2016-09-29 20:56:07
Art Review: A Bold New Landing for Modern Art at the National Gallery

WASHINGTON — Supposedly, we live in a great age of collecting, though the greatness is strictly in volume. Art fairs and auction houses keep product coming: painting, sculpture, some photography, stuff you can stick a price tag on. It seems impossible that there were times when unknown artists could make untaggable art and survive.

But there have been such times, and an American collector, who was also a patron, a dealer and something of an artist herself, played a big part in one of them. Her name was Virginia Dwan. In the 1960s, she had galleries in New York and Los Angeles. She picked up on trends before they turned into movements; bankrolled crazy, and now classic, projects; and bought what she couldn’t sell, which was a lot of art.

With those purchases, she accumulated a fantastic collection of objects and ideas, and in 2013, she gave 250 choice items as a promised gift to the National Gallery of Art here. In her honor, the museum has put together a big, sparkling show that traces the arc of her career, and that coincides with a celebratory event of its own: the reopening of its East Building and the reinstallation of its modern art holdings, to which the Dwan gift adds a major chapter.

Born in Minneapolis, Ms. Dwan, now 84, inherited a family fortune at 21. By then she was in Los Angeles, where she studied art and came to find the company of artists congenial. One useful way to stay involved with them was to run a gallery. So in 1959 she opened one and then, even though sales were sluggish to nil, moved to a bigger space a few years later.

The organizer of the National Gallery show, the art historian James Meyer, attributes the adventurous spirit of the art world at that time in part to the increased mobility of American culture, thanks to interstate highways and less expensive air travel. And from the start, Ms. Dwan’s gallery distinguished itself by bringing East Coast artists West.

Her initial focus was on painting. She caught the tail end of the Abstract Expressionism craze, and more or less kissed it goodbye, with Philip Guston and Franz Kline solos. She took an intense interest in Ad Reinhardt, who was then in his late “black painting” phase and a tough sell. (The only Dwan piece in this Washington show that is not part of the promised gift is the 1954 Reinhardt, luminous with midnight light, in the first gallery.) And she sustained that interest even as she moved ahead of the curve, into Pop Art.

When Larry Rivers arrived from New York, she put him up in the guesthouse at her Malibu home. (His 1963 charcoal portrait of her, in which she wears a crash helmet of a bouffant, is signed “to my great dealer and her sun and surf.”) Claes Oldenburg took his place and settled in for an eight-month stay. Robert Rauschenberg sent her some of his street-junk “combines.” That critics and collectors shunned them did not faze Ms. Dwan at all: The making, not the selling, of art was what mattered.

Nor did she neglect local talent. The Los Angeles-based Edward Kienholz had been a founder of the hipster Ferus Gallery, but soured on it when he felt it had gone commercial and joined hers, doing odd jobs around the premises and cooking up his early masterwork, “Back Seat Dodge ’38.” This insanely detailed, decayed-looking installation of a copulating couple sprawled across the seat of a real, though truncated, car provoked an art world scandal and a vice squad raid. Kienholz’s contrary, California-funk sensibility, was what probably encouraged Ms. Dwan to give him the inaugural slot when she opened a Manhattan gallery in 1965. Why, if you have a choice, make an easy landing?

In general, though, her own tastes ran to a different kind of art: abstract, stripped-down, discreetly monumental, maybe transcendental. It was with work along these lines that she became identified in New York as a supporter of a new movement, or impulse, called Minimalism. A gallery about midpoint in the Washington show is devoted to it and gives a sense of the impression it must once have made. After painterly emoting and Pop blare, we come upon art from a mute, industrialized universe: sculptures as plain as doorstops (Robert Morris), or light fixtures (Dan Flavin), or bathroom tiling (Car Andre), or tool-kit trellises (Sol LeWitt).

From such is-it-art oddities it was only a short step to the next new interesting thing, Conceptualism, which, at its most reductive, consisted of weighty ideas typed out on thin sheets of paper. And then it is onward to where the most ambitious of those ideas led: out of the gallery, and into the realms of philosophy, science and history as embodied in nature.

That’s the direction Ms. Dwan took in the company of Robert Smithson when she put up the cash for his 1970 earthwork “Spiral Jetty” at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and the direction she took again four years later with Michael Heizer, when she helped pay for the groundbreaking phase of his gargantuan “City.” The sculpture in the Nevada desert that is roughly the size of Washington’s National Mall is now finally near completion. Once untaggable, it is now on land designated a national monument.

I react to these projects a little the way I do to the pyramids in Egypt and other outsize memorials to the personal and corporate ego: with indifferent awe. Ms. Dwan’s embrace of earthworks, though, is unreservedly passionate. She has made them the subject of some beautiful films, which in turn make her an artist among artists. And one film, shot while she and Smithson were traveling in Mexico in 1969, yields the show’s single most beautiful and unearthly image: of clouds of tropical butterflies gathering and scattering like leaves in a wind.

Ms. Dwan never fully returned to the mainstream art world after her earthworks experiences. She closed her New York gallery in 1971 — the West Coast one was by then long gone — and withdrew from the scene. It was Mr. Meyer, former associate curator of modern art at the National Gallery, and current deputy director and chief curator at Dia Art Foundation, who seems to have persuaded her of the value of an exhibition that would give visible shape to her half-hidden history.

The National Gallery is shaping history, too, in its reinstalled modern collection, though along far less unconventional paths than ones Ms. Dwan traveled. Orchestrated by Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern art at the museum, the arrangement is chronological, with some twists. Early American modernism is now part of the larger story, partly thanks to recent acquisitions from the defunct Corcoran Gallery, which up the count — a little bit; nowhere near enough — of work by women and nonwhite artists in the collection. Mr. Cooper has also made astute cross-generational connections throughout, and put Washington painters — Gene Davis, Sam Gilliam, Morris Louis — in a spotlight.

The real news, though, is the addition of three new, high-up display spaces added to, or carved out of, the 1978 I. M. Pei museum building. Two are skylit tower galleries, one has a glorious double display of 10 Mark Rothko paintings, and Barnett Newman’s complete “Stations of the Cross,” the other given over to a long-term Alexander Calder survey. With 45 jewel-like pieces standing, floating and gently moving, the Calder gallery looks woozily joyous, like a Christmas tree in an aquarium.

Best of all, though, is an open-air roof terrace between the towers. It functions as a sculpture garden — Katharina Fritsch’s giant cobalt-blue rooster is the eye-catcher — but feels like a bridge suspended in space, with a view of government buildings on one side and the National Mall on the other. If you stand on the Mall side you can see the tops of trees and, in the far distance, a venerable piece of urban earth art, the Washington Monument. And if you look straight up, you see acres and acres of sky. I bet Ms. Dwan, who has crossed many bridges in her career and looked up a lot, will like it here.