Appreciation: Art bookseller Dagny Janss Corcoran dies at 77

Sometimes it seems like everyone in Los Angeles has a tattoo. However, it’s safe to say that nobody in town has a tattoo quite like the only mark Dagny Janss Corcoran has engraved in a slightly unusual spot, just below and outside her right knee.

The source of the small image is “The 2000 Sculpture” (1992), a huge minimalist floor arrangement of 2,000 sticks of white plaster that would stretch over a kilometer if all sticks were placed together. The tattoo, only a few centimeters long, is a sparse linear outline of a pole in the form of a polygon. The placement next to her knee was appropriate as the location for Walter De Maria (1935-2013), who created the sculpture, combines flexible carpentry with knee flexion. Corcoran has compiled a meticulous 65-page chronology for the exhibition catalog for Walter De Maria: Boxes for Meaningless Work, newly opened at Houston’s Menil Collection, a labor of love for her friend and favorite artist.

Just like Dagny, too: for a Wall Street Journal story about the expansion of Art Catalogues, her acclaimed bookshop, to Paris, she posed for photographer Derek Kinzel in a way that touted her passions as well as showcased her business.

Sitting in a plain plywood chair by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, on whose back a sculptural multiple has the admonition “Do Not Ever Work” printed in large black letters, she has her legs crossed, the skirt of her no-frills blue dress subtly pulled up, the tattoo casual exposed. In front of a bookshelf, her signature blonde bob is topped with two multivolumes catalog raisonné — scholarly compendia by two other favorite artists, Edward Ruscha and John Baldessari.

A picture tells many stories for those with the curiosity and wherewithal to read it, and few things brought her more joy than that. Corcoran, who died Wednesday in Los Angeles after an aggressive battle with a rapidly spreading multiple myeloma died, had done so since she was a teenager. She was survived by a son, Timothy Corcoran, and brothers Peter Janss and Larry Janss, and was 77 years old. Her death was confirmed by Gregory Evans, a longtime friend and her appointed health agent.

This number, unlike her business, wasn’t something she often willingly promoted. I’ve known her for more than 30 years, since her first store opened on the second floor of a massive gallery building on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, and it’s always remained a mystery. Below the store was a gallery owned by her second husband (now ex), James Corcoran, and another owned by a pal, the influential art dealer Nicholas Wilder, and a third would soon be opening next door, that of Betty Asher and Patricia Faure. I lived around the corner and there couldn’t be a nicer place to stop and watch how one never works.

Art Catalogs is her unique legacy, an exceptional compendium of gallery and museum monographs and other books on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of artists. (Their inventory grew to about 10,000 pieces.) Some were rare, others were signed by the artist or writer, and all were worth having. She considered art books to be cousins ​​of art objects.

Occasionally, Corcoran would partner with an artist to produce an actual multiple, as she did this year with Bruce Nauman, whose book subject, Journal, is a holographic digital artwork created for an iPad. Mail order is the biggest sales driver with customers from Australia to England, but university and public libraries also drop by. Corcoran has been an endless source of informed opinion if you were looking for something special. She has even compiled entire libraries for serious art collectors.

The business started by accident. Her father, Edwin Janss Jr., a third-generation California land developer (Thousand Oaks, plus portions of Aspen, Colorado, and Sun Valley, Idaho) and a proud member of Richard Nixon’s fabled “enemy list,” had begun collecting contemporary art. Walter Hopps, former director of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, offered advice. When the museum fell into financial difficulties in 1974 and Norton Simon took control of the house, Hopps encouraged Dagny to hurry and salvage books from the museum’s modern art library that Simon was willing to throw away. With suddenly a few hundred volumes in hand, opening an art bookshop soon seemed like a logical step.

Since 1977, the shop has operated in at least half a dozen locations, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as in an old barn of a building in Springvale, the town in the foothills of the Southern Sierra where she lived during moved to rancher John Grant after a third, long-established marriage. As well as an important website, there are current locations in Culver City and Paris – a combination she loves – the latter under the auspices of the venerable Marian Goodman Gallery.

The future of the business has not yet been decided. Since Dagny was Art Catalogues, it will probably relax. Her physical stores were as much art world haunts as stores, and she ran them as a sort of well-informed hostess.

She was great at that.

Depending on the occasion, Corcoran could gather 20, 60, sometimes as many as 100 people from the art world for dinner, talk, or a casual celebration, all in a 1,100-square-foot, one-bedroom, high-rise condominium in Century City. Guests crowded around the large dining table in the center of the room, crowded into a small sitting area nearby, stood side by side in the entryway and bedroom, spilled out onto small decks over the driveway or the pool far below, and , if need be, they balance on the edge of a bathtub and hold heaped plates of food on their laps.

David Hockney was allowed to smoke – secretly.

The convivial scene silently watched an Andy Warhol silkscreen portrait of Chairman Mao, made in the early 1970s after Nixon’s paradoxical sojourn in communist China (and perhaps a silent salute to her father), hung on a single wall associated with the same Banana leaf covered wallpaper that adorns the corridors of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Nobody disturbed the rush. The plentiful fare came from Corcoran’s impossibly small kitchen, most of it prepared on-site by the hostess in a day-long cooking marathon, and then laid out on the counter for a self-service buffet. A bartender helped.

Inevitably, there were people you had never met before but wanted to meet again. (“You can’t have a good dinner party with a few wet blankets,” she once told interviewer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp.) A Christmas party might gather irreligious friends, an in-store meet-the-arts event might end up twice as big as at her. After my own marriage to Fernando Sarthou, after a whirlwind 33-year engagement, she insisted on throwing a proper reception; Unable to find a suitable table setting for the new phenomenon of same-sex marriage, she settled for a collection of small Oscar statuettes as souvenirs.

Corcoran was a bibliophile who did not hoard books but enjoyed learning as much as possible about those interested in her field of modern art and making it available to others. She did the same with people. It’s an important mix that doesn’t come around often and will be sorely missed. Appreciation: Art bookseller Dagny Janss Corcoran dies at 77

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