Gallery  November 23, 2022  Rebecca Schiffman

As Gagosian Looks Ahead, Let’s Look Back

Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Larry Gagosian and Jean-Michel Basquiat, detail, New York, 1983

At 77 years old and after much speculation, Larry Gagosian just announced a plan of succession for his gallery, which spans nineteen locations around the world. Gagosian has assembled a board of prominent advisors from the art world and beyond, to serve as directors to help shape his empire in the years to come. The board features seven key associates already in place at Gagosian alongside twelve outside members including Evan Spiegel, chief executive of Snap, artist Jenny Saville, financier Glenn Fuhrman, and Delphine Arnault, executive vice president of Louis Vuitton, just to name a few. The announcement of this succession plan with such large figures on board might make you wonder: how did Gagosian get to be one of the most powerful people in the art world?

It all begins in the 1940s with the infamous Leo Castelli, an Italian-American art dealer who helped develop the contemporary art gallery system. His gallery, the Leo Castelli Gallery, showcased contemporary art for over five decades, helping now-major artists such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, and Eva Hesse, among many others get their start. Castelli’s space was legendary, and the gallery’s archives are at the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Gagosian Gallery

Castelli took on a young and ambitious Larry Gagosian as his protege, introducing him to artists, clients, dealers, and showing him how to run a gallery where the artists come first. At the time, Larry was just selling posters on the sidewalk. Toward the later years of Leo’s life, he and Larry became partners – they had a gallery together and co-represented artists

By the early 1980s, Gagosian began to develop his business rapidly by reselling blue-chip modern and contemporary art and in 1980 he opened his first gallery for modern and contemporary art in Los Angeles. Gagosian also opened a space on West Broadway in New York City, but had to shut it down after everyone in the building complained about the noise of his parties. In 1985, he established a more permanent Manhattan gallery in a building owned by the artist Sandro Chia, on West 23rd Street. At the time, there weren’t really any galleries in Chelsea, but that would soon change, thanks to Gagosian’s influence.

The shows at Gagosian's Chelsea gallery were the stuff of legends: a Lichtenstein-Picasso show, abstract de Kooning paintings from the 50s, Warhol, and Twombly – the list goes on. Gagosian Gallery from the get-go put on well curated exhibitions that still influence the blockbuster Chelsea gallery shows today.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Leo Castelli seated, Jasper Johns standing

Gagosian is known for his irresistibility and bullish confidence, which helps him make a sale. In the 80s, Andy Warhol showed Gagosian his oxidized paintings, now known as the Piss Paintings. Leo Castelli wasn’t interested in showing them, and Warhol said that no one liked them. Gagosian put on a show at his 23rd Street gallery and sold them all. Gagosian is also a brazen poacher of artists from other galleries. In the early 2000s, Gagosian plucked artist John Currin from Andrea Rosen, a midsized dealer who had nurtured Currin’s career since 1991. Though critiqued for this aggressive behavior, Gagosian simply said that he heard the artist was not happy, he paid attention, and that is how he got Currin. 

Gagosian’s dominance is ever present in the art world - people love to hate him, and hate to love him. In an article in artnet, a collector comments on why she deals with Larry. She sighs and says, “It’s…Larry, I don’t know, it’s Larry. I know he’s a rogue but he’s offering me the best stuff.” If one thing is clear about Larry Gagosian, it’s that he enjoys the competitive nature of the business and is good at it. Asked how to become a great dealer, Gagosian always defaults to one answer: passion, focus, hard work, and a great eye. 

Though Gagosian has established this new board of directors, he is certainly not interested in retiring. He is still signing new artists, opening new locations, launching new programs. Gagosian is a legendary and complicated figure, and it seems he’s still figuring it out.

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