In the middle of January 2016, the art world burst in a grandiose scandal. The legendary New York Museum of Modern Art had been holding an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s sculptures when it became known that one of the primary showpieces of the exhibition, the large gypsum bust of Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, had been sold to the Qatar royal family.
The bust created by Picasso in 1931 up until that point had been in the possession of his daughter Maya Widmaier-Picasso. Journalists would find out that in November 2014, she had signed a $34-million contract with the royal family of Qatar to sell the bust. Shortly after, it would be revealed that another individual also wishes to acquire the bust. In the end, that individual purchased the sculpture for $106 million with a prepayment of $79 million in May 2015.
It turned out that the sculpture was acquired by another king, the king of the world market of modern artwork, art dealer number one, the owner of contemporary art galleries in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Paris, London, Rome, Hong Kong, and Athens. It was Larry Gagosian, the most influential person in the word of modern art.
Lawrence Gilbert “Larry” Gagosian was born on April 19, 1945, in Los Angeles to an Armenian family that had moved to the US in the early 20th century. Graduating from school, he entered the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1963. During his study, he earned money by working in music stores and bookshops, supermarkets. He also met a fellow who was earning money by selling posters, a kind of activity in which Gagosian himself would become engaged in.
After graduating from the UCLA, Gagosian founded his first poster shop, which was quite successful actually. Buying posters for $2, framing them, and selling for $15, he managed to earn a decent amount of money. Closing his poster shop in 1976, Gagosian opened his first gallery called Broxton Gallery in Westwood, Los Angeles. In the beginning, he was selling the artwork of Latvian artist Vija Celmins, and American artists Alexis Smith and Elyn Zimmerman. He was also promoting conceptual artists John Baldessari and Bruce Nauman.
In 1978, Gagosian opened another gallery on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles to showcase the works of Chris Burden, Eric Fischl, Cindy Sherman, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the same year, he bought an attic in West Broadway in New York, right in front of the gallery of the influential Leo Castelli.
Gagosian would later say about Castelli: “I in many ways owe the time that I spent on the first floor of Castelli’s mansion. We went clubbing, played cards, and little by little made small deals. I was always wide-awake, which allowed me to understand many things by just watching Leo.”
Gagosian began to rapidly develop his business in the early 1980s by reselling artwork of blue-chip contemporary artists, which earned him the nickname “Go-Go”. His incredible success was possible thanks to his intuition and his ability to without hesitation take the risk and invest in contemporary and modern art. In fact, Gagosian himself shaped art trends, introducing Cecil Brown, Jeff Koons, and Damian Hirst to art enthusiasts.
As Gagosian himself admitted: “It is impossible to make one or the other artist to draw specific paintings, but it is possible to set a specific direction. An artist needs to be taken seriously and be listened to. Yes, we work with money, money plays a role here, like in any professional business. But it is some kind of an amusing dance, a play with money. You want to achieve success, and artists also want to be successful.”
“The business I run is a combination of various things like intuition, familiarity with artists and their artworks, and knowledge of the art market. You also need to know who can be a potential buyer and in which country. It is a whole complex of everything, with intuition being only its mere part. I spend a lot of energy on my business, travel, and communicate with the buyers, but I like my business, I find a huge enjoyment in engaging in it. Most importantly, you need to love what you are doing, or nothing will come out of that.”
Larry Gagosian has also worked with the art pieces of such masters as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly, and Ilya Kabakov. In 2012, Gagosian acquired the famous composition “The Scream” by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch for $119 million. He also bought works of Andy Warhol for $200 million.
Now, the Gagosian gallery is the largest modern art gallery in the world, earning him around $1 billion annually. French art dealer, another expert of modern artwork Philippe Ségalot recently said: “Larry occupies a unique position that hasn’t been reached by any dealer in the history of art and will never be reached after him. He is the greatest on the market. He is a true military machine.”
In autumn 2007, Gagosian held his first exhibition in Moscow in the office of Russian Alfa-Bank, village of Barvikha, Moscow Oblast. Gagosian is friends with a Russian business magnate and philanthropist Mikhail Fridman. Fridman even bought one of the pieces of Gagosian’s collection, Hirst’s “Midas” consisting of butterflies built in a gilded canvas.
Before, Gagosian has twice visited Saint Petersburg and its Hermitage Museum, remarking in one of his interviews: “My relations with Doctor Piotrovsky are excellent: after all, he is half-Armenian. For me, to be an Armenian means to have a kinship with Russia.”
Larry Gagosian in Conversation with Glenn Fuhrman
JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT at Gagosian Gallery West 24th Street, New York