“He's not known for his generosity,” Daniel Weinberg says of Jeff Koons, who in 1986, when Weinberg gave him his first West Coast solo show, was not the highest-grossing living artist he now is. Weinberg had been hoping to include a sculpture by Koons in his 40th-anniversary show — one of those encased Hoover vacuums Koons showed way back when, or something like it, would be great next to artist Dan Flavin's tower of fluorescent lights. Instead, Koons offered two prints of grinning balloon monkeys. “Expensive prints,” Weinberg says.
Weinberg's anniversary show, “40 Years at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery,” includes more than 50 of the artists he's worked with since opening in 1973 and takes place at the 6148 Wilshire space into which he moved in the early 2000s. He actually moved out of that space three years ago, deciding to lessen his responsibilities as he entered his later 70s, and another gallery, Ambach & Rice, quickly took over. So it's something of a surprise to see Weinberg's name and artists on the walls again.
Charlie Kitchings, who started Ambach & Rice with his wife, Amanda, in Seattle, moved to Los Angeles in 2010 and into the 6148 Wilshire building, which looks like a house and stands at the back of a parking lot down the street from LACMA, next door to four other galleries. “I began to find out who Dan was as people mentioned him,” he says.
After moving in, Kitchings turned what used to be Weinberg's large office into a smaller exhibition room, a change that sometimes triggered stories from visitors. “One of my favorites,” Kitchings recalls, came from a collector who said he had wanted to buy a painting by Christopher Wool, whose work teeters between pop and abstraction, from Weinberg. “I'll consider selling you a Christopher Wool,” the gallerist told him, “if you buy a work by Dan Flavin.”
The collector didn't, but the value of both artists has shot up so dramatically since that he kicks himself for not scrounging to find the capital.
After enough stories like this, Kitchings started looking into his predecessor, researching artists Weinberg had represented. “The list just kind of went on and on,” Kitchings says. Lee Bontecou, Robert Gober, Richard Artschwager, the Bechers — all artists who have since become canonical, at least in the context of contemporary art museums.
Kitchings began to feel intimidated — would Weinberg approve of his program? — but also intrigued. He and his director, artist-curator John Knuth, started talking about doing a show called “The Daniel Weinberg Show.” Maybe they could collaborate with Weinberg and organize something that juxtaposed his perspective of his legacy with theirs.
When Kitchings finally met Weinberg, a year ago, at an art fair in Chicago, he proposed the idea. Weinberg liked it. It could coincide with his anniversary, he said.
Initially, Kitchings tried to influence the show's direction, but he stopped after his objection to the inclusion of one particular painting seemed to have no effect on his predecessor. “I realized quickly that resistance is futile with Dan. This is Dan's show,” he says.
It's a full, bold show, with work from as early 1963 and as late as this year. “It was a kind of summing up,” Weinberg says. He aligns himself with gallerists like Nick Wilder and Virginia Dwan, who were showing European and New York artists alongside L.A. ones as early as the late 1960s. They also supported artists with out-there visions (Dwan helped Michael Heizer, the artist behind LACMA's Levitated Mass, to buy desert land so he could begin building his ongoing, secret city).
“I like to think that I was part of that litany,” Weinberg says, mentioning Riko Mizuno and Eugenia Butler, too — gallerists whom people in the know talk about with reverence but who are footnoted rather than featured in exhibition catalogs and recent history books.
The same is true of the Bykert Gallery, a small Manhattan operation run by two Yale classmates from 1966 to 1975. That's where Weinberg discovered many of the artists he would show on the West Coast. He was working as a designer for Levi's at the time. “I could have walked away with a pension and stock options,” he says now, but he wanted to expose artists like those Bykert showed to West Coast audiences. “I was lean and I was hungry and I went after everyone I thought was interesting.”
Northern Californians weren't that interested in what he found interesting, though, and he moved to L.A. in 1983. “Within a few months, I realized this is where I should have started,” he says.
In L.A., he began showing Koons, along with Artschwager, whose intentionally tacky, furniturelike sculptures were featured in a Hammer retrospective this past summer.
He also began keeping tabs on a dealer named Jean Bernier in Athens. Bernier would organize shows of smart, young artists, such as the playfully abject Carroll Dunham, sell none of the work, and then Weinberg would buy up the entire show based only on photographs.
In 1993, Weinberg tried San Francisco again, because he had remarried and the Bay Area seemed a better place for his three young children. Still no one bought. “You couldn't have sold a Han Dynasty pot,” he jokes.
So Weinberg returned to L.A., moving into the West Hollywood space Larry Gagosian had before he became an international brand, then to Santa Monica and eventually to Wilshire. By that point, he had added some younger, less well known painters, such as Andrew Masullo and Bart Exposito, so sometimes visitors to the gallery would encounter now-iconic artists who'd emerged in the 1970s alongside artists they didn't recognize.
Often shows were densely hung, like the anniversary exhibition up now. John Wesley's flat painting of a Kleenex box hangs behind a staggered, lacquered wood box sculpture by Scott Burton. Bryan Hunt's silver leaf–covered balsa wood Hindenburg looks as if it's flying into the wall adjacent to Flavin's neon. It's a sort of density you don't usually see now that the more measured Ambach & Rice has moved in.
But Kitchings identifies with Weinberg in certain ways. Neither set out to be L.A. gallerists, for one, and neither is that interested in competing with peers or predecessors. “I think I'm more concerned with being associated with certain artists than I am concerned with being affiliated with certain galleries,” Kitchings says. “Dan was savvy enough to identify artists' potential before they had careers, a defining quality in any pioneering dealer, but ultimately it is the artists that define a dealer's legacy.”
Here's what makes a gallerist good, Weinberg says: vision, stamina, breadth of knowledge and passion. The first three are important, the last one essential. It's like a chunk of him, this business, something he couldn't part with.
“An analyst might tell me what part of me is missing that I have to fill with this,” Weinberg says, but not in a way that suggests he cares to find out.
40 YEARS AT THE DANIEL WEINBERG GALLERY | 6148 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire | Through Jan. 11 | ambachandrice.com