As a pillar of Los Angeles’ art community and one of its primary beacons to the world since 1970, Margo Leavin’s exemplary career indelibly marks not only the ongoing LA museum and gallery scene, but also the city’s now-cemented stature as an internationally vital node for contemporary art. For over four decades, the Margo Leavin Gallery consistently mounted shows that demanded reverence from well beyond its West Hollywood home, becoming the LA stronghold for a range of artists that now read as canonical: Claes Oldenburg, Alexis Smith, Willem de Kooning, Sol LeWitt, Lynda Benglis, Martin Puryear, John Baldessari, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, Sherrie Levine, Hannah Wilke, Roni Horn, Rudolf Stingel, Dan Graham.... The list of famous names goes on and on, evincing Leavin’s commitment to the vanguard and her skill as a businesswoman. After cementing LA’s art world significance, asserting the imperative for nonmale gallerists, and sharing countless encounters with an era’s most vivifying artworks, Leavin closed her capacious, uniquely beautiful space in 2012. Her undisputed legacy now continues in her support for further generations of artists, as attested by the recently opened Margo Leavin Graduate Studios at UCLA.
Even before stepping out of the limelight, Leavin granted precious few interviews about her legendary history. Here, she talks to Shaun Caley Regen, whose own career as the co-founder and president of Regen Projects makes her an LA art institution in her own right. As Regen describes the impact Leavin has had on her own achievements, the two discuss the breadth of Leavin’s work, from the improvised early days to the evolution and realization of Los Angeles’ indispensable art identity.
Margo Leavin opened her gallery on N. Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood in 1970. In addition to fostering the lively local art community, she also became the primary LA exhibitor of many New York artists. From the beginning, her shows featured an eclectic roster of the period’s most significant artists. In this first section of a two-part interview, Leavin and Shaun Caley Regen discuss the origins of Leavin’s gallery, and how she established such a powerful institution in a male-dominated art world.
Shaun Caley Regen: I wanted to start with the early years just to get some background. You opened in 1970? Why did you open a gallery?
Margo Leavin: I had always wanted to open a gallery, but I didn’t feel I was ready, or that the time was right. I was working privately out of my home and slowly building a clientele when someone reported me to the County. I did have a business license and a resale number. Many people in West Hollywood worked from home, but the County gave me 30 days to stop doing business – so it was then or never! As fate would have it, that’s what started me off.
SCR: Is that when you moved to 812 N. Robertson?
ML: Yes, the gallery was in that location for the next 43 years! I was always fascinated by the building, a large barn-like structure. It was only a few blocks from my house and when I had to find a new place for my business, I became determined to meet the owner, Tony Duquette. Tony came over to interview me and gave me some of the history. The building was originally a film studio for actresses Norma Talmadge and her sister Constance, and, at some point, was a water bottling plant.
SCR: When you first moved into your building, it was just a portion of the building?
ML: Yes. Tony was still using parts of it as his office and studio. I had a series of rooms and a long corridor in the front part of the building, and as more space was required, I snaked around the back and upstairs, and finally acquired the building in 1987.
SCR: And Hilldale?
ML: I opened the adjacent Hilldale space as a gallery in 1984. It also had an old Hollywood association: the actress Merle Oberon funded the building of a new Post Office for the then unincorporated, rapidly expanding area which is now West Hollywood.
SCR: In the beginning, you showed mostly prints and drawings with some of the greatest artists making work at that time—Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, William T. Wiley. That is a pretty formidable list. Was that the beginning of your relationships with those artists?
ML: Yes, and it was a great privilege. I met Claes through Sid Felsen, as I had mentioned to him that I was putting away work by Oldenburg for a show at some future time. Claes invited me to New York to come to his studio so I could see all of his editioned works. That gave birth to an idea of a retrospective of all of his prints, multiples, objects, posters, books—wonderful things. I decided then to do a catalogue raisonné of his editioned work, as none existed. Lili Cristin designed the catalogue. She was at LACMA then and would come after hours, and we would work on the project until it was completed. The exhibition took place in 1971, and later traveled to John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco. John and I worked on two exhibitions together: Lichtenstein, and the Henri Matisse exhibition in homage to Frank Perls. He also took the Ellsworth Kelly “At Right Angles” exhibition I organized, as did Paula Cooper.
SCR: In 1974 you added women artists to your program: Hannah Wilke and Natalie Bieser. Did many galleries show women artists?
ML: I always showed women artists and continued to do so throughout the rest of my career. At that time, there weren’t very many galleries. My recollection is that Nick Wilder showed Agnes Martin early on, Irving Blum worked with Sonia Gechtoff and Jay DeFeo, and Esther Robles showed Claire Falkenstein. I’m sure there were others that I don’t recall at the moment.
SCR: And did you feel at any time that it was different being a female gallerist as opposed to your male colleagues?
ML: I didn’t have any time to think about it. I was working too hard. (Laughs). I felt it was important to work with galleries and artists in my own community, but for whatever reasons, that proved to be surprisingly difficult. When I did survey shows, Nick was always helpful and willing to consign work. However, I did feel shut out by some of the men who were running galleries at the time, that they didn’t think that what I was doing was credible. And so, I just went in my own direction and that’s it. (Laughs). This also caused me to start looking to New York. Doors were open there, galleries would cooperate, and artists were looking to show their work on the West Coast.
SCR: In ‘74 and ‘75 you showed Rauschenberg’s “Hoarfrost Series”; Oldenburg’s “The Alphabet in LA”; Warhol’s “Mao, My Mother, and Other Friends”; Hockney’s “Drawings and Selected Prints”; and Matisse’s “Selected Drawings in Homage to Frank Perls”. Was that a normal line-up for a gallery in LA at the time?
ML: No. To tell the truth, I didn’t know what the norm was, or I never paid attention if there was one. “The Alphabet in LA” show came about because Michael Crichton, a long-time friend and supporter of the gallery, and a collector of Oldenburg drawings, wanted to commission an outdoor sculpture by Oldenburg. It was Claes who proposed the “Alphabet/Good Humor,” as Michael was a writer and Claes frequently visualized the LA landscape in terms of letters. To show the entire history of the theme, we borrowed work from private collections throughout the country.
SCR: That was a beautiful show.
ML: Thank you, it was a great experience.
SCR: By 1975 you had a painting show with James Rosenquist, and throughout the 70s continued adding shows with Ann McCoy, Sam Francis, Lucas Samaras, Jud Fine, Lynda Benglis, Ed Moses, Claes Oldenburg, Edda Renouf, Jennifer Bartlett, Tom Wudl, Gary Stephan, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Robert Moskowitz, and Louise Nevelson.
ML: I should have closed then. (Laughs)
SCR: You said the NY galleries were open to doing things here. Did they appreciate that you were developing a West Coast market for their artists?
ML: I would assume so. Cooperation lasted until the late 80s, when the economy changed.
SCR: Did you fly the artists out to LA then and put them up?
ML: In the early years it was not expected, although it became so later. After I purchased the property, we created an apartment upstairs where artists, curators, collectors and friends could stay.
SCR: Was there a favorite magazine at the time? How did you get information? There was no Internet then. How did you know whose studio you wanted to see?
ML: Artforum, Art in America, ArtNews, Flash Art. It was important to listen to our own artists for recommendations of other artists and to look at what was going on at the art schools in Los Angeles. Sometimes recommendations came from a curator. Also, going to exhibitions and liking the work, and, certainly, travel to New York and Europe.
SCR: Say it’s 1980 and you’re looking back at the 70s. Did you realize at that time you had made a significant cultural contribution to the city?
ML: No. I never thought about that.
SCR: Did you ever have backers?
SCR: So, what was your secret?
ML: (Laughs). It sounds like something out of Mel Brooks, doesn’t it? What was my secret? I don’t know that I had one. I just worked very, very hard and was extremely responsible. I paid my artists immediately, paid my bills immediately, and didn’t believe in owing money. That way I could be free, and didn’t have the encumbrance or extra worry.
SCR: The legendary LA dealer, Nicolas Wilder, said about you in '88, “She started out as a less interesting dealer, and progressively became the most interesting. That's very hard to do... 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.”
ML: Nice. Nick was always so kind. I think this was from his interview with The Archives of American Art. Nick was very sweet and he was extraordinarily helpful and generous.
SCR: MOCA was founded in '79 and opened in '83. The Broad Foundation was established in '84, and the Lannan Foundation moved to LA in '86. Did you feel that the climate was changing in Los Angeles?
ML: Yes, absolutely. I did feel the situation was extremely hopeful when the plans for MOCA came about. The artists, the art community, and the city were behind it. The Broads and Lannans were already active in the cultural community before opening exhibition venues to show their Foundation collections. The foundations were less important because they had a rather monocular view.
SCR: The original director of MOCA was Pontus Hultén?
ML: Well, that’s what I heard. (Laughs). Yes. The original director was Pontus Hultén.
SCR: Were you close to him?
ML: Not particularly. He wasn’t here all that long, but he did help create a strong, international Board along with Eli Broad. MOCA was born out of a chance meeting of collector Marcia Weisman, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and attorney William Norris, where they discussed the importance of a modern or contemporary museum in the city. Soon a Mayor’s Advisory Committee was formed to investigate the foundation of a new museum, to raise funds and find a location. The CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) identified the Bunker Hill location and the availability of the 1-1/2% for Art, a tax on new development in the city. With a few delays, MOCA opened the Temporary Contemporary, a large warehouse renovated by Frank Gehry, in 1983, and the main campus by Arata Isozaki in 1987. Local collectors were especially strong supporters and many have been on the Board and have made substantial gifts since the beginning. Artists were involved from the initial planning stages, and, importantly— and unusually—have always held seats on the Board.
SCR: I didn’t move here until 1989, but through the 90s I don’t think there was a better museum program in the world. It was just one brilliant show after another.
ML: It was exceptional. MOCA put LA on the international cultural map.
SCR: You bought the Duquette property in 1987?
ML: When was the Oldenburg show? “Il Corso del Coltello”? In 1988 I did the show of “The Course of the Knife,” so I must have bought the property in 1987, and then in 1988 I had the Oldenburg exhibition in both galleries. On the inside east wall of the Hilldale gallery was a maquette for The Knife Slicing Through the Wall, and at that time, very spontaneously, I said to Claes, “It should be on the front of the building.” He agreed, and I ended up commissioning this piece for the outside. It was the perfect location because of views of the nearby Pacific Design Center designed by César Pelli—the green building has the corners sliced off. So, we installed it on the facade of the Hilldale Gallery, a former post office. It had the perfect, simple architecture for this. There were no tall buildings behind it, it was just the hills and the sky. It was really a great experience but took a year to complete, so the actual installation would have been 1989.
SCR: Can you give some background on Tony Duquette?
ML: He was a set and costume designer, a jewelry designer, an interior designer, a diva. (Laughs). Oh, he could be very charming. He did the massive stage curtain for the Music Center, sets and costumes for movies and the opera, as well as the homes of many of the old guard of Los Angeles.
SCR: When you bought his property, how did that happen?
ML: What happened was just the most naïve thing. It was the early 80s, and I asked Tony if he would sell the Robertson building. He said no, and shortly after put the entire property on the market at a highly unrealistic price. Some years later I heard that he was going to be renting out all of his spaces and was moving to San Francisco where he had bought an old synagogue. I approached Tony again about purchasing, and thus began the longest escrow in history. We were so busy during that time, as was he. Tony and I would get together about once a week. It wasn’t something rushed. Wendy was very helpful in the negotiations because she is an attorney.
SCR: Wendy Brandow, who was your business partner starting in what year?
ML: Wendy and I have a very long history together which began when she first moved to LA in 1976. She worked with me until 1980, when her husband Robert was transferred to Indonesia for three and a half years. We worked well together and had also become very good friends. When they returned to the US, it was to Chicago, and I put her in touch with a client of mine and recommended that he hire her to put his collection in order.
SCR: Was that William J. Hokin?
ML: Yes. Will had, for years, been a friend and strong supporter of the gallery, and Wendy documented and catalogued his collection. She returned to LA in 1985 and became my first and only business partner in 1990. Wendy made an amazing contribution to the gallery, and for that I am very grateful. And I am happy to say our friendship exists to this day.
SCR: So, with Wendy’s help, you were able to talk Tony Duquette into selling you half of a city block in the heart of West Hollywood?
ML: I had no idea of the full extent of the property, that it involved two other buildings, and that Tony did not own one building in the midst of the others which I had to purchase separately. I thought that I was purchasing 812 North Robertson and 817 Hilldale. I didn’t even know that there was a parking lot on Hilldale which was blocked off and used as outdoor storage by Tony.
SCR: How much space was it?
ML: Built space was 35,000 square feet.
SCR: It was spacious and beautiful. And with the Hilldale space, you could do a different kind of show.
ML: To begin, I thought it would be more like a warehouse for storage, or a private showroom. And then, of course, it was so beautiful the artists wanted to use it, and that was that.
SCR: The John Chamberlain show, the Donald Judd show, John Baldessari…
ML: John Baldessari for the first time was able to work vertically. The space was infinitely flexible. Artists had the opportunity to work on a different scale, and we were able to install large and complex exhibitions.
SCR: In 1980, I noticed you did a Charles Gaines show, who is so respected now. What was the reaction to that show?
ML: It was a great exhibition, very well received, and we were able to place works in important collections.
SCR: Throughout the 80s and mid-90s there were so many incredible shows in the Robertson Blvd space: Julian Schnabel, Ellsworth Kelly, Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, Andrew Lord, Mel Kendrick, Alan Saret, Burgoyne Diller, Sarah Charlesworth, Jackie Winsor, Roni Horn, Liubov Popova, Dan Graham, Christian Marclay, Haim Steinbach.
ML: I think I’ll go to sleep now. (Laughs).
SCR: Barbara Bloom, Sherrie Levine, Christopher Williams, David Smith, Liz Larner, Stephen Prina, Larry Johnson, Albert Oehlen, Rita McBride, Gary Simmons, and, in 1982, your first of many shows with Alexis Smith, and your first show with John Baldessari in 1984, who I know was very close to you until his passing last year. It’s such an interesting mix, and yet you’re always evolving.
ML: I worked with several generations of artists, and the historical and thematic shows I enjoyed organizing, alongside the one-person exhibitions, gave context. Often, the earlier generations would bring in people who then discovered and acquired the work of the younger artists. I didn’t realize it to begin with, but it was very important to us. It was a lesson well learned. Besides, I loved to do the sculpture shows, like “Cast, Carved & Constructed: An Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture,” “American Sculpture,” and “Sculpture of the Sixties.” I brought work in from everywhere. There was more cooperation if you were asking for one work by an artist, rather than asking for a whole show. And you may not want a whole show, you may want just an important example of one period.
SCR: I thought the Donald Judd/Peter Halley pairing looked terrific.
ML: Oh, that was so much fun. It was a natural pairing. During that show we had the opportunity to host a wonderful performance by John Cage and Nicolas Slonimsky. Initially, I had concerns about the acoustics at Hilldale because of the concrete floor, but it turned out brilliantly.
SCR: We presented some Hanne Darboven cello concerts in our former West Hollywood gallery near you. It was the best acoustics ever, it was extraordinary. Those Los Angeles bow-truss ceilings really make for amazing acoustics.
ML: It’s when you don’t plan it! (Laughs).
SCR: The Hilldale space accommodated all manner of work so beautifully, and you hosted epic shows by Donald Judd, Martin Puryear, John Chamberlain, Tony Smith, “American Abstract Painting: 1960-1980,” Dan Flavin, Jannis Kounellis/Giulio Paolini, Willem de Kooning, Lynda Benglis, Peter Halley/Donald Judd, “Sculpture of the Sixties,” John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Morris, Robert Grosvenor, Arte Povera artists, Maria Nordman, and important younger artists out of the Neo-Geo generation. I don’t think I saw better shows anywhere. Was there anything there that stands out for you? Like the Chamberlain show, how did you get those enormous sculptures here? You had Mario Merz. How did that come about?
ML: Good questions. The latter came about through travels. I had worked with the Christian Stein Gallery in Turin and Milan many times. Gianfranco Benedetti was running the Milan gallery and he was very cooperative, introducing us to the Arte Povera artists and making their works available. Regarding the Chamberlain sculptures, some of the large-scale works actually come apart. Everything could be slat-crated and shipped by truck from John’s studio.
SCR: I lived in Milan in the 80s, and Christian Stein Gallery was incredible, an inspiration. I lived in 5 cities in the 80s: New York, Paris, Rome, Milan, and Los Angeles.
ML: How fortunate for you!
SCR: I saw a lot of shows because I was writing about shows. And when I see your line up, I mean, you’re so modest, Margo. You’ve had this incredible gallery. When I think of New York and European galleries, and their programs next to yours, many of them pale. It is so exciting to go back and look at this material, and what you have created—I’m grateful for your 1995 book, Margo Leavin Gallery, 25 Years, to see so much of this documentation. I hope you are very proud of your incredible history.
ML: Of course I am!
SCR: I want to hear a little bit more about John Baldessari, Gianfranco Benedetti and all those people.
ML: To answer the second part first, I had actually tried, unsuccessfully, to get cooperation from galleries in NY on the Italian artists, and Madame Stein and Gianfranco were very amenable to working with us. I’d had this idea of showing three American sculptors and three Italian sculptors and they were pleased to start introducing the work on the West Coast. I just accepted that the work would have to come from Europe. We had to pay the artists in Deutsche Marks: we became foreign exchange traders!
John Baldessari. Oh, I do miss him! He used to call just to tell me a good joke or a funny story. John had an incredibly generous spirit. He was a great supporter of younger artists, especially his former students. His presence in the gallery meant a lot to us—he came to openings and saw nearly every show in the gallery. For years, he and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe would visit galleries on Saturdays, and when they arrived, they would share their opinions on what they had seen. I learned a lot from John.
SCR: John Baldessari was such a titan, and a pillar of our community. Wonderful that you were able to work so closely with him for so long. Can you tell me something about your epic John Chamberlain shows?
ML: I had a number of Chamberlain shows, starting in the 70s. Xavier Fourcade began working with John in the early 80s, and we collaborated on several exhibitions. Xavier was particularly agreeable to me taking the large sculptures, because his NY space could not accommodate them. Fourcade was always a formidable personality to me, but we ended up becoming very friendly and worked well together. At first, we would meet for lunch at the Carlyle, or Mortimer’s, but after several long, chatty lunches we decided if we wanted to get any work done, we would eat at his desk in the gallery. He was a wonderful colleague.
SCR: Fourcade also showed Willem de Kooning, who you also did some great shows with.
ML: I felt it was proper to first develop a relationship, and I initially asked for his cooperation on a de Kooning drawing show I was organizing. It took several trips to NY to select the show and it turned out beautifully.
SCR: What year was that?
ML: The drawing exhibition was in 1986, at Robertson, and the painting show was in 1987, at Hilldale. We also did Dorothea Rockburne through Fourcade.
SCR: What other galleries did you admire or feel a kinship with?
ML: I’ll have to think about that. We had long relationships with so many galleries. Some we worked with because of the artists, and others we respected because of their program. Besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, and in no particular order: Leo Castelli from the mid-70s on, Ileana Sonnabend, Andre Emmerich, Paula Cooper, David McKee, Marian Goodman, Joan Washburn, Ronald Feldman, John Weber, Alexander & Bonin, Pace; Bud Holland and Richard Gray in Chicago, and many others; print publishers Gemini G.E.L. and ULAE — and of course Regen Projects in LA. How about the fabulous LeWitt exhibition we did together in 2001!
SCR: That was a great collaboration: your beautiful gallery housing large, expansive, geometric wall drawings and gouaches, and our 900 square foot gallery on Almont showing a radical, irregular cinder-block wall that blocked the entire space. We opened just before 9/11. You were so generous to do that with me at the time.
Locally there were so many galleries here, it’s very hard to piece together an idea of Los Angeles because it is a city that never wrote its own history. I know PST tried to do that and that was fantastic, but there’s a lot of forgotten history.
ML: It’s always been very fluid. Galleries open/close/move constantly, creating a shifting landscape. Canon Drive, La Cienega Boulevard, West Hollywood, Colorado Boulevard in Santa Monica, Downtown when MOCA opened and again now, Wilshire Boulevard, Bergamot Station, Culver City, Hollywood….
Part 2 of this conversation will be released October 8, 2020.
Images courtesy Margo Leavin Archive, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.