by Renny Pritikin
Constance Lewallen, the highly regarded curator of contemporary art, died in her sleep at UCSF Medical Center early Sunday morning, April 24. The death was announced by her daughter, Nina Lewallen Hufford, who said the cause was a series of complications stemming from recently discovered lung cancer. She was 82.
Lewallen’s career established her as the most important Bay Area museum curator since Grace McCann Morley, who founded and led the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) in the 1930s. Like Morley, she always prioritized the support of local artists (e.g., Rigo23, Gay Outlaw, Howard Fried and Léonie Guyer, among many others). She was a role model to two generations of Bay Area women curators, including Valerie Wade, director of Crown Point Press; Heidi Rabben, senior curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum; and Juana Berrio, a Bay Area curator whose credits include stints at the Walker Art Center and the New Museum. Dena Beard, director of The Lab, who worked with Lewallen at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), wrote earlier this week about meeting Lewallen for the first time. “There was no way I could know it at the time, but I came here for you. You were the opposite of a bureaucrat, [with] a kind of sexy joy that was infectious.” On a memorial website, Lewallen was praised for her meticulous care and thorough inquiry as a curator and for her strong, caring affection for artists and others with whom she worked. She was recognized as the foremost expert on conceptual art in California during the 1960s and 1970s.
After college Lewallen spent more than a decade working in small commercial galleries in New York and then Los Angeles, where she also founded a not-for-profit institution while raising two children. There, she gained a remarkable insider’s knowledge of the art world and built a famously vast network of artists and art world figures. Her first position was working with Klaus Kertess at Bykert Gallery in New York, showing such artists as Michael Snow, Brice Marden, Chuck Close and Dorothea Rockburne. She moved to Los Angeles in 1972 and worked at Cirrus Editions with Ed Ruscha and Vija Celmins. She also met Larry Gagosian and worked at his first gallery. She subsequently partnered with Morgan Thomas to form ThomasLewallen Gallery which exhibited Douglas Huebler and Jonathan Borofsky. She also was co-founder and co-director at the Foundation for Art Research, noted for organizing artists’ talks. In 1979 she relocated to the Bay Area to marry her second husband, Thomas Meyer; she was hired to work on the catalog for the pivotal SFMOMA exhibition, Space Time Sound, curated by Suzanne Foley. She was soon offered the position of curator for the BAMPFA Matrix program, and the mature period of her curatorial practice began.
While involved with that program, which had a remarkably fluid, museum-within-a-museum approach, Lewallen responded quickly to art world opportunities, many involving young artists. Those she introduced to Bay Area audiences read like a prescient list of the most influential artists of the late 20th century. Ree Morton, Susan Rothenberg, William Wegman, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Brown, Ron Nagle, The Kipper Kids, Jess and Eva Hesse were among those she showcased. Lewallen left Matrix in
1987 to become associate director at Crown Point Press, well known for commissioning artists—especially non-printmakers like John Cage—to make pieces in its workshops in San Francisco and Kyoto, Japan. She spent six years at Crown Point bringing American and international artists to the organization, greatly enhancing its prestige.
In 1998 she returned to BAMPFA as senior curator and produced a remarkable string of shows that toured widely in the US and Europe over the next decade. These exhibitions argued for the importance of conceptual artists from Northern California and helped many achieve recognition well beyond the region. She organized Paul Kos’ Everything Matters(2003), which Michael Kimmelman reviewed in the New York Times, calling Kos as important as any New York conceptualist. The best of his work, Kimmelman wrote, “has a deadpan slapstick humor and a modest, elegant formal logic, which derive from the pleasure Mr. Kos evidently took in concocting his works and from the fact that, while he is a perfectly serious artist, his art exemplifies the early ethos of conceptual and video experimentation. It prizes accessibility and simplicity.”
In addition to the Kos exhibition, Lewallen organized a major posthumous show of the UC Berkeley alumna Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. That show, The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982), resuscitated the artist’s career after her untimely death. The following year saw one of her most important projects, Ant Farm 1968-78 (co-curated with Steve Seid), bringing that Bay Area collective wider recognition. In 2007, she achieved her greatest acclaim for A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s. In that exhibition, she argued that many of Nauman’s lifelong interests were built on ideas developed during his years as a grad student at UC Davis and a teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Lewallen retired from full-time work at BAMPFA in 2007, but remained there in an adjunct capacity until her death. Her momentum and productivity continued seemingly unabated during semi-retirement. In 2011 she curated a large survey exhibition of California conceptualism titled State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 (with Karen Moss). As an independent curator, she organized important exhibitions with such artists as Allen Ruppersberg, David Ireland, Terry Fox and Jay DeFeo, culminating with a Stephen Kaltenbach retrospective (co-curated with Ted Mann) at the Manetti Shrem Museum at UC Davis in 2020.
As in her curating, Lewallen was a disciplined, talented and painstaking writer, as her many catalog essays demonstrate. In the last several years, she also became a contributing editor at The Brooklyn Rail, wrote a history of the San Francisco Art Institute for Gagosian Quarterly, and produced two books: one on Nauman (with Dore Bowen) titled Bruce Nauman: Spatial Encounters, and another, 500 Capp Street: David Ireland’s House, both from UC Press. (Her published output also included a review of SFMOMA’s Nam June Paik retrospective for this publication.)
Constance (née Ehrlich) Lewallen was born in 1939 and named after her Portuguese grandmother. She was born at Doctor’s Hospital in New York, where her future husband, Bill Berkson, was born a month later. Her parents were Irving Ehrlich, founder of the Arden’s chain of clothing stores, and Mildred (Dutra) Ehrlich. She had a progressive education at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Manhattan; she then did undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke College. She earned an MFA in art history (with a thesis on Mark Rothko) from Cal State San Diego. She is survived by a son, Jonathan Lewallen, a public-school teacher in San Francisco; a daughter, Nina Lewallen Hufford, a writer and editor; and three grandchildren. Lewallen’s first two husbands, the painter Donald Lewallen, and the gallerist Thomas Meyer, survive her. Her third husband, the poet and art writer Bill Berkson, died in 2016. On a personal note, I’d add that over the span of a half century in the arts, only a handful of my colleagues became close friends, and Connie was one of them. I officiated at both her children’s weddings, my wife Judy Moran and I had Thanksgiving dinner annually with her and Bill, and the four of us saw dozens of movies together over the years. Those memories are a balm to our grief. Lewallen’s final exhibition, Fluxus Reverb: Events, Scores, Boxes & More, will open at BAMPFA on July 20. BAMPFA announced that it “will present this exhibition in Connie’s honor.”
# # #
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.