same.
Beverly Semmes, Money, 2013, ink on magazine page, 10 1/2 x 7 7/8".
Beverly Semmes, Blue Dress, 2005, paint on magazine page, 6 5/8 x 5 1/4".
Beverly Semmes, Urn, 2006, ink on magazine page, 10 1/2 x 6 1/2".
Beverly Semmes, Cat, 2005, paint on magazine page, 9 3/4 x 5 3/5".
Beverly Semmes, Eight, 2013, ink on magazine page, 10 11/16 x 7 3/4".
Beverly Semmes, Floating Hand, 2012, ink on magazine page, 10 5/8 x 7 7/8".
Beverly Semmes, Dalmations, 2013, ink on magazine page, 10 5/8 x 7 7/8".
Beverly Semmes, Gloves, 2011, ink on magazine page, 10 11/16 x 6 7/8".
Beverly Semmes, Seven Handles, 2009, ink on magazine page, 10 3/4 x 7 5/8".
View of “Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries,” 2014.
Born in 1943 in Paraguay, Faith Wilding is an artist, activist, and professor emerita of performance art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Wilding was a key figure in the the nation’s first feminist art programs, at Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) in 1970, and at CalArts in 1971, and she continues to work with the collective she cofounded called subRosa. “Fearful Symmetries,” her debut retrospective, is currently on view at Threewalls in Chicago through February 22, 2014. The show coincides with Wilding’s lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art. She is currently writing her memoirs.
FEMINISM, in my experience, is not really studied these days. The language has changed so much. After a recent lecture I gave, many of the questions people were asking made it seem as though they weren’t aware of feminist history. Perhaps the millennials aren’t interested. What does it mean to be a feminist today? To become the head of Yahoo, making billions? It’s a disgusting power thing. We still need to think politically about capitalism and patriarchy, and how they are basically wrecking the world. I find that so much of social networking—this kind of maker, DIY stuff—is apolitical. But it’s attractive, of course, and it’s very ’60s; I’ve seen it before. Too much of it does not seem to have politics. Are any of these “social” networks inclusive? Are we creating a common good? A very favorite author of mine, Silvia Federici, talks about this. She’s a strong socialist feminist.
I grew up in a puritanical Christian commune in South America. It was all God the father, Jesus the son. Women’s bodies were always covered, and there was a strong gender separation between the males and females. At about twenty, this didn’t work for me anymore. And that’s what really drove me to feminism: As a kid, I felt like I never got any of my questions answered.
On the commune we made our own clothes and shoes. We learned crochet, ceramics, handiwork, woodwork, and leatherwork. I also read like a demon and began to draw. Many of my early feminist abstractions come from nature. I grew up in a very lush tropical environment. The commune sent me to college in the US, so that I could train to be a teacher. When I got there I joined the student peace union, and before I knew it I was going to the March on Washington, and getting involved with the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. And then came the feminist movement.
In 1970, my husband and I got to Fresno, where I met Suzanne Lacy. She and I started Fresno’s first feminist consciousness-raising group. Fifty women joined immediately when they heard that we were going to talk about orgasms. We initiated a course called the Second Sex; we read Beauvoir and Woolf. Around that time I met Judy Chicago in Fresno and Mira Schor at CalArts, and we started doing research in art history, looking for women artists. We were only reading novels and books by women, and whatever Marxist texts were available at the time.
Today, I am very aware of generational gaps. I want to be a mentor and a resource. That’s really why we did all that work in the ’60s and ’70s: so future generations of young women and men wouldn’t have to; so we’d have a different world. Perhaps we have only done a bit, but that’s my bit.
Duke University Press recently published Sex, or The Unbearable, a long-form critical dialogue between theorists Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman. Through a series of close readings addressing the work of Larry Johnson, Miranda July, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and the short story “Break It Down” by Lydia Davis, the book examines the often unbearable pressures and cleavages sex can producefor good and for ill. Berlant and Edelman variously mitigate and amplify the theoretical, structural, and vernacular ambivalencies of intimacy, collaboration, and collective life. Berlant states in the book’s coda: “I do not read things: I read with things.” Indeed, she is known for producing readings with texts, objects, and events that are as incisively surprising as they are politically alive. Berlant here considers what “reading with” would look like if theorized as a methodology.
PERHAPS I SHOULD BEGIN BY SAYING THAT MY THOUGHT IS ELLIPTICAL; that is to say, it both tracks concepts and allows for unfinishedness, inducing itself to become misshapen in the hope that by the time you return to the point of departure, so many things will have come into contact that the contours of the concept and the forms associated with its movement will have changed. How can our encounter with something become a scene of unlearning and engendering from within the very intensity of that encounter?
If I were to theorize “reading with” as a method, I might begin with something about which I’ve recently written, William Pope.L’s Forlesen, an installation that was on view last year at the Renaissance Society.¹ The title sounds a lot like the German word vorlesen, which means “to read out.” In that piece of writing, I describe ekphrastically the process of learning to read with Pope.L’s work. When I walked into Forlesen, the first thing I saw was a peeling wall, and then I looked around and I realized: It’s a cock and it’s an architecture at the same time. I understood that the cock was providing the infrastructure for my encounter. Covered in a dark ketchup, the walls were racialized and also about surfacing. The architecture was undoing itself, drying out. The room was scattered with glasses of water, too, so the work is also about evaporation, the hunger of the world for your juices, for what animates you and the earth, holding it all together. Liquid is liveness, but it’s a medium for loss, too. At the same time, we are drying out together, though not identically. What’s the force of the overpresence of the cock?
The first time I entered the room I felt a little defensive or grumpy, like, “Oh, I have to enter into this cock now and follow out its journey…” And then I thought, “Well, I am kind of defending myself from the encounter before I get in there.” Whenever I encounter my own resistance to learning the thing that I have gone out of my way to take in, I have to laugh and try again. I have to reboot the relation so that my encounter with it is not mainly a defense against it. Forlesen is a multiple complex architecture. On one side of the room is a sculpture of the bottom half of W. E. B. Du Bois—upside down, legs flailing in the air—and on the other side of the room is a picture of the artist’s son. We move through the cock from Du Bois to the son. Inside the cock there are literary and pornographic archives, and the room is saturated with the noise of a little girl’s speech about the artist and Martin Luther King mixed with droning sounds of sexual arousal sourced from the porn loops playing there. At some level, moving through all that felt like moving from the political to the private.
That immediate defensive response was less negative than exhausted. The wish, of course, is that reading with, like being with, is a natural process that unfolds. Over time, the bad defenses will peel away. Over time, you will lose your terrible attachments to likeness and alterity. Over time, the right things will end up on the floor while the rest is taken in. There is a reason we call that wish fantasy.
Oh yes, the ellipsis! I’ve been working on ellipses as infrastructures of relation. When I saw the black balloons in Forlesen, I had to laugh, because they appear as a kind of exploded ellipsis, and Ellipsis turned out to be their title. Pope.L was playing with the flesh’s thingly temporality. At the opening, all of the black balloons were inflated, and by the end the helium had gone out of them and they were all on the ground—shriveled, sexual, uncanny and more, but not identical. That’s part of the show’s orchestration of negativity too. The balloons look like afterthoughts, the way they are scattered, because they don’t take up the same kind of concentrated monumental space as the big wooden cock. And yet…
The thing about an ellipsis is that it has a set of contradictory meanings.
An ellipsis is a sentence that I don’t end because…I don’t know how to.
An ellipsis is a sentence I don’t end because…you know what I mean.
An ellipsis is a figure of return that isn’t symmetrical.
Ellipses might be a figure of loss or plenitude: Sometimes it is more efficient to go dot dot dot. Sometimes it’s also a way of signaling an elision. Sometimes the referent is beyond words.
1. The observations that follow derive from the essay that will be included in the volume Hinge, ed. William Pope.L and Karen Reimer (Chicago: The Renaissance Society and University of Chicago Press, 2014).