Cult of Personality


Moments after a press conference for “Jeff Koons on the Roof,” this year’soutdoor sculpture exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in NewYork, a clutch of reporters made a tight circle around the artist. Clean-shaven,dressed in a metallic gray business suit and gracious to a fault, Koons hardlybatted an eye as he linked the three bright and shiny chromium works on theroof—monumental replications of a child’s drawing, a wrapped candy and aballoon toy from his 1994–2000 “Celebration” series—to contemporary, earlyChristian, and Greek and Roman sculptures inside the museum. The reportersdidn’t just hang on every word. They clamored for autographs. And they gotthem. “This is going right next to my Mickey Mantle,” announced a lumberingphotographer, holding his prize aloft.

Only one other artist today excites this kind of hero worship: Damien Hirst. Koons and he both create provocative work.But that alone can’t explain their star power.

Is it mere celebrity that imbues them withthe sort of aura that makes people seek out theircompany—and happily pay whatever their dealersdemand? How is it that a handful of those dealersmanage to attract—some might say manufacture—such supernovas? Do artists who have crossed intothe cultural mainstream share a character trait thatgrants them not just social status but lasting success?Does their charisma affect their art profoundlyenough to alter its place in history?

If there is no easy answer to these questions,it seems safe to say that however well received anartist’s work is, the legend around its maker and,sometimes, his dealer is often what gives them stayingpower. Julian Schnabels broken-plate paintingsput him on the map in the 1980s, but it was hisarrogance—he claimed that Giotto and van Goghwere his peers—that made him famous.

Of course, many successful artists make challenging,button-pushing work without spawning acult following—Paul McCarthy and Marc Quinn,for instance. Perhaps it’s because their material istoo dark to excite much curiosity about their lives,or because they simply decline to influence publicperception of their oeuvre. Nevertheless, it is hardto dismiss the impact of personality on somethingas subjective as the valuation of art.

Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museumof Contemporary Art, in New York, believes thatan artist’s importance is determined by his or herwork alone. “That’s what will survive over time,”she points out. “Dan Flavin had zero charisma, buthe was a great artist. Russell Crowe, the actor, is notcharismatic, but his fame attracts a crowd. They’redifferent things.” On the other hand, she says, “LeoCastelli had great charisma. He was the number onedealer in New York, the top guy with the best stableof artists, a consummate gentleman who was veryaccepting and incredibly charming. And the genuineexcitement he stirred up for the art came partlythrough the strength of his personality.”

The New York dealer Mary Boone saw herown fame rise in the 1980s along with that of galleryartists like Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl and Schnabel,especially after she collaborated with Castelli on aprecedent-setting two-gallery show for Schnabel.“Leo used to tell me that his strength as a dealer wasas a mythmaker,” she recalls. “I think he felt the artsold itself. It was people he made desirable.”

Perhaps that is why collectors today see galleristsas glorified salesmen, marketers of culturalmerchandise rather than connoisseurs whose successwith both clients and artists turns as much ontheir own charm as on their powers of persuasion.Joseph Duveen, early 20th-century New York’sleading purveyor of European painting, who handledclients like J. P. Morgan, remains the epitomeof a dealer who built his business as a monumentto himself, going to any length to sell a painting foran extravagant price, retaining (or bribing) scholarsand conservators to promote average picturesas masterworks. The avant-garde gallerists BettyParsons and Peggy Guggenheim, Abstract Expressionism’s early champions,were bona fide characters who continue to be identified with the artists whosecareers they shaped, the most celebrated being Jackson Pollock, whom theyboth represented, at different times and in very different ways.

Dealers of Castelli’s ilk, erudite and with experience in areas other thanart—Castelli started as a banker—guided collections as well as careers. Anotherof these larger-than-life figures was Sidney Janis, the trendsetting 57th Street,New York, dealer and onetime vaudevillian who in the 1950s and ’60s promotedsuch American Abstract Expressionists as Rothko, de Kooning andGorky, along with European modernists like Picasso, Mondrian and Klee. Hewas also one of the first anywhere to show Pop art.

“Sidney Janis was graduate school for me,” says the New York collectorBarbara Jakobson, reminiscing about her initiation in art in the 1950s, whenJanis inculcated her with his passion for it even though she was not yet preparedto become a client. “I was in my early 20s and he loved to teach,” she says. “Fewart dealers now have time to spend with the merely curious.”

How about the world’s most powerful dealer in contemporary arttoday, Larry Gagosian, who claims all artists are naturally magnetic? Somesay Gagosian is charming only as long as it takes to sign a check. Jakobsondemurs, calling him “completely extraordinary … very intelligent and well-read.”While admitting that he can also be distant, she says that “what makesyou decide to invest these people with magical power has to do with their senseof authority. A lot of the most successful have no charisma whatever. But theymust be willing to act in loco parentis by taking on the artists, [who can be]narcissistic and more demanding than one’s children. They have to be incrediblygood liars and say they love everything their artists do. And they have tobe able to suffer fools instead of telling them to go home and write a check.”

Other old-school collectors grumble that high-powered gallerists todaynever sit still long enough to regale their clients with art stories the way Castelliand Janis did. But the brisk pace may be imposed by the new collectors, manyof whom have time neither for leisurely conversation nor for prepurchasedeliberation. Those who want top pieces snap them up quickly, particularlyat art fairs, where discussions are not just brief but also impersonal.

Yet stories keep surfacing about dealers with a Rasputin-like influenceon the people around them. One of these was Alexander Iolas. A significantforce in Surrealism, Iolas had galleries in Paris, New York, Geneva and Milanbefore he retired to Athens, where the British-born collector Pauline Karpidas,who has spent most of her adult life in Greece, met him in 1975.

“He was like the Countess of Graumont,” says Karpidas, “trailing thisFortuny cape. I first found him having his hair dyed in the sink by his housekeeper.With the flick of a finger encircled by a 48-carat-diamond ring, he pullsa turban around his head like Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great andstarts winding a diamond necklace around the turban. I was totally enamored.And he says, ‘Darling, do you have any idea what it takes to form a collection?’Long story short, it took 10 years. But the fun we had!”

Karpidas played Eliza Doolittle to Iolas’s Henry Higgins. He not onlystarted her collecting contemporary art but also introduced her to anotheraspiring patron, Dominique de Menil, and, later, to Charles Saatchi, as wellas to Andy Warhol, who did her portrait. “If you’re going to collect a certainperiod, you have to buy in depth, and that’s where mentors come in,” saysKarpidas, who includes among her tutors both Castelli and Robert Fraser, therocking British Pop-art dealer who introduced Yoko Ono and John Lennon.“But the one who gave me real entrée into the world of art was Iolas. ‘You willalways think of me,’ he said, ‘because I taught you how to focus.’ ”

The Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann is another whom many in the artworld still regard with awe as well as affection. Famously discreet, he wouldnever reveal the names of his blue-chip clients, although Giovanni Agnelli,Gustavo Cisneros and Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszonare all linked with him. By the time he died, in 1993, Ammann had made aplace for the early work of such modern masters as Cy Twombly, Andy Warholand Brice Marden in European and American collections.(His sister Doris Ammann runs ThomasAmmann Fine Art today as a prominent secondary-market shop.)

The writer Bob Colacello met Ammann inthe 1970s while working at Interview with Warhol.“[Ammann] was the first person I knew to haveBelgian slippers—the first to put soles on them sohe could wear them outside,” Colacello recalls. “Hewas always smiling. Five minutes in his presence,and I was relaxed and cool and happy.”

Ammann easily persuaded many to payhigh prices for artists he represented in Europe—Twombly and Marden among them. “If you werediscovered by Thomas,” Colacello says, citing RossBleckner and Eric Fischl, “that was a huge boost.People wanted to do what Thomas was doing. Hebought Clementes, so others did too.”

Such dealers could affect artists as much asthey did the public. According to the New Yorkpainter Donald Baechler, the late Neapolitangallerist Lucio Amelio was simply magical. “Hehad a stentorian voice and spoke many languages,”Baechler says. “He acted in Lina Wertmüller filmsand wanted people to believe he was a CIA agent.He’d fly you to Paris on the Concorde and throwlavish dinners for 40 and then not pay you for apainting. Then you realized that the painting hadpaid for the trip.” But it was well worth the missedcheck: Amelio’s high profile in the ’80s helpedyoung American artists like Baechler, Keith Haringand George Condo replicate their domestic successin Europe.

Today’s primary-market brokers in contemporaryart tend to be of the same generation as theirartists, at least when starting out. The aristocraticJay Jopling was as young as Hirst, the Chapmanbrothers and Gary Hume when he presented theirearly works in 1993 at Jay Jopling/White Cube, theimmensely profitable London gallery that beganas a project space. With his upper-crust accent andability to hold the floor, Jopling is a commandingpersonality. “Jay has power, and power itself can becharismatic,” says Hume. “But look at what he waslike before, and you see he always had it. He builtWhite Cube from nothing, and you can’t do thatwithout some sort of engagement.”

There is no one way to decode charisma,much less distinguish it from the glow that comesfrom success. “I think it’s chemistry and attitude,”says Lucy Mitchell-Innes, a British-born dealerwho began her career in New York at Sotheby’s in1983, when Schnabel’s first plate painting came upfor sale. “Julian called me,” she says, describing ascenario that would be unthinkable now, “and toldme we couldn’t put that painting in an auction. ‘I’llswap you,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you another one just asgood, and then I’ll buy the first and you can still havea great painting.’ Well, he did keep that painting,and we sold the other for a record price. He madethat happen by sheer personality.” On the otherhand, she says, Chris Martin, the Brooklyn-basedabstract painter, “has a following like a religioussect, but that’s because of his work. If an artist’swork doesn’t hold up, charisma won’t help, even ifit does raise the tide of public perception.”

Obviously, the art world is full of competing personalities and compellingeccentrics whose public images make their work more tantalizing. Orperhaps it’s the other way around. Take Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose auraderived in part from his distinctive dreadlocks and an engaging smile. Yet hewas often brusque and confrontational. “There was no separation betweenwhat went into his paintings and what you connected with in his persona,”says the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, a former consultant who has played a significantrole in the careers of many artists, including Koons and Cecily Brown. With hisround glasses and crisp suits, Deitch is no slouch at calling attention to himself.But he puts Basquiat in another category altogether. “A conversation with Jeanwas not a passive experience. He really did embody his artistic vision. ‘OK,’he would say, ‘let’s lock horns.’ It was electric to be in his presence.”

The artist Matthew Barney, whom many regard as a visionary, can gointo a gallery unnoticed, yet he exercises a fascination on art world denizens. Itprobably helps that he married a rock star, Björk, and has retained the matinee-idollooks that made him a successful J. Crew model while in college and thestar of his own video and film productions. In person, though, he is anythingbut ostentatious and seems driven by his work.

Time is the final arbiter of greatness, but the unprecedented prices commandedby artworks of late have given the personalities behind them such greatfame that it is getting hard to say which matters more: the artist or the art. Attimes, it seems as if the oeuvre is merely a by-product of the charm. “Whetheror not Damien Hirst is a good artist, he will have made a mark that historywill record,” says the painter Sean Landers, whose ironic, self-aggrandizingcanvases obsess on his nearly paralyzing anxiety over making art in today’smarket. “Damien was a celebrity from that first show in London, ‘Freeze,’ in1988, when Charles Saatchi bought the shark,” Landers says. “And he knewhow to parlay that early success. Early successes of mine made me think theyjust hadn’t found out what a fraud I was.”

Hume, who took part in “Freeze,” says Hirst’s self-confidence is part ofhis attraction. “He finds doubt laughable,” Hume says. “So if you get involvedwith him, you can laugh and you can be naughty, and that’s a liberation. Hedisempowers the powerful. And that’s fun.” Hirst’s wealth and renown are now so enormous that it may be decades before history can determine if he is as great an artist as he is a market phenomenon. The same may be said for Richard Prince, who does not go out of his way to court the public but grants considerable access to his inner life through his writing.

The question is, how often does a work sell on the strength of an artist’s personality alone? “Most collectors are unaffected by artists’ personalities,” says Boone. “They only care about the art.” But Donald Baechler has observed just the opposite. Through his friendship with such collectors of his art as Yoko Ono, Baechler has been bumping up against celebrity ever since his paintings of dripping ice-cream cones and long-stemmed roses hit the market in the early 1980s. “I met George Condo then, and it seemed to me people were taken with him before they were with the paintings. Everyone was charmed by him. [The sculptor] Walter De Maria, on the other hand, was notorious for not showing up at his openings. It was always a puzzle how he got to be so famous without bothering to be there.”

The art world has its share of personalities who exhibit De Maria’s kind of inverse magnetism. Their diffidence, in fact, makes them as fascinating as uninhibited types. The New York dealer Matthew Marks, for example, may find it difficult to extend himself socially, but it doesn’t matter; with a roster that includes Ellsworth Kelly, Nan Goldin and Andreas Gursky, he has no trouble attracting clients to his four exhibition spaces. Then there’s the collector Charles Saatchi, whose discerning appetite for young art becomes more voracious each year. Saatchi hides behind exhibitions in his gallery and on his Web site, thus seeming to be everywhere at once, buying up the many while seen by the few.

Warhol was one of the past century’s most charismatic figures, a bewigged enigma who attracted crowds of the curious and paparazzi wherever he went. He galvanized not just artists and musicians but collectors and socialites, and his influence has only grown over time. Yet he spoke in monosyllables and revealed very little of himself. Like Koons, he disarmed through flattery, although in a different way. “Despite his fame,” says Colacello, “Andy would still ask for advice—should he use this wallpaper or not?—and he was accessible. You weren’t going to run into Jasper Johns or Cy Twombly in a nightclub. And even if you did, you wouldn’t hear, ‘Oh, hi! You should come up to the Factory and be on the cover of Interview.’”

For Mary Boone, “the underwhelming can become amazing, as in Ileana Sonnabend. Everyone always called her the Sphinx.” Jakobson remembers the sedentary, tent-dressed Sonnabend, who died last year, as “an enormous coquette—one of the sexiest women I’ve ever known. She could flirt with a doorknob. She had glinty eyes and a little giggle and was very passive. She drew people to her without even moving from her chair.”

Amy Cappellazzo also stood in awe of Sonnabend. “Ileana was sovereign. She was powerful,” says the Christie’s postwar and contemporary-art dynamo, adding, “[The Museum of Modern Arts associate director] Kathy Halbreich is also immensely sovereign … in the sense that you own yourself and your destiny in the most profound way.”

The upbeat Capellazzo’s sunny temperament and appreciation of art and the value that the auction market can add to it have persuaded many a collector to consign a piece. She seems to work at making herself appealing to both men and women. But, she says, “for women, power is about being demure and charming. How does a woman have it and not look like she’s just showing her female charms to make a deal? It’s challenging for me as well.”

Perhaps for this reason, most of the women whom the art world generally finds magnetic are directors of museums—not just Halbreich and Phillips but also Ann Philbin, of UCLA’s Hammer, and the Studio Museum in Harlems Thelma Golden. “Philbin has turned the Hammer into a major force, and she’s done it with an enthusiastic personality, not fame, money or power,” says the collector Marty Eisenberg, a vice president of Bed, Bath and Beyond. “Golden is a stunner who turns heads. She’s utterly brilliant, has a killer smile, is fashion forward, and her programming has elevated African-American art to a place that it has never been before.” In other words, money and charm are both assets. But in the art world today, the first is merely desirable; the other is a necessity.

"Cult of Personality" originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's November 2008 Table of Contents.