ARTS / Time, Gentlemen: Kasmin is a small man with a big name as a dealer in contemporary art. Now, after 30 years, he is saying goodbye to Cork Street. Simon Garfield was just asking him about it when an old friend dropped by

KASMIN, a London art dealer, is doing the London art dealer thing. He's selling up. He's hawking his gallery and much of his collection, his Hockneys, Hodgkins and Hoylands; flogging them like veg on a barrow. It's greed that wrecked the art trade, he says, greed and recession and pomposity. So now here he comes, bare-chested and shoeless on this balmy Wednesday afternoon in July, padding around his tiny white-walled Cork Street gallery, marking down prices with a blue Bic: a John Hoyland on the far wall, big and brutish, going for pounds 9,500 yesterday, now scribbled down to pounds 5,000. 'Of course I'm making a loss,' he says.

Kasmin (or Kas or Kasle - only his bank manager calls him John) is a much-loved fellow. In two hours his artists and colleagues will arrive for the last opening of the last show, to heap praise on an original, a guy who spotted the good stuff. Crazy anecdotes: did you hear the one about that guy who bought five Bacons for six grand? That was Kasmin.

Maybe Hockney will drop by. Kasmin has been looking after Hockney since he hung his first show in 1963. 'I just had a woman in here saying she remembers a show from 30 years ago when I was showing Hockney's The Snake. She said: 'I was a young girl, and now I've come to say goodbye.' God, I should never have had a last show. Too many people get sentimental. I can't bear any more of it. I really should have done it several years ago. As the prices went up I found it an increasingly meaningless and silly activity. But partly you carry on by impetus, and you get spoilt when the money keeps coming in and it's easy to make. What really made me face up to whether I wanted to carry on was when the business just stopped. You've got to be very convinced of what you're doing in the face of no possibility of making money, only of losing. This is a long recession to sit out. I think it will go on for quite a while. I'm not sure we're talking about recession at all. In the art world I think it's a big City bubble that burst.

'It takes a long time to get a new art world going when people work out what they should be paying. You need to have some touchstone. I used to have Stephen Buckley and we believed that his big work ought to be pegged to the price of a Mini.'

When exactly did the business and greed take over? 'We always think of it as a slightly Saatchi time. All these people in the Eighties buying things to leave in warehouses. The auctioneers and some collectors and dealers got a great adrenalin rush from all of this, but I never really did. I began to feel less and less part of it because the money thing just wasn't my game. I don't like to be short of money, but I could never get into it. I always liked dealing with people who used it. You know, that old-fashioned thing: people putting art on the walls and looking at it.'

Kasmin was born John Kaye in Whitechapel, east London, in 1934. He grew up in Oxford, and at 17 fled to New Zealand to write poetry and escape his father. He became a sort of Kiwi beat, and made himself undesirable by trying to rob a bank.

On his return to London in the mid-Fifties he met Victor Musgrave, a bohemian contemporary-art dealer, and fell in with the Soho set centred on the French pub. By he time he established his own stark, white-walled gallery in New Bond Street in 1961, Kasmin was an unmistakable fixture, as much of an attraction as his artists. He was a small man with a rich Home Counties voice that had an opinion on everything. Pop was the rage, but Kasmin believed it was junk. 'Never interested me at all. I was trying to show all that other great American abstract stuff - Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella - that was going on in the teeth of pop. If I was seen talking to some of those pop people my guys would threaten to leave the gallery. I felt that I was on the higher ground with serious work, and that pop was rubbish for the masses.' A lot of the pop artists went to Leslie Waddington, a fellow dealer who now dominates Cork Street with his Peter Blakes and Richard Hamiltons and Allen Joneses. Waddington has been invited to Kasmin's last opening, but he is too tired to attend. 'So I've dropped by now. I've put you in my memoirs, Kas,' he says. 'How you started up with Victor (Musgrave). How you used to split women. He got the older ones, you got the younger ones.'

'Oh God yes,' Kasmin says. 'If they were over 28 they were his. Except if they wore leather or seamed stockings and were under 28, then he had first choice. There was nothing else to do but screw in those days. Certainly so little business. If you sold one picture a week you were doing well.'

THIS month Kasmin sold more than 100 of his pictures and prints at Sotheby's, 80 of them Hockneys. 'I cut the prices so they would all sell and it was jam-packed. I think some people at the sale thought they were getting the shirt off my back, but I've still got quite a few left. What will happen to David (when I leave) I don't know, but he's not exactly a guy who needs a lot of promotion. I haven't had a show of his for nearly four years.'

For his farewell show Kasmin has picked out an incongruous mix: some tribal artefacts, some English textiles, a paper sculpture by his son Aaron, a Hockney, called The Fish and Chip Shop, a print made at Bradford Art School in 1954. 'I don't expect anyone to just walk in off the street and buy it,' Kasmin says. 'And it's very difficult to know how to price it: pounds 6,000 is a rounded figure because for a long time it's been the equivalent of dollars 10,000. David thought there were five made, but I guess it could be anything up to ten. It's a local shop in Bradford, the proprietors were friends of Hockney's family. It's just a schoolboy work. You can't say it's a great work. It's mostly enjoyable in the light of what he later became. But here is Mr Hockney, he'll be able to tell you all about it himself.'

Hockney has come to say that he also is too tired to attend the opening tonight. He looks like David Hockney: green shirt, red tie, beige suit, two-tone suede and leather beige shoes, light blue raincoat, lime green umbrella, tortoise-shell glasses, and a hearing-aid which is half bright blue and half bright red.

He shakes hands and pours himself a mineral water. He looks over Kasmin's office and sees three of his early works. He is over from Los Angeles for three weeks to visit his mother and receive an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art.

Hockney (pulling up a chair): Being a doctor is not that much use really. You still can't write prescriptions for your own drugs. Someone asked me how it felt. I said: 'Take two aspirins and call me in the morning.'

Kasmin: We were just saying what would have happened if I hadn't looked after you early on. I didn't have a gallery when we met. I just said: 'Let me make some money for you.'

Hockney: Yes, I never minded anybody making money for me.

Kasmin: I've hung up The Fish and Chip Shop. Did you see it as you walked in? I thought in a rather kinky show, why not have a kinky Hockney? So where have you been?

Hockney: Some place south of the river with the scenery for The Rake's Progress. It burnt down you know. Been repainting it myself.

Kasmin: I didn't think you were allowed to - I didn't think the unions would allow it. Or is that just New York?

Hockney: Yes. Well they just said: 'Would you like to have a go?'

How do you feel about your dealer closing down after all these years?

Hockney: I'm not a person of nostalgia. I just live for now.

Kasmin: We're not yesterday's people. So where's your next home going to be?

Hockney: Well, I was in Bridlington with my mother. I went to take care of some old stuff from the house I was brought up in - I found a lot of old drawings and essays. She has this home where she's very settled, but I was thinking I don't care, you make homes wherever you go. As far as I'm concerned if I'm in a hotel for three days, then that's home.

Kasmin: I wouldn't go that far. That was D H Lawrence's attitude.

Hockney: It's my attitude. It's the people who make the city, not the walls.

Kasmin: Anyway, I've done all this closing before. Do you remember? It's in the Big ger Splash film. Carrying that sign out of the gallery.

Hockney: That was 20 years ago.

Kasmin: I'll miss having a place where people can drop by and see what I've got. If I get really itchy and absolutely hate it I'll maybe open up a shop, or a cafe. For now I think I'll just put my head down for a bit and become a collector. If you become a collector you get invited to all the parties. You only have to buy a picture once every two years to be a collector. No one expects you to buy regularly. You get a very good collector's discount, which is usually bigger than the dealer's discount. Also as a collector I may draw the lucky card and get very rich.

But I'll always look after chaps like you.

Hockney: What?

Kasmin (raising his voice): If you need any looking after, David. People say, will I still go

abroad, and I say I won't need to any more. I used to go abroad only to run away from the gallery. I used to travel a lot with people like Bruce Chatwin. I used to love adventures. But now a lot of friends are dead. I'm going to another funeral of a great friend tomorrow, the architect who's always done my galleries. It takes the taste off things a wee bit.

Hockney (patting Kasmin's stomach): You're exercising are you?

Kasmin: I've just been fed up by an old friend.

Hockney: You should exercise.

Kasmin: Since I gave up smoking and drinking I've taken up ice-cream.

Hockney (horrified): You'd be better off smoking than having ice-cream.

Kasmin: I like the ice-cream, thank you.

Hockney: It's very bad for you.

Kasmin: I only eat it every now and then.

Hockney: It's solid fat]

Kasmin: I was just staying with Linda Adams, the deputy chief whip's wife. She fed me up like crazy. Ice-cream, summer pudding. So I'm looking fatter than usual.

Hockney: You ought to look after yourself.

Do you look after yourself in Los Angeles?.

Hockney (lighting another cigarette, a Camel): Well . . . these are vegetarian cigarettes.

Were you in Los Angeles for the riots?

Hockney: Yeah. I was in Malibu. I think I knew it was going to happen. When I heard that those policemen had got off I put on the television at once. I never watch television normally. And there were all these news helicopters circling and looking around, waiting for it to start. It was all about images. Fire always looks so good on television, doesn't it? The looting was interesting. It wasn't that widespread but it was intense. I saw one woman come out of this shop with six ginger wigs.

The Koreans seemed to have had a hard time.

Hockney: The Koreans are very racist, you know. They hate the blacks. But there were actually no more killings than in a normal week. And that three-day curfew - the people who were really affected by it were the drug dealers. I went down to Pico, where I used to live, and it was all still there really. A few things burnt, but it's all so cardboard anyway. You put it up, you burn it down, you put it up again. (He pours himself another glass of mineral water.) Why am I drinking so much of this stuff?

Kasmin (who used to drink heavily, but quit last year for medical reasons): My unaccustomed bout of sobriety has made me look at things in a completely new light and realise that I've been thrashing about a bit, going on showing what I always did, picking out good art, but no pacemakers. This is not a position to feed you, to make you want to go on into the headwind. If you gave me carte blanche to show brand new stuff I wouldn't know what to do.

Hockney: Did that Sotheby's sale do all right for you?

Kasmin: Yeah it did.

Hockney: Did you lose a lot of money?

Kasmin: No. Whoever said I was going to?

Hockney: I read in the papers you were going to lose a lot of money. Not that I believe everything in the papers.

Kasmin: Don't believe a word of it. Some of the prints only cost pounds 5.

Hockney: Well that's what I said to somebody. They all sounded like really expensive (auction prices) to me. They were certainly a lot more money than I was paid.

Kasmin: There was a Celia Smoking, that came out at a cost of, what?

Hockney: dollars 300.

Kasmin: No. It was . . . (consults book behind his desk) . . . yes dollars 300. And it rapidly went up to dollars 2,000 or dollars 3,000. The print run went very quickly because it was very beautiful and a lot more people wanted it than there were prints. And then it went very high. I had two. The one I sold cost me pounds 5,000, and I got pounds 7,000 for it plus 10 per cent VAT. But there was another one I bought at auction that cost pounds 27,000. How do you find the truth in it all?

Hockney: I think it's all rather good now. It's like the art world is going back to being sane again.

How are you affected by the vagaries of all this?

Hockney: Frankly, I'm never paid what you might believe. I always assumed prices would never go up that high either.

Kasmin: The picture of yours that brought the most money at auction (in May 1989) you painted at art school. You painted it very, very big in order to get a bit of privacy. It was as big as a wall.

Hockney: I got paid pounds 85 for it.

Kasmin: That was from me. I couldn't work out where to put it. It just fitted in the hallway of my little house off Fulham Road when I was dealing from home. I thought, what am I going to do with it? I finally sold it for pounds 150 to a man who swore to me that it was going to his children's primary school. (The picture was later sold on.) Then at auction 25 years later it's sold for dollars 2.2m to some mad lady in America.

Hockney (wistfully): It was called A Grand Procession of Dignitaries.

Kasmin You haven't brought Stanley then. (Stanley is Hockney's beloved dachshund.)

Hockney: I'm only away three weeks. He'll be all right.

Kasmin: When are you coming back here again?

Hockney: Tomorrow, if you like.

Kasmin: No, coming back. To Britain.

Hockney: I'm going to Madrid for that show in late September and then I'll be coming back here to start the opera around 20 October. Die Frau ohne Schatten will hit the fans at Covent Garden on 16 November. Hit the fans. Get it? The Schatten will hit the fans.

Kasmin: Oh, the Schatten.

Hockney: That was a joke. I won't explain any more. Kas has no ear for music whatsoever.

Kasmin: Thank God David doesn't write music.

Hockney: Well my friend Henry thought that The Magic Flute was my best score ever.

Kasmin: I only go to opera if David says I have to, to see one of his things. So I don't know whether his designs are any good because I haven't seen anybody else's.

Hockney: If you'd come to Chicago to see Turandot you would have seen an exhibition of paintings as well.

Kasmin: But I didn't know about that at the time. I've only just got the catalogue.

Is there much of Hockney's work that you don't like?

Kasmin: Of course. I go through periods when I don't like some of the stuff at all. But I don't actually hate it. Sometimes David doesn't like it, but he only doesn't like it afterwards. David changes so much. He's not like someone who just has one style and you always like it or you always hate it. It would be impossible for one person to like everything he does.

Hockney: The only person who likes all kinds of art is an auctioneer.

Kasmin: Or your mother.

Hockney: Oh yes, my mother.

(They wander out of Kasmin's office. Hockney settles by the 'Fish and Chip Shop' print.)

Kasmin: I always wondered, was that boy meant to be you David? An idealised you?

Hockney: Kind of. Yes, I'm always leaning like that. It was always the husband who did the frying and the woman who did the serving. When I was younger I used to go into fish and chip shops late at night and say: 'Got any chips left?', and when they said yes, I'd say: 'Well it's your own fault for cooking too many.'

Kasmin (examining print): You don't get vinegar shakers like that any more.

Hockney: You do in Bridlington.

Kasmin: The whole thing has a Vuillard feel to it.

Hockney: Any student doing a print like that in those days made it look like Vuillard.

Kasmin: Have you got a copy of it?

Hockney: I think so. Had to buy it, though.

(The two pose for photographs. Hockney again says he won't be staying for the opening.)

Hockney: I wasn't invited.

Kasmin: I sent you an invitation, handwritten actually.

Hockney: In fact I did get that. I'm just a little tired. But I'll see you later.

THEY shake hands. Hockney heads for the door, but turns back to retrieve his coat and umbrella from Kasmin's office. He takes another look around the gallery, and shakes Kasmin's hand again. He says: 'Goodbye Kas. I hope you sell something.'

Kasmin's last show runs to 1 August, then by appointment, at 22 Cork Street, London W1 (071-439 1096).

(Photographs omitted)

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