Virginia Dwan standing in the “Language III” installation (May 24-June 18, 1969). (Dwan Archives/National Gallery of Art)

The art galleries operated by Virginia Dwan from 1959 to 1971 were no ordinary white boxes selling decorative daubing to rich people. And the promise of some 250 works from Dwan’s personal collection to the National Gallery of Art is no ordinary gift. She played an instrumental role in the development of postwar American art, championing pop art, minimalism, ­language-based and conceptual work, and land art. She sponsored “The Lightning Field” by Walter De Maria and “Spiral Jetty” by Robert Smithson and paid for the land on which Michael Heizer carved his monumental earth work “Double Negative.”

Fortunately, the exhibition surveying this gift is not the usual celebratory overview of a rich person’s trophies, either. “Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959-1971” allows visitors to follow the intellectual path Dwan pursued during more than a decade of rapid change in American culture. In dialogue with the artists she championed, Dwan eventually talked herself out of the gallery business altogether, as the art she supported became in some cases less material, or so deeply rooted in specific places that it had little tangible connection to a physical gallery. Granted, Dwan ran her galleries (in New York and Los Angeles) at a loss throughout this period. She inherited independent means from the 3M fortune and was apparently more of a patron to her artists than an entrepreneur. But closing up in 1971 was not about abandoning a failing enterprise. Rather, Dwan was living the truth of the art she cared about, and that art was no longer something that could be contained in discrete architectural boxes.

The list of artists included in the collection is impressive: Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Arman, Niki de Saint Phalle, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Fred Sandback and Dan Flavin, among others. Even more enticing, many of these artists are represented in this exhibition not just by their most familiar or signature work but by material that gives a wider sense of their visual experimentation or that has an intimate connection to Dwan or especially to Los Angeles, where she started her first gallery. Klein’s monochrome blue paintings of the early 1960s are present, but there are also saturated panels in other colors, and one piece, “L’eau et le Feu,” in which he used fire and water to create a cloudlike abstraction that recalls Andy Warhol’s oxidation paintings (created using urine) from much later.

James Rosenquist. "Toaster," 1963 oil on vinyl, chromed barbed wire, metal saw blades, plastic, and wood, with dripped paint. (Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation/Copyright James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA)

Although James Rosenquist’s “Toaster,” from 1963, shares a similar palette with his slick, candy-color pop-art paintings, it is much more menacing in aspect, circled with barbed wire and with saw blades emerging from the slots where the toast should be. By contrast, the work of Saint Phalle includes a personal letter to Dwan, written on a paper rendering of a playful dinosaur, blurring the lines between art and missive.

The exhibition, assembled by James Meyer, who recently left the National Gallery to become chief curator of the Dia Art Foundation, is not limited simply to works in Dwan’s donation. Using art borrowed from other collections, and supplemented by a substantial essay in the catalogue, Meyer creates a lively sense of the ideas, and cultural forces, that drove art during this heady period. It was, he says, a period of great change in the basic mobility of America, with the emergence of the interstate highway system and affordable jet travel. That meant that the adventurous L.A. art world was connected to the more catholic milieu of New York and that artists from Paris could have a regular presence in the United States as well.

Niki de Saint Phalle. "Tyrannousaurus Rex etrangle par un cobra," c. 1963 colored markers, ballpoint pen, and graphite on paper. (Collection of Virginia Dwan/National Gallery of Art)

The car also joined Americans’ urban enclaves and its larger hinterlands, and it became emblematic of a culture that celebrated new forms of commerce and social license. One senses the car as a presence throughout this show, sometimes explicitly, as in a macabre installation by Edward Kienholz that uses part of a 1938 Dodge to re-create a disturbing sexual encounter, and more often as an invisible promise of escape, travel, exploration and reinvention.

Distance had not been eliminated, and shipping was still expensive, so some artists made work on-site, using material they found in Los Angeles or New York. There was also still some cachet, or cool, to be exploited in confrontations between the unique cultural flavors of both New York and Los Angeles, and Dwan’s galleries functioned as bicoastal entrepots for keeping these distinct worlds in communion.

The sense that the world was getting smaller, and that the Earth itself was now an object for philosophical contemplation, inspired some artists to think about a new sense place, and perspective, an “everywhere” to their art and lives that was not specifically rooted anywhere at all. In 1961, as a souvenir of Klein’s visit to Los Angeles, Kienholz created a “Traveling Art Show Kit,” essentially a luggage case full of paint and other artistic necessaries that Klein might use. Key to its deeper meaning is the luggage tag, which reads: “Name: Yves Klein; Address: The Universe.”

Two particular trends seem to emerge from this explosion of any concrete sense of place or rootedness. First, there was the infinity of space suggested by art that was derived primarily from ideas, concepts or formula that transcended physical limits. Second, there was a fetish, disturbing in its monomania and environmental impact, for art on a gargantuan scale, art that may be read from an airplane or a satellite.

Edward Kienholz. "Back Seat Dodge '38," 1964. (Courtesy L.A. Louver/Copyright Edward Kienholz and Museum Associates/LACMA)

The former impulse led to art generated by geometrical prescriptions, including works by LeWitt, and eventually to an art of pure ideation, including works that used language to suggest scenes, acts or ideas that needed no particular material realization. One of the most intriguing rooms in the exhibition features Kienholz’s “Back Seat Dodge ’38,” from 1964, in which two mannequins (one a wire-mesh male figure, the other a limp female) boozily have sex in the back of an old car, surrounded by empty beer bottles and cigarette butts. On the wall nearby are two language-art “concept tableaux,” one by Kienholz, another jointly by Kienholz and Tinguely, in which the art is merely the idea of a scene, suggested verbally, with no material realization. Hollywood, with its vigorous trade in film plots, scripts, treatments and adaptations, is behind some of this, but a conviction that art was not about objects but rather the ideas we take from or project onto objects was making things themselves seem unnecessary, even vulgar.

It’s too simplistic to think of this history as a series of revolutions and counterrevolutions, but there was a powerful dialectical energy driving many artists to extremes. If some minimalists seemed slavishly enthralled to the perfectly manufactured physical thing, language artists banished the thing altogether. And artists not only returned to the thing, and its materiality, but also came with such ambition and fervor that their work became perilously aligned with the same forces of industry and natural degradation that are now destroying the planet.

This last turn of the dialectical wheel is the most fraught. Works by Heizer, who gouged huge cuts into a mesa in Nevada, have a savage energy; Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is one of the man-made wonders of our time; Charles Ross’s ongoing project “Star Axis” articulates a singular artistic vision on the scale of an ancient monolith. As Meyer notes, the car makes these works possible. Without the car, viewers can’t go there, can’t see them, can’t connect them to the artistic culture from which they are terrifying outgrowths.

But viewing the world from a car leads to fundamental misapprehension. These artists seem to consider the desert an empty place, a blank canvas. But the desert is also fragile, and the sense that it is blank and empty is simply ignorance or anthropocentric arrogance. More than any landscape on the planet, the desert is aesthetically self-sufficient, independent of man, and it needs none of our improvement. The land artists working in the Southwest made beautiful things that could not be made anywhere else, but they should not be where they are at all.

So the show concludes on a note both awe-inspiring and bittersweet. Once again, man, tenaciously following an idea, is traduced by his own brilliance. It is the story of so many things that plague our planet, and alas, it is a sad part of this chapter, too.

Los Angeles to New York: The Dwan Gallery is on view at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 29. For more information, visit