That was in the mid ‘90s, when Post-war American art was on the precipice of national fervor and financial success; abstract expressionism and Pop Art became something Americans were proud of and a reliable financial instrument.
Perhaps for the first time in the history of Art, such monumental success was created not by the artists themselves, but by the talented art dealers who sensed the nation’s desire for domestic art. They achieved this through their own keen sense of the social atmosphere, a natural taste in art, and an aggressive business strategy. One of these talented art dealers is an Armenian-American born in Los Angeles – Larry Gagosian.
Today Gagosian is perhaps the most influential persona in the modern art world, yet rarely gives interviews and almost never speaks to the press. Due to this lack of information some begin to create their own myths and legends about him. What is known is that at a very young age, Larry organized his own business: he bought posters for two dollars each, framed them, and resold them for fifteen dollars each, generating a hefty profit. Practically everyone who has ever written something about him attributed his monumental success in modern and contemporary art dealing to this early, entrepreneurial, stage of his life.
For me this brought to mind a famous anecdote about a millionaire who was asked about the reasons for the success of his business. He told his story in detail about how in his childhood he came up with an idea to wash his apples before putting them up for sale. He would use his earnings to buy more apples, wash them, and again sell them. With minimal overhead costs he earned a stable income.
“But, how did you become a millionaire?” he was asked.
“No! A million I inherited upon the death of my uncle!”
Larry Gagosian inherited experience and business contacts from his mentor – the famous New York art dealer, Leo Castelli – and by effectively utilizing these connections he was able to set himself up for success. His business idea of framing and reselling posters, a tiny exercise in speculation compared to the entire theory of the art business created by Leo Castelli and his associates.
All they did was develop the business of American art, nothing more, nothing less. That was in the ‘70s.
Lawrence Gilbert “Larry” Gagosian, born in 1945, Alumni of UCLA with a degree in English Literature, was only beginning of his long career. In 1976 Gagosian opened a print shop in (later renamed what was known as the Broxton Gallery) in the suburb of Los Angeles and began to promote unknown artists of that time. His gallery featured Alexis Smith, Elyn Zimmerman, conceptualists John Baldessari and Bruce Nauman; and Latvian-born Vija Celmins.
In 1978, in West Hollywood, he opened his first gallery. Joining his roster of artists were Cindy Sherman, Erick Fischel, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Today these artists are superstars, but then they were at the beginning of their careers. In the mid-80s, Gagosian moves to New York and buys a balcony loft on West Broadway in SoHo.
Not too many need an explanation of what SoHo stands for, especially in the art world. Back then it was a new art district in Manhattan which opened up its huge abandoned manufacturing plant, meaning new doors to artists, giving them total freedom to experiment with form and color, sizes, scales, and materials. SoHo became a laboratory in which a new American art culture was born. The upper floors and penthouses were not yet enormously valued, as they are today, when SoHo became one of the most prestigious districts in New York City.
The building in which Larry Gagosian purchased his loft was located directly across the mansion hosting Leo Castelli Gallery, consequently Gagosian was able to make contact and befriend Castelli’s closest friends and associates, marking the beginning of his first lessons in the world of art business. Castelli’s unorthodox methods captivated Gagosian, especially the ability to manage the artistic process of the artists selected by Castelli – providing them with their own studios, determining the value of their work, and retaining the full rights for production and sale.
Gagosian began to build his own empire by selling the works of artists who were at the time only at the beginning their careers, called “blue-chip”, as Gagosian undertook great risk by investing in them. He developed and successfully implemented, what I call, the “theory of fast money”: circulating artists’ work, creating style and immediately selling the works of these artists at the peak of their popularity, not worrying about after effect.
These methods contributed to the world learning about Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Cecily Brown – artists who’s work entirely shocked the world. It was more of a social, rather than artistic shock, such as Koon’s flamboyant kitsch, and Hirst’s preserved shark exhibit. How Gagosian was able to channel all this into the primary direction of modern art remains uncovered, but judging by his great success, this was worth it.
To subscribe or purchase the magazine http://inlovemag.com/subscribe/