The Curator of Artnet Auctions’ ‘Post-War Abstraction’ Sale on How He Keeps One Foot in History, and Another in Contemporary Art

The curator of "Post-War Abstraction" describes his journey as a collector of Post-war and contemporary art.

Dakota Sica with painting by Amy Lincoln courtesy of Sperone Westwater Gallery. Photo by Yael Eban.

Dakota Sica has feet in two worlds. 

As director at Leslie Feely Gallery, he is a champion of Color Field painting and Abstract Expressionism. Meanwhile, in his Brooklyn space, the Java Project, Sica works to boost the careers of young and emerging artists.

Working in both environments has allowed Sica to trace the arc of art history. He watches firsthand as younger artists learn from the breakthroughs of their predecessors. “I can see these beautiful overlaps where younger artists are looking back in history and building upon those foundations,” he said.

On the occasion of “Post-War Abstraction,” a carefully curated selection of vibrant abstract paintings on sale through Artnet, we sat down with Sica, the show’s guest curator, to learn about his career path, his collection, and what inspires him about abstract and Color Field painting.

Installation view, from left to right, of Kenneth Noland, Brice Marden, Friedel Dzubas (two paintings), Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Poons, and an additional Helen Frankenthaler. Photo by Yael Eban.

Tell us more about your background. When did you realize you wanted to have a career in the arts? 

I have been interested in art my whole life, and I actually started off as a maker. I studied sculpture at the Pratt institute, and completed a study abroad program at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam.

After I graduated, I worked with artists including David LaChapelle and Dustin Yellin before I began curating. I started organizing shows for friends and other artists. Eventually, I opened a gallery in Brooklyn called the Java Project. It started off as a non-commercial venue. Over time, I started selling works from the space, and several of the artists that we had exhibited experienced a lot of success. That’s when I realized I could sell art on a larger scale. And that’s when I took a role at Leslie Feely Gallery, where I am currently the director. 

Dakota Sica at home with paintings by Larry Poons and Robert Motherwell and sculptures by Michael Dickey and Lynn Chadwick. Photo by Yael Eban.

What inspired you to found the Java Project? What did you look for in your artists that you exhibited there?

In New York City, space is hard to come by. There are not a lot of spaces in New York that can take chances on young, emerging artists, giving them a platform for solo shows with no financial goal. The Java Project was born from my desire to give my friends and their friends a space to do whatever they wanted. 

This was made possible through the generosity of Ori Geva fellow Pratt grad, owner of Java Studios, and son of Israel’s prominent artist Tsibi Geva. Through this support, I was able to create a space for artists to bring their works together in one space.

Once these artists were able to do that, they could bring curators and gallerists into the exhibition to see their work as a whole, which ultimately led to inclusion in group shows, and for some being picked up by bigger galleries. I wanted to facilitate a launching pad for these artists to get recognized.

Moving on to your time at Leslie Feely Gallery. How long have you been in your role as director, and what initiatives are you most proud of from your tenure? 

I’ve been with Leslie Feely for eight years, and we have a really strong focus on Color Field painting. Leslie worked with a lot of Color Field painters like Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, and Friedel Dzubas during their lives. Basically, I’m continuing that tradition by educating collectors on their work today. It’s been my focus and passion to find incredible objects of quality in the genre of Color Field painting. 

It’s like two different worlds. I have the Java Project, in Brooklyn with young, emerging artists. Meanwhile, Leslie Feely is a gallery on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, featuring established names in Color Field painting.

Installation view of Frank Stella. Photo by Yael Eban.

The genre of Color Field painting is often overlooked by younger collectors. As both a collector and gallery director, what drew you to this time period?

In my early art history courses, we learned about all of these artists and periods. I remember being at Pratt reading Greenberg and studying color theory simultaneously. We take for granted these principles that seem simple to us now—for example Josef Albers’ homage to the square was a breakthrough in painting and changed the way we think about and experience color.

In a way, I always wanted to collect these principles of art history. I collect Post-war art with an emphasis on Color Field and Abstract Expressionist paintings, and in conjunction I wanted to collect artists of my generation. It’s rewarding to live with both seminal works by Post-war artists and works by the younger generation, who are carrying the torch.

Paintings on paper by Helen Frankenthaler and Josef Albers. Photo by Yael Eban.

What is the first piece you ever collected? How has your collection evolved since then?

The first piece I ever bought was a Josef Albers print at auction. I remember at the time this was a very big purchase for me, I was shaking on the phone bidding on this piece. There are some dealers who just sell art, and they don’t own art or keep anything for their collection. This was the moment I decided that I wanted to be more involved, and live with these objects.

Initially, I built a print collection of editions. Over the years, I sold my prints and started buying unique works on paper. Now, I’m in the process of selling the works on paper to buy canvases. Collecting editions is a great way to begin a collection of bigger names. To come full circle, I am now currently a board member of the International Fine Print Dealers Association, a wonderful organization of print dealers. 

Two paintings on canvas by Helen Frankenthaler. Photo by Yael Eban.

What is the best advice you have ever received about collecting?

This sounds a little far-fetched, but when you see a really great piece of art, I think you feel it in your gut. It’s almost like a punch or butterflies. And that’s often when I buy: if I have a really visceral reaction to a work of art. Learning to trust that instinct is crucial.

You also have to see as much art as possible. Going around to the galleries and shows to understand what resonates with you. One thing that I always think about when collecting, is you can never pay too much for a great work of art, and you can never pay too little for a bad work of art. Make sure that what you’re buying is in top quality, because that seems to always prevail. My good friend and fellow art dealer Susan Dishell told me that. I cherish her insight and friendship. 

Dakota Sica with painting by Max Wade courtesy of Sid Motion Gallery and David Zwirner’s Platform. Photo by Yael Eban.

What excites you most about curating “Post-War Abstraction” on Artnet Auctions? 

I’m really excited about this sale because it allows me to bring together a group of artworks that can live together. It’s a time capsule of a period—a survey of painting from the Color Field and Ab-Ex movement. These are works that I care about by artists that I collect. 

This is a very carefully crafted and curated sale, a distilled group of artworks. There are a few surprising new names that some more seasoned collectors might not know, and also affordable price points for newer collectors to get involved with works by notable artists.

Post-War Abstraction, curated by Dakota Sica, is live now on Artnet Auctions through February 10. 


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