In 1984 I opened the doors to Arcana: Books on the Arts in a tiny courtyard apartment at 2345 Westwood Boulevard, just down the street from my previous place of employ and retail education, Rhino Records. There were three people whose guidance led to this leap of faith. First, my grandfather Charles Baron, who instilled in the youthful me a lifelong respect for the bound printed page and the desire to assemble a library as impressive as I found his to be. Second was the late, great Howard Karno, the extraordinary dealer in Latin Americana whose encouragement and kind offer to sublet that apartment’s back bedroom for his own storage in case I had trouble making rent convinced me to sign a lease. His prophetic words were something to the effect of “don’t worry, take the space, and you’ll never have to take me up on it. Once you open your doors, there will never, ever be enough room for all your books.” Prescient words, those.
Lastly, and most directly, there was Dagny Janss Corcoran, the proprietor of the wonderfully quirky and impossibly well-stocked ArtCatalogues (I believe it was a single word back then) whose generosity and encouragement over the previous couple of years led to my decision to hang out my own shingle. The neat and uncluttered establishment on Santa Monica Boulevard just off Crescent Heights, above her then-husband Jim Corcoran’s gallery, was completely unlike the mostly entropic used book stores I had begun frequenting in an attempt to replicate with books what I had learned to do with records at Rhino. I loved the light and airiness of the space, and the way that Dagny imprinted her unique sense of order on it. Her intelligence, knowledge of Contemporary Art, and dizzying social connections informed everything there. Visiting ArtCatalogues was always like setting foot in a salon. You never knew which artist, collector, or gallerist would be perusing those shelves at the same time as you. It gave me a glimpse of what one could do differently as a bookseller; and so I figured if I can almost make a living running around town finding enough books and catalogues to sell to her wholesale, maybe I can successfully open a retail establishment like this of my own. Without that connection and inspiration, I don’t know that I ever would have gone down this path. Now that Dagny, the third and final mentor-of-sorts in my bookselling journey has passed away this week, Los Angeles feels like a much greyer place.
Dagny was keenly intelligent, oh-so-well educated, always impeccably mannered and dressed, yet had a wicked sense of humor and the bawdiest laugh. She knew simply everyone in the artworld - and had amazing stories about virtually all of them. As a testament to Dagny’s standing, she is the only bookseller I know to have been independently incorporated into not one, but two of Los Angeles’ major Museums – MoCA and LACMA! Legend has it that she started ArtCatalogues with the remaining inventory of publications from the Pasadena Art Museum when Dagny’s own mentor Walter Hopps convinced her to buy them at a bargain price before new owner Norton Simon had the stuff thrown out. I still treasure the pristine Marcel Duchamp-designed catalogue and poster set from his 1963 Pasadena retrospective that she offered me on one of my earliest visits for the then-princely sum of $100.00. That savvy score was followed by her acquisition of Pontus Hulten’s mouth-watering library that he left behind when he decamped for the Pompidou after his short-lived MoCA directorship.
She handled too many rarities to recount including those from the likes of her close friends Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, David Hockney, Nick Wilder, et al. In the process Dagny assembled impressive libraries for her many private and institutional clients, and acted without fanfare as a mentor and supporter to a generation of artists, gallerists, collectors, and scholars. Over the last decade she became an enthusiastic archivist for artists Walter De Maria and Richard Jackson. I was particularly pleased when Dagny – eleven years my senior – enthusiastically embraced new opportunities in Paris that reinvigorated her even though she claimed she didn’t speak much French beyond “j’aimerais de la vodka avec de la glace.”
Doris Saatchi profiled her and her stylishly-appointed - what else - London flat in the October 1987 issue of The World of Interiors for goodness sake! The piece included classic Dagny quips and a description of her exacting style. She was, as the author describes her, “fully cool.”
While we saw increasingly less and less of one another over forty-plus years - we were, after all, forever busy competitors of sorts as well as colleagues - every time we did get together for more than a moment it seemed like no time had passed at all. She would usually graciously remind me that the framed collage I gave her (back in the days when I would unabashedly go dumpster-diving for raw materials in the bin she shared with Dan Weinberg on Almont) was still on her wall at home. Considering what else was hanging on those walls, that was an honor! Dagny imported catalogues from seemingly every museum and gallery in the world, and always had THE best cardboard waiting outside to be carted away! What the Commerzbank was to Kurt Schwitters, ArtCatalogues was to me in my short-lived artistic “career.” I would invariably tell her that her mid-eighties “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 - at the Almont space 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. We’d compare recent acquisitions, transgressions by mutual clients, and lament as to how the hell did we both wind up with so many books over the years.
She occasionally had on display at her shop what was for nearly four decades my personal holy grail – the poster for the Pasadena Art Museum’s legendary 1962 exhibition, “New Painting of Common Objects.“ It was the very first institutional show of Pop Art for which Ed Ruscha designed a striking, and extraordinarily rare typographic poster. Of course Dagny would own one… I pined over it for years, but we both knew it was never coming my way. Only recently was I able to finally acquire a similarly lovely example of that poster that was offered as a trade - but only in exchange if I could come up with a specific, equally extraordinarily rare artist’s book. Oddly enough, a copy of that book just happened to be prominently featured in Dagny’s booth at the opening of the last Printed Matter LA Artbook Fair. Coincidence? I think not.
When our esteemed colleague Steven Leiber left the building ten years ago, we mused that along with the venerable Larry McGilvery, the two of us were all-but the-last dinosaurs of our kind on the West Coast. I’ve since thought a lot about how we each possess(ed) so much specialized anecdotal knowledge about the objects we have handled in our careers, and how so much of that disappears when we do. I guess that’s just the nature of mortality and how life unfolds when we’re mostly too busy trying to sell books to write all that interesting stuff down. So thank you Dagny Janss Corcoran for giving me that shove along this path. I am fortunate to have been in your stellar orbit, soaked up a bit of that knowledge along the way, and value so much about your presence over time. I’m glad you are at peace, and along with really a lot of people am really gonna miss you.
Image: David Hockney, Dagny Corcoran (15th, 16th, 17th January 2014)