Larry Gagosian interviewed

Azimi
I was in Abu Dhabi the first year or second year of their art fair where you gave a talk. You were really frank about your professional history and how you got to where you are. And I just wonder if you could tell me a bit about that moment? When you started out. What was your visual world like at that moment? I mean, were you interested in visual culture?

Gagosian
To be honest with you, I wasn’t really interested in art. I had never thought about having a career in art and didn’t really understand the art world or… I was an English major in college. It was really kind of a fluke. I started selling posters because I thought I could make more money that way than parking cars. Simple as that. I saw somebody else selling posters and I basically just copied their business. It was a total lack of imagination. Of direction, really. It was just like, I could sell posters instead of just parking cars, so I was parking cars and selling posters and making more money and it just led me to a kind of wonderful life as an art dealer. There wasn’t a plan to get into the art world; I didn’t see this as an entry point. It was not a professional decision — if I’d seen somebody else selling something, I might’ve sold that. I was very lucky that it turned out to be a career path.

Azimi
What were those first posters you sold? I mean did you also try to psychologize what people liked to put on their walls?

Gagosian
What?

Azimi
Did you think a lot about what people liked to put on their walls? There must have been a fair amount of psychology —

Gagosian
Not selling posters. It was just like, get them to buy it. You know — ask for twenty dollars and be prepared to take anything north of ten. It was a street business. It wasn’t about psychology.

Azimi
But were they reproductions of canonical works of art?

Gagosian
They were not reproductions of works of art. They were really what we call schlock. Cheap posters of bad paintings. I mean, it was not what you’d find in the poster shop at the Whitney or the MoMA. You would buy the poster for fifty cents. It wasn’t really a poster, it was a cheap print.

Azimi
That you framed.

Gagosian
That you put a frame on. You buy the print for about a dollar, the frame would cost you two, three dollars, and then you try to sell it and make a profit. And I’d make a couple hundred bucks a night, which was a lot of money.

Azimi
And were you selling to college students or —

Gagosian
Anybody who walked by. Young people… I mean, somebody who wants something they thought was attractive to put on their wall and they don’t have a lot of money. People have to hang something on the wall, I guess, so this was kind of the bottom of the barrel. [Laughs]

Azimi
Right. I mean, we always joke that the Iranian diaspora in LA — they all have posters of Van Gogh’s flowers, like some —

Gagosian
No, no, don’t make any cultural connections.

Azimi
Okay. Not at all?

Gagosian
It was just something to sell. And then I started buying more expensive posters, because the company I bought my posters from made posters that would cost me, instead of a dollar, maybe twenty-five dollars, fifty dollars. So then I could put a better frame on it and sell it for a couple hundred bucks, and I’d make money faster that way. And that slowly got me looking at art as… You know, I wasn’t really that much into art. I sort of liked it. But I was really captivated by writing and poetry and music, that’s really what —

Azimi
That was your world.

Gagosian
Kind of. Those were my friends. We didn’t talk about art, we talked about writers. We talked about musicians. But once I got into it, it really kind of took over; it pulled me in a very strong way. And I enjoyed making a decent living. I didn’t grow up with money, so it was nice to be able to buy things and get a better place to live, you know, all the things that come along with a certain amount of success. And that was very seductive. So it was two things: for the first time I’m actually making money. I was on my own, I was thirty years old, and then when I had my first gallery I was like thirty-three, thirty-four, but it was the first time I ever had any money and that was exciting, to be honest with you, to be able to afford things, take my friends out to dinner, whatever it was. And then I really got interested in the art world, not just art but the art world, and meeting artists. I started coming to New York, and it was just good for me. It couldn’t have been better.

Azimi
But could you have started out anywhere else besides LA? It seems like there was a particular thing happening there.

Gagosian
I suppose New York would have been ground zero for art, but maybe it was better not being in New York. I don’t know. It was good that I was in LA because I think LA is really, after New York, the most important city for art. Maybe not for the business of art — that might be London now, because of all the money in London and the auction houses, so I think in terms of the economics of the art world, I’d say London is the second city. But for the people who make art, for the artists and for young galleries, LA is probably the second most exciting city. Some people say it’s even more interesting than New York, and that’s a conversation. I mean, that’s a conversation, but certainly it rivals New York.

Azimi
I guess it feels more like a community, because of the art schools and the fact that a lot of artists teach.

Gagosian
Yeah, there’s a lot of great artists that work in LA, and that’s been a constant since the 1950s.

Azimi
So what was that world like? Who was it? People like Chris Burden, Baldessari…?

Gagosian
I’ve never worked with John Baldessari, but I knew him socially, we became friends, but I’ve never dealt with his work. But Chris is an artist I started working with early on, right at the very beginning. And we still work together. Which is nice, you know — it’s nice to have that continuity. I think I first showed Chris in 1977 or ’78, I can’t remember which. One of my very, very first shows of a single artist. We’re really proud of the long association. He’s a great artist.

Azimi
Were there other people that sort of were pivotal for you at that moment, where you thought, I really want to work with —

Gagosian
You mean artists?

Azimi
Yeah.

Gagosian
Well, Vija Celmins was a new artist… We showed her prints — one of my first shows was her prints and all of the lithographs that she’d made. I got them together and made a nice exhibition. But yeah, you realize that what’s important is to show the best art you can, and when you’re starting out you don’t have the access, you don’t have the money, and you don’t have the knowledge, even. I mean, I realized early on what would make a gallery interesting would be showing good art. Which is kind of obvious, but… Something that I’ve always paid attention to is to work with the most important artist that I could.

Azimi
Yeah. But you obviously have an eye, a good eye.

Gagosian
You have to have an eye if you’re an art dealer.

Azimi
And I’ve heard from —

Gagosian
Even a bad eye is an eye. [Laughs]

Azimi
At least it’s distinctive. But I’ve heard from a lot of people who know you that you have a sort of photographic memory, or just a really good ability to —

Gagosian
I don’t have a photographic memory.

Azimi
No?

Gagosian
I have a select memory.

Azimi
Or a good visual memory?

Gagosian
Yeah, I have a good visual memory. I’m good with faces, but names — I get in trouble a lot, I can’t seem to remember people. People think I’m rude. As a side comment, you know, I’m not being rude, I just kind of blank out.

Azimi
Yeah. You have a… persona. Now, do you remember the first piece of work that you bought for yourself? Something you just wanted to have and live with.

Gagosian
I think one of the first things I bought was a drawing by Vija Celmins that was eleven hundred dollars and I bought it from a collector, a great collector in LA named Barry Lowen, whose collection all went to the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA when he died. He was a young man when he died, he had AIDS, and he was a very good friend of mine. We used to do a lot of business and became really good friends. So the Celmins… I remember it was eleven hundred dollars, and it’s always out on loan, I think it’s at the Pompidou or something, but I’ve kept that drawing since the Seventies. That was one of the first. That was a lot of money for me to spend — eleven hundred dollars for a drawing. I really loved the drawing, and I knew when I bought it that I’d made a good buy, even though it was not cheap and Barry Lowen got the proper price. I knew it would be worth a lot more.

Azimi
What’s the drawing like?

Gagosian
It’s a pencil drawing of the ocean.

Azimi
I asked you about Cy Twombly, but are there any other artists that you felt really close to? I mean that you had either a long relationship with or were intimate with or… I’m sure you’re close to all your artists, but —

Gagosian
Well, Richard Serra is an artist I’ve worked with since 1982, and he’s somebody I’ve had a long relationship with and worked very closely with. It was nice when Cy and Richard were both alive. Richard’s one of the great living artists, and somebody I enjoy working with.

Azimi
Would you do anything for him? I mean, if he built a sculpture that didn’t fit into your gallery, would you find a way to accommodate it somehow?

Gagosian
We’d probably try. You know, put it outside. [Laughs]

Azimi
Are there any others? I mean, it’s a tough question but —

Gagosian
There are so many artists I enjoy working with. I just mention Richard because I’ve worked with him for thirty years and I mention Chris because I’ve worked with him even longer. I mean I’m not going to say which artists I’m not close to —

Azimi
Of course.

Gagosian
But I enjoy working with artists. It’s a real challenge and it’s a real responsibility, because you’re responsible for their livelihood, you know? Seriously. And they’re just very interesting people for the most part. They’re usually pretty smart. I just like the whole… the relationship between the gallery and the artist is a very interesting thing, different with every artist. The gallery stays the same, in a way, but the artist’s relationship changes, so it’s one of the things I really enjoy. I like engaging with artists.

Azimi
If you had to have Thanksgiving with an artist or a collector… I mean, what’s your comfort zone?

Gagosian
I’m comfortable with both. I like being around collectors, you know, because it’s an occupational necessity, but also, I must say — not to flatter any particular collector, but art collectors are usually pretty interesting people. The fact that they’ve chosen to spend money on art… I mean, people who really collect, on an ongoing basis. Not just somebody who’s decorating their house, but somebody who’s really engaged with art and thinks about it, evaluates it, buys it, enjoys it, and talks about it — that’s what I’m talking about. Somebody who’s just, “Alright, I have some stuff on the walls” — those can be good customers, but that’s a different kind of thing. It’s great because as an art dealer you get access to people that are quite fascinating, you could even say important people, that you wouldn’t have access to if you were in some other line of work. You get a window into a world that probably isn’t that easily accessed.

Azimi
Were there any early collectors that you worked with that were especially on your wavelength? Or you were very involved in the building of their collections?

Gagosian
Yeah, a couple. Probably the three that stick out would be Eli Broad, Si Newhouse, and David Geffen.

Azimi
I wanted to ask you a bit about —

Gagosian
This is going to go a long time if we’re going to cover ancient history…

Azimi
[Laughs] No, no, I just want you to be comfortable! Yeah, no, I know, I know —

Gagosian
We’re still back in the Seventies.

Azimi
Okay, I’ll jump around a little bit.

Gagosian
You better jump around.

Azimi
I’ll jump around.

Gagosian
We’ll have to move this a little faster.

Azimi
Alright, alright, alright. But it’s so good —

Gagosian
It might be good but I still have auctions starting this evening.

Azimi
Sure, of course. Okay. So, your gallery has become totally global. It’s sort of everywhere, situated in vastly different cultures. Do you think there’s something about art that has become global, in the sense that you’re not selling very specific things to Hong Kong versus Athens versus wherever?

Gagosian
Do we target certain types of artists for different parts of the world? Not really at all. We basically show the same artists everywhere. The artists we represent, the estates that we represent — we try to make sense of it, and it’s complicated because with this many galleries you have to be very focused on the work. With art — it’s not like it’s a global business like a fashion business, where you can just keep opening stores, just have more production and so on. Artists make work at the pace that they make work and you can’t ask an artist to crank out— I mean, it’d be nice [laughs] — but the reality is, you have to be respectful of that, and it’s tricky. It’s very demanding. But we don’t really say… in Italy, let’s have an artist that Italians would like. The market’s more —

Azimi
Sophisticated, in a way.

Gagosian
The modern world is much more… contemporary. People look at the same things, you know, whether it’s in Hong Kong or Athens. And so we just work with the artists that we represent, and try to juggle it all.

Azimi
And about Abu Dhabi — I’ve followed that evolution a bit. And I wondered whether you were aware of what was happening in the Seventies in Iran, with the royal family, collecting —

Gagosian
Now I am. I wasn’t aware at the time, though. I was kind of oblivious to that sort of thing.

Azimi
I just wonder if you see any corollaries.

Gagosian
Well, yeah. I mean, hopefully, it ends better. But yeah, you have a very wealthy royal family that’s buying art — and I think that’s great, by the way, you know the Shah had a museum and people could go look at the art, it’s —

Azimi
Still there.

Gagosian
To be honest with you, what’s the difference between that — I don’t want to get into politics, but you know, the Rockefellers bought art and they put it in the Museum of Modern Art and people from all over the world can go look at it. So I think it’s great that you have a royal family in Qatar or in Abu Dhabi —

Azimi
That has a public —

Gagosian
That has the means and the desire to build a great collection, and then you share it with the world — or certainly, share it first with your country and the people that live in your country. But it’s great. I think if you have the wealth to do that, and assuming that people are being taken care in the other aspects of their lives —

Azimi
Why not invest in it?

Gagosian
You know, why not? It enriches the country, I think.

Azimi
You mentioned that in college your world was more writing and music. Is that still true? Like, what do you do when you’re not involved in… this? I’ve heard you’re into jazz —

Gagosian
I work a lot. I spend most of my time working.

Azimi
Do you watch stupid movies?

Gagosian
Do I watch stupid movies?

Azimi
And also good movies!

Gagosian
Yeah, I like movies. Yeah, I like movies.

Azimi
Are there any directors that you’re really especially into?

Gagosian
I like Roman Polanski. I like his movies, and… I love Stanley Kubrick. He’s dead, but…

Azimi
Still great.

Gagosian
Two of my favorite directors.

Azimi
And music?

Gagosian
Uh… music. I like jazz a lot. I just joined my very first board. I’ve never been on a board, but I just went on the board for Jazz at Lincoln Center. I’m very happy about that. Good jazz has been a big part of my life, as far as my interest in music, and… It’s kind of weird now with music, the way technology is, with downloading and iPods and electronic distribution and it’s kind of — you miss something, I think.

Azimi
L ike the texture of vinyl, and…

Gagosian
Yeah, but not just the vinyl, I’m not a vinyl junkie. It’s more that… music has become so seamlessly distributed that it loses some of its connection with people. I don’t have any nostalgia for vinyl, but it is nice when you really like to put on something and listen to it, particularly with people that like to listen to it. Now you come to my house, it’s like, stick the iPod in and turn it on. It’s very convenient, but it also… slightly numbs the experience, I think. I used to have a store in my neighborhood in East Hampton where I used to love to go on a Saturday and buy CDs and come back and listen to them. That’s not that long ago. The good side is, everything is more accessible and maybe cheaper. But the personal connection between the audience and the music in some ways is lost.

Azimi
Yeah, you said seamless, I think it’s like an —

Gagosian
Do you agree with me?

Azimi
Yeah, it’s like an elevator, I mean how music is everywhere, in the atmosphere —

Gagosian
Yeah, there’s no background.

Azimi
Just a couple more questions. I know that you invest a lot in good catalogs. I mean, it seems like you really care about print culture, and I just wonder if you have any favorite books? Or do you read art magazines at all?

Gagosian
Very little.

Azimi
Yeah, they’re pretty wordy right?

Gagosian
I honestly have to confess I don’t read art magazines.

Azimi
Yeah, yeah, I think they’re terrible [laughs], I mean they’re —

Gagosian
I don’t think they’re terrible, I just don’t read them. I read other kinds of magazines.

Azimi
Like what?

Gagosian
I like magazines. Well, now I’m reading a lot of design magazines because I’m building a house. I’m building a new house here in the city, so I’m reading a lot of design magazines trying to get ideas and things to feed to my architect. So that sort of thing. And then I love cars — I’m a car junkie, not a big car collector but I love cars, so I read car magazines. I read news magazines, occasionally. And I read books a lot. I’m more of a book reader.

Azimi
What are you reading now?

Gagosian
I’m reading a book called Sutton.

Azimi
What’s that?

Gagosian
It’s about a bank robber named Willie Sutton who was almost a folk hero. He never shot anybody, never used a gun. I wouldn’t have read it because I’m not particularly interested in bank robbers but the writer is a really, really good writer and it’s a very sensitive, wellwritten book. I recommend it. So it’s not like I’m particularly interested in the topic but it’s like a character from our past that somehow relates to the present.

Azimi
Okay, I was going to —

Gagosian
Okay? Thanks.

Azimi
Oh, do you want to? Really?

Gagosian
Yeah, let’s stop.

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