Gagosian's art of the art deal

The curator is arguably the most powerful man in the art world, and some of his collection goes on display next month in the capital.

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At first glance, there is little but citizenship to connect the work of three of the most important American artists of the past century.
The large-scale abstract paintings of Cy Twombly are quite different, in look and feel, to the assembled works of Robert Rauschenberg, whose intensely detailed canvases incorporate photographs, drawings and images from newspapers. Put them beside Andy Warhol's colourful, familiar work and a viewer could easily forget they were contemporaries. Yet the links between them are strong, both personal and professional: Twombly and Rauschenberg travelled together and influenced each other's work; the same abstract lines and yearning for simplicity are evident in both. In both Rauschenberg and Warhol's work, found, familiar objects from the contemporary world are placed together to make the everyday seem uncommon. Still, displaying them together in the same exhibition would not be the first thought of a curator. But then, few curators have the power to bring such diverse pieces together.
One person who can is Larry Gagosian, the world's most powerful art dealer, a man who represents names such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. With galleries in New York, London, Rome and Athens, Gagosian can confidently claim to have his finger on the hot spots of the art world. Next month, he will arrive in the Gulf. Manarat Al Saadiyat, the exhibition space on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island, will bring the first showing of pieces from his private collection to the region. As the name of the event - RSTW - suggests, the collection will bring together some of the biggest American artists of the post-war period: Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Serra, Twombly, Warhol and Wool. That these pieces are all in the private collection of Mr Gagosian tells you much of what you need to know about the influence of the man.
Close watchers of the art world would have seen the writing on the wall last year when, in an interview with The National, he pointed out that the region provided a huge opportunity to connect with buyers: "Abu Dhabi in particular has become a compelling situation because of not only the possibility for private collections but the very ambitious museums that are being built there." It follows that if Mr Gagosian is coming to the UAE, that's because there are buyers nearby. His reputation - and his fortune - have been built by seeing opportunities to sell to buyers before his peers. Where Mr Gagosian goes, artists and buyers follow.
It wasn't always so. Rags-to-riches stories are a rarity in the art world, and although Mr Gagosian's background is solidly middle class, his upbringing hardly suggested a destiny in the rarefied world of art. Born in Los Angeles, his father was an accountant, his mother an actress, and until the age of 30 he was working for an entertainment talent agency. In 1975, he rented a small patio and began selling framed posters, before moving on to small art exhibitions and - by the 1980s - his own gallery. Being based in Los Angeles at a time when New York dominated the art scene in America allowed him to become the LA outpost for New York artists, but also meant he was far from the centre of the art world.
By 1985, he had rectified this, opening a gallery in the Chelsea neighbourhood of New York. Again, having few competitors helped and hindered him - when he moved in, his was just about the only gallery in the area. But he was already moving in the circles that would bring him success, and he persuaded wealthy collectors to let him show their works at his galleries. That talent for business and publicity allowed him to exhibit and represent some of the biggest names in art. For more than 30 years he has continued to expand his roster of high-paying clients, his artists and his galleries. That he has done so in the volatile world of art has left his competitors wondering at his secret.
In fact, the secret of Mr Gagosian's success isn't really a secret at all; it's an attitude. He views the world of art as a business, and his role is to match buyer with seller. Sometimes the sellers don't know they are selling; Mr Gagosian's technique is to call up a potential buyer and get an offer, before calling up the owner of the piece and conveying that offer. Typically the suggestion of hard cash - and in Mr Gagosian's world this means upwards of six figures - pushes the owner to sell.
One art consultant told The New York Times, "He made [art] a business deal and business guys were more comfortable with that. It was like they were buying a building, or shares of IBM." An oft-used quote about Mr Gagosian, from his early days when he was more forthcoming with the media, is his suggestion that "if I weren't doing this, I'd probably be in real estate." Critics charge that he has brought precisely that perspective to the art world, making it into a version of the real estate market. As in real estate, where dealers "flip" houses, buying them and quickly selling them on at a higher price, Mr Gagosian often moves an artwork from the walls of one wealthy owner to another, taking his commission every time.
One can read his method in two ways. His critics think such practices unravelled the genteel world of art, making what ought to be a market of love into a purely business affair. But even they acknowledge that he tore up the old way of doing business, of patrons "earning" the right to buy art by moving in the right circles. Mr Gagosian's way was to make the business more transparent, so that anyone with sufficiently deep pockets could purchase great art.
A glimpse of how unusual his method of selling is came two years ago, when a leaked e-mail from Mr Gagosian to his staff was dissected across the internet as evidence of his "tough-talking". As the financial crisis began to bite, he wrote: "If you would like to continue working for Gagosian I suggest you start to sell some art. The luxury of carrying underperforming employees is now a thing of the past." That a company boss should push his staff to sell the product would be unsurprising in any other industry. In the art world, to see art as purely business is considered infra dig.
Another reason the memo was read so widely is that Mr Gagosian is a man of few public words. Better than most, he understands the power of mystique. He has not spoken to anyone profiling him in more than a decade, and rarely has words for journalists at his glamorous openings. This mystique serves him well, especially in an industry that thrives on gossip. It enlarges the aura around him, allowing people to project their own perceptions. "He's something of a genius," according to Peter Schjeldahl, a New York art critic. "We think of genius as being complicated. Gagosian is simple. He's basically a shark, a feeding machine."
That mystique also helps his business. When he bids on a painting, few know if it is for him or for someone else. Who might that someone else be? No one knows. Holding his cards close to his chest gives him power and keeps people guessing: when he opened a gallery in Rome in 2007, people wondered what he was doing, what he knew about the art scene that they didn't. That power makes him more than a mere gallery owner; it allows him to influence the tastes of the art world.
When Mr Gagosian declared last year that the centre of the art world was moving east from New York, it was both a prediction and a persuasion. He noted that collectors from Russia, Asia and the Middle East were more comfortable in Europe and praised the market there. In addition to his presence in Abu Dhabi, he has also opened an office in Hong Kong. By shifting his business and his perspective towards Asia, he is drawing the eyes of collectors and gallerists, speeding up a movement east and thereby helping to fulfil his own prophecy.
* The National