Dagny Corcoran, a respected California art book seller whose shop and crowded diners became way stations for a generation of artists, bibliophiles and Hollywood literature, died Nov. 9 in Los Angeles. She turned 77.
Gregory Evans, an old friend, said the cause was multiple myeloma.
Ms. Corcoran’s Art Catalogs specialized in what its no-nonsense name promised: books produced for and about museum and gallery exhibitions. It opened in 1977 in an airy second-floor space on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood and became a mainstay in its field, trusted by collectors and scholars around the world.
Ms. Corcoran championed the idea that the well-made art book transcends utility, existing as something akin to art – “as a sculpture, as a limited edition, as a print,” she once said. Books that artists made themselves, as part of their work, took an even higher position.
“It’s sort of a translation of something that happens to an artist, that’s brought to me, to the reader,” she said. “The artist brings me the artwork and it comes here, to my heart.”
From the beginning, her store, which has operated in several locations over the years and still operates in Culver City, encouraged lounge chairs.
“There was a big table in Santa Monica,” says Mr. Evans, the former curator and business manager of the artist David Hockney, who painted Ms. Corcoran’s portrait in 2014. “She started doing impromptu lunches there. And it immediately became a real drop-by place in the art community. There was always someone there.”
The collector and television producer Douglas S. Cramer once described Ms. Corcoran as “a kind of cave mother” to the Los Angeles art world. Over time, she became a one-name presence, simply Dagny, a common thread that connects artists and writers such as Ed Ruscha, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, John Baldessari, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, Walter De Maria, Richard Jackson and later through a association together. with the magazine Cahiers d’Art in Paris, a new generation of artists such as Arthur Jafa.
Though she grew up affluent—she was a member of the Janss real estate family, which developed much of Southern California—she lived relatively modestly and operated her store with an eye for both the bargain hunter and the big wheel.
As Los Angeles bookseller Lee Kaplan wrote in a blog post, “I used to tell her that in the mid-1980s she had a ‘leave two, take one’ bookcase—where customers were encouraged to bring two books of their own to leave in exchange for one book already on the shelves – was still the most ingenious bookseller’s trick I’d ever come across, and we’d both recount some of the treasures we’d all reaped from it.
Dagny Cluff Janss was born in Los Angeles on May 4, 1945. She grew up on a farm in Thousand Oaks and attended high school in downtown Los Angeles. Her father, Edwin Janss Jr., a developer and adventurous art collector, was known for supporting politically progressive causes and hosting dinner parties he called his Salon des Refusés, attended by eccentric artists and others who had fallen out of more conventional social agendas. or that were never included on them to begin with. Ms Corcoran said her father and her mother, Virginia Caswell, divorced because of art, or at least because of one example of it that was the last straw: a sculpture by Robert Rauschenberg, featuring a stuffed chicken, that her father brought home.
“My mom basically said, ‘It’s the Rauschenberg or me,'” she recalls. “My father chose the Rauschenberg.”
Ms. Corcoran graduated from Stanford University with a degree in history and from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a master’s degree. After a brief first marriage ended in divorce, she married Los Angeles art dealer James Corcoran. That marriage also ended in divorce. She is survived by their son, Timothy Corcoran, and two brothers, Peter and Lawrence Janss.
An early job as an assistant to pioneering curator Walter Hopps set Ms. Corcoran on the path to selling books. Mr. Hopps, who was director of the Pasadena Art Museum and organized the landmark Marcel Duchamp retrospective there in 1963, told Mrs. Corcoran in the mid-1970s that industrialist Norton Simon, who took control of the Pasadena museum to build his own collection , planned to throw out the museum’s entire contemporary art library.
She immediately drove over and picked everything up. “I must have put 750 books that I got for $1 each in the trunk of this old BMW,” she told The Wall Street Journal last year.
Her inventory grew to thousands of books, many of which she seemed to know in detail. For several years, during what she called her “Barbara Stanwyck period,” Mrs. Corcoran fled Los Angeles, selling books primarily by mail from a cattle ranch in Northern California. But then she returned to the city and reincarnated her shop, first at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, then at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, before taking a job at the Marian Goodman Gallery, which led her to divide her time. between Los Angeles and Paris.
She also worked for years on a major research project on the work of Mr. De Maria, the American sculptor and landscape artist who passed away in 2013; the monograph with her chronology, “Walter De Maria: The Object, the Action, the Aesthetic Feeling,” was published this fall by Gagosian Gallery and Rizzoli.
In her later years in Los Angeles, Mrs. Corcoran’s one-bedroom apartment in Century City became her own salon, the site of countless home-cooked dinners and other gatherings that drew a large cross-section of the Los Angeles art world. and further.
“Guests wrapped tightly around the large dining table in the center of the room, packed their things into a small sitting area nearby, stood cheek to cheek in the hall and bedroom, exited onto small terraces above the driveway or pool far below and, if necessary, balance on the edge of a bathtub,” wrote Christopher Knight, the art critic for The Los Angeles Times, adding, “David Hockney was allowed to smoke in secret.”
Mr Ruscha, who had known Ms Corcoran for decades, said by email: “She was an excellent chef, like her father, she shone at all gatherings and was an encyclopedia of the art world and all its many books. …”
Mrs. Corcoran hated nostalgia and remained restless until the very end to reinvent herself. But recreating her store at the Los Angeles County Museum, she said she believed a fundamental part of selling books — that is, if you were good at it — convening the people who read them, in real time and in person.
“I don’t want to go back to having lunch in the store like I used to because I didn’t have customers,” she said. “Still, I would like to do a version of that today, because I want to have a dialogue. Art is art, and it’s all connected.”
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