Tuesday, Margo Leavin Gallery announced it will close after forty-two years. The news comes as a surprise. L.A. galleries close, move or rebrand themselves all the time, but not Margo Leavin. Hers has been a quiet, constant presence at 812 Robertson Boulevard for so long it seemed it would continue forever.
“She started out as a less interesting dealer and progressively became the most interesting,” said the late, jack-of-all-art-trades Nicholas Wilder, speaking of Leavin in 1988, nine years after he closed his own L.A. gallery and eighteen years after Leavin opened hers. “That's very hard to do,” Wilder continued. “She works very hard and it's run as a business. It's not a thing that's there for some lifestyle change or for a tax write-off or something. She's a very good dealer.” One of the best in L.A., he added.
These are the sorts of things Leavin's peers and artists say of her: that she's dedicated, reliable, protective of her collectors and artists, and, sometimes, that she's slightly controlling but pleasant on a lunch date. Quotes from her, which tend to be to-the-point, rarely appear in gossip-heavy books or articles — the index of Hunter Drohojowska-Philp's Rebels in Paradise, about the early L.A. art scene out of which Leavin emerged, doesn't even cite her. Instead, they appear in books with titles like A History of Art Dealing in the United States.
Occasionally, if you look hard, you'll find a hint of the sensationalistic in Leavin's history. But just a hint, and never from Leavin herself. Collector Betty Asher once said that, for a while in the '70s, the two women didn't talk. John Baldessari remembers that Leavin had little faith in him in 1984, when he had his first show at the gallery. She'd been pushed to give the tall, blunt conceptualist a chance by other artists on her roster, like Claes Oldenburg and Lynda Benglis.
“She left town during the show and so on,” Baldessari recalled in a 1994 interview, and she told him she had no idea how to market him. But she learned how and he kept showing with her, even when his fame grew and he could have gone with a flashier dealer. “I had the feeling that she was committed to what she was doing,” he said. His last show at the gallery, of new, boldly colored riffs on art history, ended this month.
Leavin, who dealt art out of her home before officially opening her gallery, took on former employee Wendy Brandow as her partner in 1989. “Margo and Wendy are both very dignified, nice people,” says Alexis Smith via telephone. Smith, whose work turns cultural clichés into pithy, poignant installations and collages, has shown at the gallery since 1978. “They were incredibly professional” from the start, she says, and she was amazed by how much of her work they were able to sell.
William Leavitt, who finally debuted a NASA-inspired play he wrote thirty years ago at Leavin's Hilldale annex last winter, began showing with the gallery in 1994. Sincere prankster Jeffrey Vallance, who famously gave a proper funeral to a frozen-food-aisle hen, has shown there on and off since 1984. Then there are a number of non-Angeleno minimalists and conceptualists, all artists who favor concision over cacophony (though at times, their concision can confuse). Leavin has worked with Joseph Kosuth, Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd.
Margo Leavin's relationships with younger artists haven't necessarily flourished in the last decade. Mungo Thomson, who graduated from UCLA in 2000, had three solo shows there before 2007, then left the gallery. Brenna Youngblood, who received her UCLA MFA in 2006, had one solo show there in 2008 but now shows at Honor Fraser in Culver City.
Still, even if many recent exhibitions included historical artists and even if the programming felt safe, buoyed up by the “established” reputation of the venue and its roster, the work never felt preoccupied with the past and the gallery relied on its professionalism, never its lore, when presenting each new show. Even if we all knew Margo Leavin Gallery was old, it never visibly aged.
The current show, the gallery's last, will be up through September. Leavin and Brandow say they will be focusing on new projects — they're not sure yet what sort — though the space will stay open by appointment through 2013. Called “Arctic Summer,” this farewell show includes a neon text piece by Joseph Kosuth that reads, in a typewriter-like font, “The letter was posted in fact just as it was.” What Kosuth meant by that, I don't know exactly, but what's always been so appealing about Margo Leavin Gallery is that it hasn't posed as anything other than just what it is: a business with a thoughtful inventory and an commendable track record.