Where yel­low means go, and go now

LACMA’s stand­out show on the ’60s Dwan Gallery has a sunny won­der.


A nice sur­prise punc­tu­ates “Los An­ge­les to New York: Dwan Gallery, 19591971,” the ab­sorb­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art neatly chron­i­cling an in­flu­en­tial West­wood art gallery that mi­grated east in the late 1960s.

Dwan is too of­ten over­looked in his­to­ries of post­war L.A. cul­ture, over­shad­owed by the flashier Ferus Gallery that held forth on La Cienega Boule­vard. This cap­ti­vat­ing show is a wel­come cor­rec­tive.

The sur­prise is Robert Grosvenor’s scream­ing yel­low sculp­ture from 1966, made when the artist was 29. Shown first at Dawn, then the fol­low­ing year in LACMA’s im­por­tant sur­vey of “Amer­i­can Sculp­ture of the Six­ties,” the painted ply­wood con­struc­tion hasn’t been seen in 50 years.

De­mol­ished af­ter the mu­seum show, the un­ti­tled work has been re­made. Do not miss it.

“Un­ti­tled (yel­low)” doesn’t do what Mod­ern sculp­ture was sup­posed to do — get up off the floor, defy the mor­tal pull of grav­ity and rise hero­ically through space. In­stead, it slices di­ag­o­nally through the gallery at an oblique an­gle, like an im­prob­a­ble cross be­tween a sun­beam and the straight­ened blade of a gi­gan­tic scim­i­tar.

Did I men­tion that it’s scream­ing yel­low?

Did I also men­tion that it does not rise from the floor? The big sculp­ture — it’s 24 feet long — is in­stead an­chored to the ceil­ing. From there, it can­tilevers out and down. Con­structed some­thing like an air­plane wing, the faceted planes de­scend to fi­nally hover a foot or so above the ground plane.

The thing is mas­sive, but it feels as light as a feather. Move around it, and those faceted planes shift from wide to nar­row, thick to thin. Three-di­men­sional mass dis­solves into two-di­men­sional planes, which skirt the con­cep­tual am­bi­gu­ity of a line as a point mov­ing through space. Af­ter all, just how wide must a line get be­fore it be­comes a plane?

It’s great to see the sculp­ture at LACMA, where Tony Smith’s mon­u­men­tal cel­lu­lar con­struc­tion, “Smoke,” oc­cu­pies the Ah­man­son Build­ing’s atrium. (A fine

small show of re­lated Smith sculp­tures, mod­els, draw­ings and doc­u­men­tary ma­te­ri­als on the evo­lu­tion of “Smoke” is also on view in the Ah­man­son un­til July 2.) Smith’s 1967 work trans­forms the con­ven­tional sta­bil­ity of sculp­tural mass into en­vi­ron­men­tal per­cep­tual ephemer­al­ity. Grosvenor’s ar­chi­tec­tonic con­struc­tion from the prior year takes an­other step down a sculp­tural road the artists shared.

And did I men­tion that it’s scream­ing yel­low? In the Dwan ex­hi­bi­tion, the color stands out amid an abun­dance of paint­ings, draw­ings, sculp­tures and mixed­me­dia works in which neu­tral hues are dom­i­nant. Color wasn’t of­ten a prom­i­nent con­cern in Min­i­mal, Con­cep­tual and Land art, which Dwan vig­or­ously pro­moted.

The show was or­ga­nized by James Meyer, a cu­ra­tor at Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s Na­tional Gallery of Art, where Vir­ginia Dwan made a be­quest of about 100 works from her own col­lec­tion four years ago. LACMA cu­ra­tor Stephanie Bar­ron nicely beefed up the se­lec­tion with more than two dozen ad­di­tional works, in­clud­ing sev­eral from the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion.

She added la­bels that in­di­cate the date and Dwan ex­hi­bi­tion in which the work was orig­i­nally seen. Paint­ings and sculp­tures are loosely grouped by pu­ta­tive move­ment — Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism, Pop, As­sem­blage, French New Re­al­ism, Min­i­mal­ism and Con­cep­tual art.

Per­haps most im­por­tant, Land artists Wal­ter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Charles Ross and es­pe­cially Robert Smith­son are given con­sid­er­able room. Dwan, an heiress to Min­nesota’s 3M Co., com­mis­sioned paramount ex­am­ples of the Land art genre, in­clud­ing Smith­son’s ex­tra­or­di­nary “Spi­ral Jetty” in Great Salt Lake, Utah.

The fact sug­gests the de­gree to which she was less a con­ven­tional art dealer, on the prowl to make a sale, than she was a high-level pa­tron. Dwan Gallery was a place for her to ex­plore her evolv­ing artis­tic in­ter­ests.

“As much as I don’t like to think of it as a money is­sue, I have to ac­knowl­edge the fact that I had a pri­vate in­come my­self which made it pos­si­ble for me to take a more ideal­is­tic stand or de­vote my­self more to the artist than per­haps a lot of other deal­ers would do,” she later told an in­ter­viewer from the Smith­so­nian’s Ar­chives of Amer­i­can Art. “I knew I was go­ing to be able to keep the doors open.”

If some­one wanted to buy some­thing, fine. Not many did. The gallery strug­gled, opened a branch in New York in 1965, closed in West­wood in 1967 and fi­nally ended its Manhattan run in 1971. Through 134 ex­hi­bi­tions, and thanks to the new phe­nom­e­non of jet travel, Dwan be­came the coun­try’s first truly bi­coastal gallery. The show’s ti­tle, “Los An­ge­les to New York,” point­edly re­verses the usual as­sump­tion of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can art’s di­rec­tional flow.

An in­tro­duc­tory wall text does oddly say that Dwan was an im­por­tant sup­porter of Los An­ge­les artists, al­though the show fea­tures mostly New York and Euro­pean painters and sculp­tors. The big ex­cep­tion is Ed­ward Kien­holz.

His sear­ing abor­tion tableau, “The Il­le­gal Op­er­a­tion,” in which an ooz­ing bag of wet ce­ment slumps in a filthy shop­ping cart be­neath a di­sheveled lamp’s bare bulb, plus his con­tro­ver­sial sculp­ture of drunken de­bauch­ery, “Back Seat Dodge ’38,” were first shown in West­wood. (As­sum­ing that the sculp­tures had their de­buts at Ferus, the gallery Kien­holz co-founded but left, is a com­mon er­ror to which I have suc­cumbed.) Dwan’s New York out­post also opened with Kien­holz — his mas­sive walk-in as­sem­blage of the West Hol­ly­wood diner and artists’ hang-out Bar­ney’s Bean­ery, a piece in which the dealer makes an ap­pear­ance.

What is im­por­tant to note, how­ever, is that Kien­holz’s in­ter­ac­tions with Dwan’s Euro­pean artists had a pro­found im­pact on the L.A. sculp­tor’s de­vel­op­ment. His ob­ject-ac­cu­mu­la­tions and al­ter­ations owe a good deal to the friend­ships he de­vel­oped with Jean Tinguely, Ar­man and Yves Klein. When­ever I see the weirdly blue-f locked car that is the scene of the ac­tion in “Back Seat Dodge ’38,” I think of In­ter­na­tional Klein Blue, the tex­tured hue that was the French artist’s trade­mark.

Speak­ing of France, did I men­tion that Grosvenor’s ceil­ing sculp­ture is scream­ing yel­low? In the over­whelm­ingly neu­tral con­text of the black, white, gray and in­dus­tri­ally plain works in the Dwan ex­hi­bi­tion, the artist’s years of study in Paris (and some in Italy) be­tween 1956 and 1959 may have had some­thing to do with his sharp use of color.

In New York, color was be­com­ing some­thing of an en­emy. The pow­er­ful art critic Cle­ment Green­berg was busy pro­mot­ing ab­stract splen­dor in the aptly named genre of Color Field paint­ing. Pop art was not only brash, it was com­mer­cial. Neu­tral hues, by con­trast, were one means of dis­sent, sug­gest­ing a cer­tain pu­rity and se­ri­ous­ness of pur­pose.

Art his­to­rian Stella Paul’s in­sight­ful new book “Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art” tells fas­ci­nat­ing tales of this fun­da­men­tal el­e­ment through­out Western his­tory. In her chap­ter on yel­low, she notes that its sim­ple yet res­o­lute light­ness on any tonal scale of dark-to-light em­phat­i­cally calls at­ten­tion to it­self.

Whether used by Giotto, Turner, Gau­guin or Al­bers, yel­low says: Look at me.

The bright epoxy enamel on Grosvenor’s “Un­ti­tled (yel­low)” lends the sense of sun­light stream­ing into the room through a sky­light. It re­calls the au­re­ole around a mys­te­ri­ous and un­seen holy relic — sculp­tural space, per­haps? — or a spot­light from over­head track­ing a celebrity or sur­veil­lance sub­ject far be­low. It’s a sec­u­lar stair­way to vis­ual heaven and the color of a scream­ing stand­out in the LACMA show.

Photographs by Mu­seum As­so­ciates / LACMA

ROBERT GROSVENOR’S “Un­ti­tled (yel­low),” 1966/2016, in­stal­la­tion view at LACMA. It was re-cre­ated.

MIN­I­MAL­IST sculp­tures and paint­ings by sev­eral artists are in the ex­hibit.

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