Newsletter 505

Published August 21, 2023
No wonder he's smiling. "Look at me Ma! Top o' the world!"

Nothing in the recent New Yorker profile of art dealer, Larry Gagosian, came as a big surprise, but I was still left reeling after reading it. The feeling, to put a name to it, was one whereby all your worst suspicions have been confirmed in one hit.

Gagosian, as writer Patrick Radden Keefe informs us, is almost certainly the richest, most successful dealer of all time. He has muscled his way past figures such as Joseph Duveen, whom he has studied carefully, and Leo Castelli, who was a mentor. Duveen was a sophisticate who hobnobbed in upper class circles, and is now known for a long list of shady misattributions made in partnership with the legendary connoisseur, Bernard Berenson.

Castelli appears in the article as a dealer who was chiefly interested in art and artists, rather than the money to be made – although there was no shortage of that.

Gagosian, by contrast, is laser-focussed on the bottom line, and owes his success to his sheer drive and determination in chasing the dollar harder than any of his peers. He is as knowledgable as he needs to be in the history of art, and as charming as he needs to be with friends, artists and clients. He is rich enough to partake of acts of philanthropy, although he knows – like so many philanthropists – that this will also smooth the path of his business interests.

Gagosian is a creature of our times, and a fool’s gold standard for every aspiring art dealer. Whatever he has – and I hesitate to call these things “qualities” – they are hard to emulate. In Australia I can only think of one dealer who has that Gagosian-style drive, and he doesn’t even own a gallery. The vast majority of dealers have a romantic streak when to comes to art. They love certain works and admire particular artists, they enjoy the lifestyle but aren’t ready pursue clients relentlessly or work the phones all day.

The biggest Australian dealers are often reluctant to take part in the international art fairs that have become a standard component of the global art ecosystem. It’s too expensive, too much trouble and too much of a risk when things are ticking along nicely at home. For Gagosian and his fellow Uber dealers – David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, White Cube, etc. – the major art fairs are occasions that follow a wellworn sales routine. They are a time to catch up with major clients and meet new ones. They usually manage to sell a few million dollars’ worth within the first hour or so, although one assumes many of those sales are prearranged.

What came home so strongly from the Gagosian profile was the realisation as to what degree the quality of the art had become irrelevant to its success. When there are hundreds of billionaires queued up to buy something – anything – the dealer has to offer, it makes little difference if one is showing expressionist masterpieces, hard-edged abstractions, political statements, or kittens chasing a ball of wool. If Gagosian and his peers choose to exhibit it, there will be a long list of willing buyers.

The reasons are straightforward: money and status. For Gagosian art is “money on the walls.” Works bought for astronomical prices may be resold for even bigger prices two years down the track. So long as the economy keeps growing the dealers can set the prices as high as they like and the rich will keep buying. When one is within the club, the charmed circle of approved clients, each work serves as a badge of wealth and prestige. A banal Damien Hirst spot painting behind one’s desk signifies an outlay of £400,000. Or more.

One of the best lines in the New Yorker story belongs to former Christies exective, Loïc Gouzer, who tells us Gagosian “inverted this thing where normally the art dealers were trying to emulate their clients. Larry’s clients are trying to emulate him.”

Another, reads: “As the business grew, Gagosian lost his patina of disreputability.”

This is so true. Be successful and everbody forgets whatever sins you may have committed. Everybody wants to be your friend. Clients will turn a blind eye when they are sure the dealer is charging an inflated price, because being ripped off is virtually a medal of honour. Complain and one may not be allowed back into the inner circle.

Art Advisor, Allan Schwartzman, says Gagosian has “the eye of an industrialist. That’s someone who was seeking to build a massive financial empire.” Which is exactly what he has done, with 19 galleries in major cities, a string of residences in places such as the Hamptons and Capri, a private plane, and a priceless art collection that, ironically enough, he will probably leave to a museum.

The author says that he got the sense Gagosian was not particularly burdened by “ethical conundrums”. And why should he be? The art business is so unregulated that dealers can represent both sides of a transaction – both seller and buyer of a work of art – disclose only as much information to each party as deemed appropriate, and manipulate a price to suit themselves. This is not illegal but it’s a tactic only the very successful dealer could pull off.

All this provides excellent reasons to be cynical about the contemporary art market, and all the lofty, noble, politically correct nonsense we hear about the art we see at art fairs, in Biennales, and museum displays. Everything thrives when fertilised by money. All one can do is try and blot out the dollar signs and ask whether the artist is offering us a work of great imaginative and emotional power. The good news is that most artists in Australia are so poor that their sincerity and integrity may be virtually taken for granted. There’s just not enough money involved to turn their heads. If there is a path to the big time for Australian art it will most probably come from those artists who have least concern for money – Indigenous artists from remote communities. Gagosian, as usual, is ahead of the game, having already held three shows of Aboriginal art, in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong.

This week’s art column is devoted to the year’s greatest First Nations art fest, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) and associated events in Darwin. No days in the calendar are more essential for an appreciation of contemporary Indigenous art than the second week of August, and this year produced plenty of impressive works. My partial overview of a very busy week has yet to appear in the Herald, as they are still playing catch-up by publishing last week’s column on the White Rabbit exhibition. Once again, I’m conscious that it’s more important to run the piece while it’s timely rather than wait for its appearance in the newspaper, even though it means we continue to be out-of-synch. As an old newspaperman, I’m constantly surprised by the lack of urgency one finds today, as the volatility of advertising causes columns to be held or dropped.

The movie this week is Gran Turismo, the latest product tie-in, subsidised by the Japanese company that sells the highly successful racing simulator of the same name. It’s “based on a true story” of a working-class gamer from Wales who gets to drive a real racing car in the Formula 3 competition. I hardly need tell you the best bits are the action scenes on the track, not the family drama or coming-of-age stuff. As these ‘product’ films are corporate collaborations one need not harbour any romantic expectations. If paintings are money on the wall, such films – entertaining as they may be – are the apotheosis of the advertisement.