The Gagosian Explosion: A Critical Breakdown of the Wall Street Journal's Opus on the Controversial Megadealer's Global Dominance
When a profile of megadealer Larry Gagosian lands, it lands with a bang. The Armenian-born imperial gallerist very rarely gives interviews, for one thing — even the New York Times failed to nail him down for comment in their lively 2009 attempt, noting that he had "not spoken to anyone profiling him for about a decade." (Not quite true: our own Sarah Douglas has been one of the few to succeed in drawing him out, with this piece a little over a year ago.) So, with Kelly Crow's full-access dissertation on "the most powerful art dealer in the world" (her words, and true) appearing in the Wall Street Journal today, the question arises: What did she get? Here's a critical breakdown.
The Basics: Retelling the well-worn creation myth, the story details how Gagosian went from selling framed $15 posters on the street in L.A. to global art imperium, with 150 staffers manning 11 galleries around the world (the Journal has a handy map) that make nearly $1 billion in sales per year, together with a personal inventory of four homes, a "roughly $40 million Bombardier Global Express private jet," a personal chef in his New York headquarters, and an immense private art collection.
After Gago, the Deluge: At a trim 65, Gagosian "still conducts many of his biggest sales himself" and plays "a central role in elevating and maintaining the amount paid for his artists' work," but those close to him are terrified about what happens to the gallery after his reign, since he has not groomed a successor. Gagosian admits that he "lives in complete denial" of this issue.
Artist Army of Shadows: While Gagosian undeniably has a superpowered roster of artists, it's not quite clear what the true extent of his representation is. Crow says he represents "the estates and careers of 77 artists," which is much closer to the truth than the 95 artists he lists on his gallery Web site (that spectacular roll call includes artists from Cindy Sherman, who is represented by Metro Pictures, and James Turrell and Hiroshi Sugimoto, who are represented by Pace Gallery, to Bob Dylan whom its pretty safe to say Gagosian doesn't "represent"). Crow, however, rereports the Turrell inaccuracy, for which the Guardian had to issue a correction in a previous report.
He's a Poacher: That much is well-established, and other galleries know to fear the encroachment of his dark-suited agents (one of whom compares the cutthroat competition among Gagosian dealers to "Glengarry Glen Ross"). He currently has a major show of Rudolf Stingel (whom Crow says "still shows with the Paula Cooper Gallery," though that's legalistic language when it comes to the real big-money representation), and the article says he's planning a show with Urs Fisher and hopes to recruit Rirkrit Tiravanija, downtown dealer Gavin Brown's two biggest artists. (On that topic, once asked in a Time Out New York Q&A who he would like to get a drink with, Brown answered: "Larry Gagosian. I'd get him drunk, slip him a roofie, fuck his brains out, and put him on a one-way flight back to Mount Ararat.") Crow reports that Gagosian is also eyeing Chinese artists Zeng Fanzhi (Acquavella Gallery) and Ai Weiwei (Lisson), plus he recently grabbed a not-so-innocent coffee with living legend Jasper Johns (Matthew Marks).
Speaking of Poaching: Gagosian apparently snagged Ab-Ex great John Chamberlain from Pace by agreeing to buy up about $20 million worth of pieces that were not made directly by the artist but by a Belgian fabricator, and which Pace refused to purchase.
Why His Poaching Works: Everyone knows that an artist's prices immediately go up once they sign with his blue-chip machine, but the fact that Cecily Brown's paintings went from $8,000 in 1999 to, after joining the gallery, $800,000 today — an unheard-of hundredfold increase — is still gobsmacking. Part of this is perhaps due to his habit of "encouraging his artists to make supersized works, which can translate to supersized sales prices. When artists join his gallery, Mr. Gagosian often puts up the money or enlists collectors to prepay for his artists' most ambitious projects." This can backfire, however, as with the critical drubbing Dan Colen received for his outsize and clearly overinflated debut last year.
The Perils of Full Access: Graced with the chance to interview the elusive dealer, Crow is very polite about not bringing up certain legal embarrassments entangling the gallery (draw your own conclusions). In four paragraphs extolling Gagosian's gloriously lucrative partnership with Richard Prince, a mere two sentences are devoted to the high-profile court defeat the two recently suffered at the hands of French photographer Patrick Cariou, who sued the appropriation artist for stealing his work: "Last week he and the gallery lost a copyright lawsuit involving works from his 2008 series, 'Canal Zone.' Mr. Gagosian said that he and the artist have filed a joint appeal." Not mentioned at all is the police brutality suit filed against the gallery by a woman injured by a cop in a Gagosian space, or the current lawsuit over a Mark Tansey painting.
Overextended?: While Gagosian boasts that the "sun never sets" on his gallery empire, his rampant expansionism during the last few years — during a recessionary moment when everyone else was hunkering down — has not been entirely successful. A gallery in Rome that the dealer is said to have opened in the notoriously collector-light city more or less exclusively to please his prize artist Cy Twombly, who lives there, has so far failed to stir up commercial interest from the locals, and a new Paris gallery isn't making much more headway in the City of Lights. And while Gagosian tells Crow that he probed the possibility of opening a branch somewhere in the Middle East, she reports that "plans are on hold, for now, to expand anywhere else." Are we looking today at the apex of Gagosian's extraordinary career arc?