Culture

WSJ: The art of American Armenian dealer Larry Gagosian’s empire

The famously bullish art dealer built an empire spanning 16 locations around the globe by never saying no to his artists’ ambitions, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Larry Gagosian grew up in Los Angeles, the only son of an Armenian family. His mother, Ann Louise, made a living acting and singing, while his father, Ara, was an accountant. His actor uncle, who played a pirate in the 1960 version of Peter Pan, for a time lived in the family’s small downtown apartment along with Gagosian’s sister and grandmother. After his father became a stockbroker, the family upgraded to Van Nuys, in the San Fernando Valley. In high school, Gagosian swam competitively; he continued to swim and play water polo at UCLA until he quit the team his sophomore year.

After earning a B.A. in English literature at 24 (he never studied art history), he kicked around doing odd jobs in L.A. before getting hired at William Morris Agency, from which he was fired after a year. (“It was like a knife fight in a phone booth,” says Gagosian now. “I just didn’t have that DNA, to be in an office. Whatever I was going to do, I was going to do it on my own.”) Without savings, he needed a job and began working as a parking lot manager.

“I’ve always been somebody who just kind of does what’s in front of me,” says Gagosian. So when he observed a man selling posters near the parking lot, he decided to give it a shot and soon discovered he had a knack for selling. “So I started buying more expensive posters,” he says. “Rather than selling something for $15, with the frame it becomes $50 and $100.” Eventually he also started a frame shop (where Sonic Youth rocker Kim Gordon worked, writing in her 2015 memoir that he was a “mean” and “erratic” boss), and then rented out a former Hungarian restaurant in Westwood Village in 1976. In this narrow space he opened Prints on Broxton, selling more upscale pieces to fledgling collectors like Geffen, whom he met through his former William Morris boss Stan Kamen.

Gagosian himself is estimated to clear $1 billion in sales annually and is among a small group of gallery owners whose appetites are omnivorous: He works across the contemporary and modern eras, representing living artists like John Currin and Mark Grotjahn while also dealing on behalf of the estates of Alberto Giacometti, Richard Avedon and Helen Frankenthaler. He exhibits a wide range of work, from Instagram images appropriated by Richard Prince to boulders-as-sculpture by cerebral artist Michael Heizer. At the same time, he conducts sales on the so-called secondary market—a term he hates—by privately buying and selling artworks to clients. He was also an early proponent of the museum-quality show within a private gallery, securing sought-after loans of historic works that are often not for sale. Such wide-ranging exhibitions have included a show on Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens in 1995 and 2009’s Picasso: Mosqueteros, co-curated by Picasso biographer John Richardson, which drew 100,000 visitors to the gallery to see the artist’s less-examined late work.

Gagosian does all of this on an unprecedented scale, with 16 locations from Hong Kong to New York’s Chelsea, around 200 employees, a publishing arm that produces 40 books a year, a quarterly magazine and an in-house newspaper—even a retail storefront that sells Warhol Campbell’s Soup candles and butterfly-print deck chairs by Gagosian artist Damien Hirst.

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