Constance Lewallen, a longtime curator at California’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive who repeatedly advocated for the importance of Conceptual art in the Bay Area art scene, has died.
“Connie was a treasured curator, colleague, and friend who will be dearly missed,” the museum wrote in an obituary posted to Instagram on Tuesday.
Beginning in the 1980s, Lewallen was known for her exacting shows that repositioned the history of Conceptual art of the 1960s and ’70s so that it was no longer so New York–centric. She has been credited with helping to introduce figures like Stephen Kaltenbach, Paul Kos, Suzanne Lacy, and Lynn Hershman Leeson, all of whom were at one point lesser known, to the canon.
Lewallen spent more than three decades on the staff on the BAMPFA, between 1980 and 2007, ultimately leaving as its senior curator of exhibitions. According to the museum, she curated more than 100 shows in that time. She remained on as a senior curator emerita following her retirement.
Among her most celebrated shows, co-organized with Karen Moss, is 2011’s “State of Mind New California Art circa 1970,” which appeared at BAMPFA and the Orange County Museum of Art. Staged as part of that year’s Getty Foundation–funded Pacific Standard Time initiative, it sought to shine a light on the under-studied history of Californian Conceptual art. It later traveled to the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York.
The artists included in the show, who ran the gamut from John Baldessari to Asco, made a point of creating work that resisted any form of aesthetic pleasure, often relying on photography, text, and other less traditional mediums to visualize the invisible. “As the show demonstrates, these West Coast impulses were way ahead of their time,” Glen Helfand wrote in his Artforum review.
Prior to organizing that show, Lewallen was already well-known to many in the Bay Area scene for her masterful solo survey shows. One of them, a 2001 show at BAMPFA about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha that counted as her first-ever retrospective, landed its subject in art history altogether. Another, a 2007 show of Bruce Nauman’s work during the 1960s, remains formative for scholars.
Other shows by Lewallen included surveys for Paul Kos, Jay DeFeo, and Joe Brainard. Prior to her passing, she was at work on a show about Fluxus that will be staged at BAMPFA in July.
Born in 1939, Constance Lewallen was a transplant from New York. She moved to L.A. in 1972 and never returned to the city from which she came. In New York, she worked at Bykert Gallery, a cutting-edge space associated with Minimalists and Post-Minimalists who went on to achieve fame, and her role there put her in contact with artists such as Michael Snow and Vito Acconci.
In a 2016 Artforum interview, she traced her interest in Californian Conceptual art back to 1980, the year she wrote a chronology for a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art show about that outgrowth of the movement focused specifically on the ’70s.
“It turned out to be such an extremely fertile period. It was also a moment of innocence; I think people respond to this work because it’s not about commercialism, it’s not about money, it’s not about fame,” she said. “It’s for artists to address their friends or each other, and there’s something so wonderful about that that’s really lost now.”
After leaving BAMPFA, Lewallen continued to focus on writing, serving as an editor-at-large at the Brooklyn Rail and penning a book on artist David Ireland’s house, which has been turned into a San Francisco art space that is now known as 500 Capp Street.
“Her in-depth knowledge of art history, her love for the community, generosity of spirit, loyalty of friendship, and above all her beautiful and radiant smile will never leave us indeed,” the Brooklyn Rail wrote on Instagram.