In what surely must be a record length for a magazine profile of an art dealer, The New Yorker‘s 17,000-word How Larry Gagosian Reshaped the Art World—more evocatively (and provocatively) titled, “Money on the Wall” in the July 31 print edition—focuses with hardcore voyeurism on the sometimes unsavory but usually successful tactics of a masterful masterpiece-merchant.
For the word-count, I’m taking the word of The Art Newspaper. For this Gagosian quote, I’m taking the word of the New Yorker: “When women meet me, they either want to fuck me or throw up on me,” the mega-dealer supposedly said.
Patrick Radden Keefe‘s salacious tell-all had an emetic effect on my own digestion—all the more so because it credited the late, great Leo Castelli with being his mentor. Perhaps the one thing that the soft-hearted Leo and the hard-nosed Larry had in common was their ability to corral top artists into their stables. But while Larry made them feel valued for their price-potential, Leo made them feel appreciated for what was most valuable about their work—its artistry, not its fungibility.
As CultureGrrl readers know, I have a soft spot for artworld figures who found time to talk with me and educate me when I was new to cultural reporting and commentary. Not only did the always gracious Leo nurture aspiring writers; he, more importantly, nurtured talented artists and serious collectors.
Below is what he told me when I interviewed him at length for my immodestly (and somewhat inaccurately) titled book—The Complete Guide to Collecting Art (Knopf):
We actually don’t welcome anyone more than people who are interested in having our advice. It’s not an imposition if somebody comes and spends hours with us and doesn’t buy anything. It really doesn’t matter. Our role is to educate and instruct.
Contrast that magnanimous approach with Melik Kaylan‘s portrayal of Gagosian’s pragmatism in an article for Forbes, more than 10 years ago:
He has always pursued the biggest names unwaveringly, and doesn’t generally take a risk on unknown newcomers. Hence, though he befriended and worked with Leo Castelli for many years, he never acquired Castelli’s reputation as a discoverer of new écoles or “isms” in art.
What’s particularly striking about the New Yorker profile is that it exists at all. As David Segal wrote in Pulling Art Sales Out of Thinning Air, his 2009 profile of Gagosian at a time when the art market had “recently gone Code Xanax” [i.e., high anxiety], the dealer had “not spoken to anyone profiling him for about a decade.” I’ve been on the receiving end of the Gagosian brush-off, although he did speak to me at length for “Brooklyn Hangs Tough,” my January 2000 Art in America article on the Brooklyn Museum’s highly controversial Sensation: Young British Arts from the Saatchi Collection show from 1999-2000. (Good luck finding any link to my AiA article, now that the magazine has been absorbed by its former rival, ARTnews, for which I also wrote extensively.)
I’ve held onto my ticket to the “Sensation” press preview as a memento from that hot-button, landmark exhibition (which I praised, with some reservations):
In his 247-page 2021 post-mortem of the exhibition—“Sensation: The Madonna, The Mayor, The Media [me], and the First Amendment,” the Brooklyn Museum’s director at the time of the show, Arnold Lehman, damned my AiA assessment with faint praise:
Had Arnold expected me to be imbalanced?
Gagosian remains a friend of “Sensation” collector Charles Saatchi, and also of one of “Sensation’s” YBA’s—Jenny Saville, now a member of Gagosian Gallery’s board of directors, which was formed last year.
But back to the New Yorker article: What most struck me about it is how much it says about Gagosian’s market machinations and how little it touches upon matters of artistic merit and connoisseurship. Larry’s vacuous critical commentary is largely limited to: “He (or she) is a good painter.” Perhaps the most canny connoisseur in Gagosian’s orbit—John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, doesn’t even rate a mention in Patrick Radden Keefe’s exhaustive piece. This omission seems inexplicable, unless the writer had agreed not to mention a questionable alliance that should otherwise have been a necessary part of this detailed story.
My old public-relations friend, the always helpful Lauren Gioia, who has been working for other clients (including Gagosian) since stepping down from her long-time gig at Sotheby’s, said this to me about Elderfield’s omission from the New Yorker piece:
I think the New Yorker article was so long that he just touched on topics like Larry’s vision for bringing in curators. He mentioned John Richardson [the late biographer of Picasso] and Larry’s first Rubens show and perhaps thought that was enough!
After having been required to retire from his curatorial home, Elderfield joined Gagosian in 2012 as a consultant and exhibition-organizer, while also serving as distinguished curator and lecturer at the Princeton University Art Museum. When I raised questions about this dual loyalty, Elderfield had argued that it was not a conflict-of-interest. You can see him in his Gagosian role in this video conversation regarding the gallery’s recent Helen Frankenthaler show—Drawing Within Nature: Paintings from the 1990s, which closed in April. According to James Steward, director of the Princeton museum, Elderfield “retired from Princeton a few years ago; he is working with us now as a consulting curator and is developing, with Mitra Abbaspour, an important De Kooning exhibition.”
But the most disturbing question raised by Radden Keefe’s article is this: “Where were the New Yorker’s much vaunted fact-checkers?”
The article’s second paragraph flubs a famous aphorism: “He’s [Gagosian’s] been known to observe, with the satisfaction of Alexander the Great [emphasis added], ‘The sun never sets on my gallery.’” Actually, that statement is not applied to the Greek conqueror’s realm. It most commonly refers to the British Empire.
I did a much bigger doubletake, though, at this caption for the article’s celebrity photograph:
“Curator Thomas Campbell“?!? In 2016, he was seven years into his directorship at the Metropolitan Museum. (He is now director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.) That article has been online for days. I’m surprised that no one (at this writing) has corrected that glaring error. (The online version may have been fixed by the time you read this.)
More interesting may be the comments that this article will elicit from art lovers (and museum professionals?). Will anyone else retch at being force-fed a heavy portion of booty-over-beauty? Is the article’s incongruous conclusion, regarding the sale of the Whitney Museum’s building to Sotheby’s, an appropriate coda to a piece on a dealer’s gallery?
You decide. I need a bathroom break…
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