Dagny Corcoran, Bookseller and Fixture of the L.A. Art Scene, Dies at 77
Dagny Corcoran, a revered California art-book seller whose shop and jam-packed dinner parties became way stations for a generation of artists, bibliophiles and Hollywood literati, died on Nov. 9 in Los Angeles. She was 77.
Gregory Evans, a longtime friend, said the cause was multiple myeloma.
Ms. Corcoran’s Art Catalogues 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-story space on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood and became a mainstay in its field, relied upon by collectors and scholars around the world.
Ms. Corcoran was an apostle of the idea that the well-made art book transcended utility, existing as something akin to art — “as a sculpture, as a limited edition, as a print,” she once said. Books made by artists themselves, as part of their work, occupied an even more exalted position.
“It’s a kind of translation of something that happens to an artist, that is brought to me, to the reader,” she said. “The artist brings me the work of art and it comes here, to my heart.”
From the beginning, her shop, which operated in several locations over the years and remains in business in Culver City, encouraged loungers. “On Santa Monica, there was a big table,” said Mr. Evans, the curator and business manager for the artist David Hockney, who painted Ms. Corcoran’s portrait in 2014. “She started having 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 “sort of a den mother” to the Los Angeles art world. Over time, she became a one-name presence, simply Dagny, a thread connecting artists and writers like Ed Ruscha, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, John Baldessari, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, Walter De Maria, Richard Jackson and later, through an association with the journal Cahiers d’Art in Paris, a new generation of artists like Arthur Jafa.
Though raised in affluence — she was a member of the Janss real estate family, which developed large swaths of Southern California — she lived relatively modestly and operated her store with an eye as much toward the bargain hunter as the big wheel.
“I would invariably tell her that her mid-’80s ‘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 ploy I’d ever encountered, and we would both recount some of the treasures we each harvested from it.” the Los Angeles bookseller Lee Kaplan wrote in a blog post.
Dagny Cluff Janss was born on May 4, 1945, in Los Angeles. She grew up on a ranch in Thousand Oaks and attended high school in central Los Angeles. Her father, Edwin Janss Jr., a developer and adventurous art collector, was known for supporting politically progressive causes and for holding storied dinner parties that he called his Salon des Refusés, frequented by eccentric artists and others who had fallen from, or had never been included on, the more conventional social calendars. Ms. Corcoran said that her father and her mother, Virginia Caswell, divorced over art, or at least over one example of it that represented the final straw: a Robert Rauschenberg sculpture, featuring a stuffed chicken, that her father brought home.
“My mother essentially said, ‘It’s the Rauschenberg or me,’” she recalled. “My father chose the Rauschenberg.”
Ms. Corcoran graduated from Stanford University with a history degree and from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a master’s degree. After a brief first marriage ended in divorce, she married the Los Angeles art dealer James Corcoran. That marriage, too, 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 the 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 Ms. Corcoran in the mid-1970s that the industrialist Norton Simon, who was taking control of the Pasadena museum to display his own collection, planned to discard the museum’s entire contemporary art library.
She drove over immediately and scooped up everything. “I must have put 750 books I got for $1 each in the trunk of this old BMW,” Ms. Corcoran told The Wall Street Journal last year.
Her inventory grew to thousands of books, many of which she seemed to know about in detail. For several years, during what she called her “Barbara Stanwyck period,” she decamped from Los Angeles and sold books mostly 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, and then at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, before taking a position with the Marian Goodman Gallery that led her to split her time between Los Angeles and Paris.
For many years, she also worked on an extensive research project focusing on the work of Mr. De Maria, the American sculptor and land artist who died in 2013; the monograph that includes 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, Ms. Corcoran’s one-bedroom condominium in Century City became her own salon, the site of numerous home-cooked dinners and other get-togethers that drew a large cross section of the art world, from Los Angeles and beyond.
“Guests would tightly wrap around the big dinner table in the center of the room, pack into a small sitting area nearby, stand cheek by jowl in the entryway and bedroom, spill out onto small terraces over the driveway or swimming pool far below and, if need be, balance on the edge of a bathtub,” wrote Christopher Knight, the art critic for The Los Angeles Times. He added, “David Hockney was allowed to smoke — surreptitiously.”
Mr. Ruscha, who knew Ms. Corcoran for decades, said by email, “A superb chef, like her dad, she sparkled at any and all gatherings and was an encyclopedia of the art world and all its many books..”
Ms. Corcoran hated nostalgia and remained restless until the end to reinvent herself. But when she reconstituted her shop at the Los Angeles County Museum, she said she believed that a fundamental component of selling books — at least if you were any good at it — was convening the people who read them, in real time and in person.
“I don’t want to go backwards to having lunches in the store like I did in the old days because I didn’t have any customers,” she said. “Yet, I would like to do some version of that today because I want to have a dialogue. Art is art, and it’s all connected.”