In Memoriam: Gagosian Director Robert Shapazian

In Memoriam: Gagosian Director Robert Shapazian
I didn't know Robert Shapazian, but I would have liked to. In October, 2007, Iattended a lecture by iconoclastic art critic Dave Hickey at the Frieze ArtFair. It was, enjoyably, vintage Hickey: criticism as slapstick comedy,complete with laugh track. What else would Hickey do at the height of theart boom other than question the values of a surging market smack in thecenter of a mecca of commerce? Towards the opening of his talk, he told ananecdote about art's value in a boomtime economy. "The prices ofeverybody’s work are compromised by selling art for too much money," he said. "For adealer, this is virtually impossible to avoid these days. My friend BobShapazian, who was director of the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, quit.And why did he quit? He said: 'I’m not an art dealer anymore. I sit around,a crate comes in, I see who the crate’s from, I go to the waiting list, Imake up this outrageous number and send it out. That’s not being an artdealer. I am creating value, but it is not real value.'"

The story made me curious about Shapazian, that degree of self-awarenessabout the changing nature of one's profession being, on balance, relativelyrare. Home from Frieze, I tracked him down by phone at his home in LosAngeles, seeking comment for an article I was working on at the time. Thetopic being too sensitive for him to go on record, we spoke on background,and the conversation was clarifying, one of those insightful ones thatprove to be the intellectual equivalent of jump-starting an engine. Iremembered this recently, when I glanced at my notes from back then. Itwasn't that he said anything particularly revelatory on my particularsubject, but that he hinted at pitfalls I might encounter, at simplisticways of thinking I'd do best to avoid. He talked about the art world insociological and economic terms. I remember thinking the language he usedseemed to sparkle. People like to say that this or that book or article orencounter "informed" their thinking. In the case of my brief exchange withShapazian, that was absolutely the case: he saved me from going off trackin my thinking, and in my reporting, and therefore ultimately in mywriting.

Shapazian, who became founding director of Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hillsin 1995 and stayed on for ten years, died at age 67 on Saturday, June 19, of lung cancer. A service was held last Friday in Los Angeles. When I heardnews of his passing, I dropped a line to Hickey. “Art dealers of Bob’shonesty and taste are the most valuable, powerful, and invisible creatures inthe art world,” came his swift reply. “They don’t seem to do anything, but,without them, nothing happens.”

As with many art aficionados who become dealers, Shapazian's interest in art beganwith collecting. In an interview related to a Los Angeles teen-mentoring program he participated in called "Amazing Kids," he once describedhow, at age 13, "I started importing antique objects from Thailand, keepingsome, selling some to galleries and museums, and I started building acollection for myself. I started with maybe $25 and built up a largecollection eventually."

He collected voraciously, his wide-ranging interests taking him from Asianart to French 18th century furniture, from experimental 19th-century photography through Surrealism, Russian illustrated books, and the works ofMarcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.

Shapazian donated one of his Warhols, an early hand-painted Campbell’s soupcan, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA curator Stephanie Barronremembers meeting him in the late 1970s in Fresno, when she was trackingdown loans for an exhibition the museum was doing on Russian art. “I’d heard he’d been buying Russian avant-garde books, so Ihopped on a plane and met him, and we began a friendship of many decades,”she recalls. “I was struck then and through all my time of knowing him withhis tremendous seriousness and wide knowledge and great appetite for allkinds of art. He was a scholar and someone who delved seriously into art andartists who mattered to him. He had very strong opinions and never hesitatedto share them, both positive and negative. I got some of the most wonderfulnotes about installations and exhibitions, and some of the most acerbic ifsomething he thought something wasn’t up to snuff.”

Those same qualities weren’t lost on Ed Ruscha, an artist with whomShapazian worked closely at Gagosian. Ruscha remembers “a highly educated,delightful, and acerbic friend. He was verbally tricky and full of fun,often preferring his own opinions over yours. He ribbed people when theyneeded to be ribbed."

At the gallery, Shapazian did business with a number of high profileclients. Joanne Heyler, director and chief curator of the BroadArt Foundation, recalls his being "a distinctive and principledintellectual and collector. When he was director at Gagosian, my visits tothe gallery were always memorably filled with wit, laughter and keenobservations on art and the art world — with clear passion for the formerand pure irreverence for the latter.”

Says her boss, Los Angeles real estate magnate and megacollector Eli Broad,"I was impressed with Robert's intellect, his passion for the arts, and hisdiscerning eye. He was a very honorable dealer, and I was pleased to buy anumber of things from him at the gallery."

Shapazian's way with words came from his literary background. Last Friday's Los Angeles Times obit describes a man who began life toiling on the family farm inFresno, went on to earn his PhD at Harvard in English literature (writing hisdissertation on pastoral poetry and painting in the Renaissance), and waseventually awarded a coveted chevalier of the Order of Arts and Lettershonor from the French government. Before going to work for Gagosian, hespent almost a decade running artist Sam FrancissLapis Press, a publisher of artists’ books based in Venice, California.

After leaving the profession, Shapazian became reflective about the businessof art dealing. In a 2007 interview with Aaron Moulton, owner of Berlin’sthree-year-old Feinkost gallery and a former Gagosian colleague, he talkedabout his approach. “I would usually try to influence collectors to buy whatI thought was the best, to give them my best personal advice," he said. "Isometimes wonder why I did this, because I passed up buying some great worksfor myself. I think the reason is I am a teacher at heart (or someone inlove with my own verbal performance!), so I tended to become very engaged.Because monetary investment was never a reason for my own collecting, Iusually go with ideas and feeling. Perhaps I was not the best kind ofcommercial art dealer.”

The art market, Shapazian told Moulton, is “a marketplace — a souk.Everyone is hawking his wares, shining them up and trying to imbue them withdazzle. This is neither good nor bad; it just is the reality of the enormousmarket that exists for works of art today. Intense trade, speculation,promotion, sizzle, the conflation with other luxury goods — all this is areflection of our times. The art market and the art world are shaped by,and also shape, the life around them. It is fascinating and complex, andreal. And there is great import in this — like it or not.”

“It is apparent to all that money has become an extremely importantingredient,” Shapazian said, capturing the mood of the day. “Its prominencehas even influenced 'aesthetics.' The way we 'see' certain works is subtlyaffected by our perception of their monetary worth and adulation. Anyone whodoes not acknowledge this is blind or disingenuous.”

Shapazian had always been a traveler — he wandered the globe at age 20 —and after leaving Gagosian he spent his time alternately working with youthcharities and being on the road, especially in Africa. "I think people arealways searching," he told an interviewer. "We are always trying to knowourselves better, to decide what we love to do, and what is really importantto us."