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ART & ARCHITECTURE

Galleries fostered the L.A. art scene

Ferus is best known, but there were several others. Does the Getty's Pacific Standard Time underestimate their role?

January 01, 2012|Scott Timberg

But there were other sophisticated, risk-taking dealers in town. One was Nicholas Wilder, an eccentric Easterner who drove a Bentley and discovered David Hockney and Bruce Nauman. Molly Barnes showed witty conceptualist John Baldessari; David Stuart represented Dennis Hopper.

Two of the period's other key galleries were -- despite the machismo of much of the art scene -- run by women.

Ferus' chief rival was Virginia Dwan, heiress to a founder of the Minnesota-based conglomerate 3M, who had opened her gallery in 1959 on Westwood's Broxton Avenue. "We pretended that this was an art center," she says now from New York, "with a lot of collectors. But that wasn't really true."

Dwan had an interest in the new pop-inflected work, but she also wanted to expose Californians to the best art coming from New York (Rauschenberg's combines) and France (the nouveaux realistes, among them Yves Klein).

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 05, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Art galleries: In the Jan. 1 Arts & Books section, the caption for a photograph with an article about influential Los Angeles art gallery owners during the years covered by the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions misidentified a woman at Henry Miller's opening at Gallery 669 as Riko Mizuno. She was Junko Kawai.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 06, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Art galleries: An article in the Jan. 1 Arts & Books section about the role of gallery owners in Los Angeles' postwar art scene misspelled the last name of Ace Gallery owner Doug Chrismas as Christmas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 08, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Art galleries: A caption that ran Jan. 1 under a photograph with an article about influential Los Angeles art gallery owners during the years covered by the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions misidentified a woman at Henry Miller's opening at Gallery 669 as Riko Mizuno. She was Junko Kawai. Also, Ace Gallery owner Doug Chrismas' last name was misspelled as Christmas.

In contrast to Blum, whose bespoke style disguised that he was mostly broke, Dwan was well funded. It gave her gallery creative freedom, she says. "I was looking for things that resonated for me. I was quite young at the time, and I was open to the impact of certain artists of the time, such as Klein and [Ad] Reinhardt."

Dwan could not resist the pull of New York: In 1965 she opened a second gallery there, and by 1969 she closed her Westwood space, which reopened as Doug Christmas' influential Ace Gallery.

In New York, she became an important dealer of minimalism and Earthworks. "I think I felt that way since I was a teenager -- that New York was where you went to make it."

With the collapse of Ferus at the end of 1966 and the departure of Dwan for New York, the L.A. scene went though what some have described as a creative slump, reinforced by the recession, gas crisis and art's move away from the object.

Getty Research Institute curator John Tain calls Riko Mizuno, an immigrant from Tokyo, "the dealer with the strongest impact" in the post-Ferus period. Tain contributes a short essay on the gallerist to the PST catalog in which he points out, "there were virtually no dealers of Asian descent working in contemporary art."

Mizuno, who speaks English only hesitantly, spent a recent afternoon in her trim West Hollywood bungalow, recalling her move to California in the late '50s and enrollment at the Chouinard Art Institute. There she intensified her love of art but realized, "I didn't have a talent for it."

Her Gallery 669 -- the name comes from its address on North La Cienega -- made an early splash showing the paintings of maverick writer Henry Miller, in 1967. After a brief stint co-owning the gallery with collector Eugenia Butler ("her personality was so aggressive -- she owned me," Mizuno recalls), she opened her own space.

That gallery showed work by some of the Ferus stable -- Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Ken Price -- as well as Chris Burden, Frank Gehry, Doug Wheeler and the ethereal, meticulous drawings of Vija Celmins.

Mizuno struggled financially, though.

"I'm not especially interested in canvas or paint," Mizuno says. "I like materials I've never seen before -- yet kind of beautiful."

Her most memorable opening was with Burden. "He got arrested: He was lying down, with oil and canvas on top of him -- on the street. He went to court: People from the county museum came and said it was art. The jury got confused."

Despite the head of steam generated by the galleries, the game in L.A. remained pretty small: Blum -- who also left for New York in the early '70s -- says you could count the serious collectors here on one hand. Plagens says that as with New York's ferment in the '40s and '50s, based around the Cedar Tavern and the galleries below 14th Street, the L.A. scene was only a few hundred people.

But out of that subculture -- and its dissatisfaction with the county art museum -- came the drive that led, in the '80s, to the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the emergence of L.A. as an international art capital.

MOCA opened into a very different city than LACMA had. To Mizuno, it made "a big difference, I think. Artists couldn't sell before," but now they could. "And they were grateful."

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calendar@latimes.com

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