Larry Gagosian: The fine art of the deal

Who is Larry Gagosian? Rob Sharp offers a portrait of the secretive gallery owner whose ruthless climb to the top has brought him wealth, friends – and enemies
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The Independent Online

Early in September, a crowd of editors and "friends", designer Thom Browne, film-maker Vincent Gallo and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren among them, gathered in New York at the art dealer Larry Gagosian's Chelsea gallery. The occasion was an A-list fashion show to mark the height of Manhattan's Fashion Week, and the clothing line on display was designed by Gagosian artist Damien Hirst who, having received permission from the Andy Warhol estate, mixed the pop artist's iconic images with his recent penchant for skulls and death's head images. The line, which is to be launched in the US in January, attracted a high turn-out of fashionistas and art-world apparatchiks, including many names from the Sixties "Factory" era in which Warhol made his name. It was the social event of Fashion Week. Yet Gagosian, the man whose influence made the event possible, was apparently nowhere to be seen.

Last Saturday night, halfway across Manhattan on Museum Mile, crowds queued around the block to gain access to a play at the Guggenheim Museum featuring performances by Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman; Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu and Lou Reed were in the audience. Although it wasn't at his gallery, Gagosian was credited in the programme, again raising eyebrows. The official line is that he financed it. One leading New York art critic said: "He's ubiquitous. These were not art shows, they were high-profile New York events, which people were willing to wait an hour and a half to get into."

Named this month by ArtReview magazine as the second most important global player in art, Gagosian, 62, was denied the top spot only by François Pinault, the multibillionaire collector behind the Gucci fashion empire. Cruising New York in his Audi station wagon, mobile phone constantly to his ear, with his steel-grey, power-cut hair, Armani suits and calfskin loafers, Gagosian is the epitome of the American hustler made good. Nicknamed "Go-Go" for his tenacity, he is two-thirds Michael Douglas in Wall Street and one-third Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success.

With his unorthodox techniques, including photocopying pages from magazines to offer works which may not yet actually be his to sell – and luring artists from other galleries by making them offers they can't refuse – he has a formidable reputation. For the past decade he has barely made a public utterance. Outside his art-world inner circle, he is an enigma. Who is this man?


What can be said for certain is that Gagosian knows how to live in style. His elegant townhouse on the Upper East Side, originally designed for fashion designer and society heiress Christophe de Menil, has its own one-lane pool. At Toad Hall, his sprawling $8m estate in East Hampton's plush Further Lanes, he hosts summer soirées and film screenings for his chums, including the film producer David Geffen and Mick Jagger.

And we know that in his all-consuming professional life he represents most of the biggest names in art, including Richard Serra, Walter De Maria, Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Howard Hodgkin and Rachel Whiteread. His clients include Charles Saatchi and the actor Steve Martin. He has at several points been responsible for the highest prices ever bid at auction. And his galleries are some of the most popular art spaces on the globe: penthouse headquarters at 980 Madison Avenue as well as two other galleries in New York, an impressive space on Camden Drive in Beverly Hills, and his critically adored galleries in King's Cross and Mayfair in London. He recently found time to hold a high-profile exhibition in Moscow. And tonight, he is to host a star-studded reception for the opening of Tracey Emin's new exhibition, You Left Me Breathing, in Beverly Hills. On 15 December, a spectacular new Gagosian Gallery will open in Rome.

Lawrence Gilbert Gagosian's birth certificate apparently reveals that he was born in the County of Los Angeles on 19 April 1945 (making him two years older than has been previously reported). His father is listed, apparently, as one Ara Gagosian, his mother's maiden name as Ann Louise Toakin. According to the New York-based author Phoebe Hoban, writing in her 1998 biography of the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, A Quick Killing in Art (which contains one of the best biographies of Gagosian's early life), his father was an accountant for the city of Los Angeles. His mother was an actress, and played smaller roles in several films, including one by Orson Welles.

After spending a short while at the literary agent the William Morris Agency (the same agency as Geffen and Michael Ovitz) he began his career selling posters near UCLA, from which he graduated in 1969. Within a year he had opened his own gallery and was selling work to the real-estate developer, now Los-Angeles-based billionaire, Eli Broad.

Broad – named by Vanity Fair as one of the most powerful figures in the international art world – said this week: "Larry is an incredible person, he has great energy, a good eye. In his private dealing I can't imagine knowing anyone through which you had a better chance of getting a work of art. I can think of no one who is more active or has more to offer as a dealer than he does."

The architect Robert Mangurian, who designed a home for Gagosian in LA, worked with the dealer over the project for two years. To him, it seemed clear that Gagosian had fingers in many pies. He said: "We were always impressed by his intelligence and keen eye for art; he seemed like he knew what he was looking at. We would get paid with paper bags filled with cold cash. He had deals on the side. He was in real estate and had properties he would sublet. His father was famous in LA: the bucks came from somewhere." Maurice Tuchman, former curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, added: "You knew the game was changing when he came along. He had the perfect balance between involvement and detachment. He was aloof and disciplined."

According to Hoban, in 1979 Gagosian moved to the East Coast, opening a gallery in SoHo that he ran with the renowned gallerist Annina Nosei. Talking from New York, Nosei described him thus: "Larry was friendly and brilliant in business... he has a passion and a really good eye." Here, one of his biggest achievements was bonding with the influential dealer Leo Castelli. Gagosian has said that his knowledge of the New York art world came from "a combination of floating crap game/little art dealership in the ground floor of Leo Castelli's building. I was sort of friendly with those guys and we'd sit around, and we'd play cards sometimes, and try to do little V C art deals, and [I'd] keep my ear open. I learnt a lot just being there, and Leo [Castelli] was in the building."

Hoban writes that around this time Gagosian formed a relationship with Basquiat, who died in 1988 from a drugs overdose. Their business partnership reached its zenith in April 1982, when Nosei and Gagosian staged an exhibition at Gagosian's Los Angeles gallery. Gagosian paid to fly several of Basquiat's entourage from New York, first class.

"I've never seen anything like it on a plane," Gagosian later joked. "It was like these four kind of rough-looking black kids hunched over a big pile of coke, and then they just switched over to these huge joints, and sat up there and smoked them. It was wild. They had their big, hooded ski-glasses on, and big overcoats. The stewardess freaked. I was terrified. I thought, 'Oh God, we're going to jail.'" In response to the stewardess's protestations, Basquiat replied: "I thought this was first class..."

The opening was huge, with the most famous LA collectors, dealers and celebrities in attendance. Again, it began to cement – along with his deals with Condé Nast owner SI (Si) Newhouse, Geffen and Saatchi – Gagosian's soaring reputation.

In 1985, he opened his own gallery in New York, in Chelsea, and rose to prominence on the Manhattan "scene", capitalising on his relationship with Castelli. Hoban claims he cemented his relationship with the veteran dealer in 1987, shortly after the older man's wife, Antoinette, passed away, by selling elements of Castelli's holdings – turning round a $1.5m deal in 24 hours – to pay taxes on her estate.

Gagosian is also understood to have made a gift to Castelli of a $7,500 Patek Philippe watch. The generosity was returned in kind: Castelli introduced Gagosian to Newhouse, one of his main clients. At auction at Sotheby's in 1988, Gagosian bought Jasper John's False Start for Newhouse for a record $17m: the collector sat beside the dealer, openly instructing him on the bidding process.


All his associates agree that Gagosian has a rapier-like business sense. One anonymous dealer claims Gagosian put pressure on him over the purchase of a painting and drawing by the minimalist artist Robert Mangold for a specific client. "I sold him the Mangolds because I wanted to get them into that collection," the dealer said. "But I told him I needed to borrow the painting back later for a major show. A couple of weeks later, it turned up on the market. He hadn't sold it to the collector at all. Now I wouldn't sell him anything in the way of new work." In a 1991 interview with The New York Times, Gagosian said he had no recollection of the episode.

And, as Eli Broad said this week: "I recall a [Otto] Rothenburgh painting we were interested in that a dealer really didn't want to sell, but Larry convinced him to sell it to us. Larry can be very convincing, very persistent. The last thing we bought was a large painting by Cy Twombly that was shown in Avignon, France. A year doesn't go by where we don't buy a number of things from Larry. Right now, he doesn't have to be too persistent in this kind of market. But Larry can be charming when he needs to be charming."

It is often claimed that Gagosian keeps his business growing by borrowing against his inventory. He has been accused of, on occasion, combining this with a process of stalling payment to those from whom he buys, in effect giving him interest-free loans. More controversially, according to public documents at the United States Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York, Gagosian handed over a $9m settlement over unpaid taxes in 2004. The move came after federal prosecutors sued Gagosian and three of his associates the previous year, accusing them of not paying $26m in income liability.

Others say his intelligence sometimes stretches his ability to relate to people. The Sonic Youth guitarist Kim Gordon, who worked for Gagosian when he was selling posters in LA (framing mass-produced lithographs for him), said: "When I first met him I thought no one was going to take him seriously, he's such an asshole. He used to yell at us. It was a painful, awful experience working for him. He was very mean."

Another former employee, John Seed, who worked for Gagosian in the early 1980s, writes on his website: "It shouldn't surprise anyone that Larry could be quite rude. That in itself was not shocking, but what stunned me was that his rudeness was tolerated and even embraced by some bored clients. Once, an LA socialite came in and asked the price of an Ed Ruscha painting. We called Larry in New York and he answered the phone in a nasty mood and proceeded to let loose with a string of foul language and insults aimed at the woman. She could hear the conversation and didn't even flinch; in fact she smiled."

Another of the dealer's artists, Michael Craig-Martin, said: "When I see him I think he has an alert and eager look, but it's always also blank. He's one of those people that you project on to. As a result, he's able to deal with an incredible range of people."

"He's like the art dealer-cum-rainman," another dealer told Hoban. "He's a gifted dealer, his ability to digest and retain information is extraordinary. Yet he can't even make a cup of coffee for himself. He is totally dependent on other people. He has to have a full staff in the Hamptons, a full staff at his house in New York and a big staff at the gallery. Everyone is there so he won't be lonely."

Some critics believe that Gagosian's pursuit of the deal has occasionally eclipsed his passion for the art. One, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "He has one of the coldest handshakes I have ever experienced. He is famous for selling to anyone, but I don't think he is a deep art-lover."

He is intensely secretive, closely guarding the blurred relationship between his public and private lives. "There is no Larry outside of his work," another of his ex-girlfriends, the former model Veronica Webb, told New York magazine. "He considers his business sacred. One morning, a helicopter landed on the lawn and he told me he had to go look at a painting. When I asked him which collector and which painting, he wouldn't tell me."


As 2007 dawned, Gagosian had galleries on Madison Avenue, 24th Street and 21st Street in New York, in Beverly Hills, and in Britannia Street and Davies Street in London. When he opened his Britannia Street space in 2004 – a garage conversion designed by the architect Caruso St John – in King's Cross, the international art community was on hand to heap on the praise. Charles Saatchi said at the time that it was "magnificent and beautiful".

Last month, Gagosian opened an exhibition in the plush Moscow suburb of Rublyovka, home to President Vladimir Putin and the cream of the city's oligarchs. Here, a mall sits selling Lamborghinis, Harley-Davidsons and fur coats from Gucci and Prada. The dealer hopes to sell works by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Mark Rothko and Picasso to the city's wealthy.

Now, all eyes are on Rome. As ever, Gagosian is being secretive. What is known is that, outside the gallery on the Via Francesco Crispi, columns of travertine lead into black stone steps, opening out into a giant oval room of white walls. The gallery is 700 square metres, over half of which is exhibition space. There is no café, restaurant or bookshop. "The difference in this gallery is its Roman-ness. It could only be here," Firouz Galdo, the space's architect, told the Italian magazine Panorama. "It is a space purely dedicated to art."

It is a closely guarded secret who will be the first artist to exhibit at the gallery this December, although Twombly lives and works in the Italian capital. One local critic said: "He [Gagosian] doesn't need a scene to start a gallery. He makes the scene. You don't think collectors go to Rome on holiday? There's no auctions in Rome, but that doesn't matter. If there can be a sale there, he will be the person who will make one." Some believe the move into Rome is purely a business opportunity. Others believe the opening is simply the result of an off-the-cuff remark by Twombly, who said he wanted a show in Rome. And so the Gagosian saga goes on.

Earlier in his career, Gagosian was reportedly negotiating with the dealer Jan Eric Lowenadler, who was on the King of Sweden's yacht at the time. After a number of phone calls, Lowenadler told Gagosian that he couldn't talk. His excuse? He was with the King of Sweden. Gagosian's employees allegedly heard their boss scream: "Fuck the King of Sweden!"

Perhaps this is the perfect image of Gagosian, the ruthless chaser of the American dream. Perhaps Michael Craig-Martin, whose own exhibition opens next month at the Britannia Street gallery, sums him up as well as anyone can: "He's the master of American self-invention. In England, you're stuck with who you are born as. In the US, you can become someone else."