Gagosian Gallery Empire Under Threat As Top Artists Jump Ship

Gagosian Gallery

In the latter half of December, the largest gallery in the world suddenly found its future dominance in doubt. The Gagosian Gallery, which turned over almost one billion dollars in 2011, had its relationship with two of its leading artists, Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama, abruptly severed. A third star, Jeff Koons, appeared on the brink of joining Hirst and Kusama after he agreed to an exhibition with the Gagosian’s arch-rival, New York dealer David Zwirner.

With three high-profile relationships faltering in such quick succession, speculation has inevitably circulated that there must be a connected reason behind them. Analysts have slipped into calling the departures “defections”, implying a more troubled break-up than the “amicable decision to part company” that Hirst’s company described.

The Gagosian Gallery has been one of the great success stories of the art world over the past half-century. Now with 11 branches globally. The gallery began with Larry Gagosian selling posters near the campus of the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), where he studied as an English major in the 1960s.

At this time, the most influential art dealer in America was Leo Castelli, who helped many of the twentieth centuries most important artists find fame: Johns, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Serra, Warhol. But whereas Castelli usually avoided the secondary art market –that is, selling on work that has already been sold – Gagosian made this his ground. His first substantial profits were made by selling on Californian art owned by the columnist Joyce Haber. This generated sufficient profit to open his first gallery, on La Brea Avenue in LA, in 1978. Later that year, he bought a gallery space in New York, opposite the Leo Castelli Gallery. In 1979, Gagosian used his New York space to present David Salle’s first exhibition. In 1982, he exhibited Basquiat in Los Angeles.

Through the 1980s, Gagosian ruthlessly expanded his business through extremely effective manipulation of the secondary market. By 1986 he had established a second New York gallery space in Manhattan. In 1988 he stunned the art world by bidding $17m on behalf of Newhouse for Jasper Johns’ ‘False Start’. His journey to the forefront of the art world was complete, though his ambition in no way diminished thereafter: in the spring of 2000, the Gagosian became an international gallery with the opening of a branch in London’s Piccadilly, while in 2010, Gagosian established his first gallery in Paris. In 2011 ArtReview placed Gagosian fourth in their annual poll of “the most powerful person in the art world.”

With such immense success behind him, it may seem hyperbolic to read portents of Gagosian’s demise into the events of December. But a sudden fall from grace would be in no way a new fate for an international gallery – such rapid and dramatic drops from the top position have befallen several in the past.

In November 2011, after 165 years at the heart of the American art world, the New York gallery Knoedler & Company released a short statement announcing that it was to close. “It is with profound regret that the owners of Knoedler Gallery announce its closing, effective today. This was a business decision made after careful consideration over the course of an extended period of time. Gallery staff will assist with an orderly winding down of Knoedler Gallery.”

The announcement stunned and saddened the international art world, with Knoedler having played a key role in bringing American art to the world. Since it was founded in 1846, it had hosted American greats from George Bellows to Frank Stella. At first the reasons for its demise were shrouded in mystery. But swiftly a bleak story emerged: the Company in the end had relied on profits made by selling alleged fakes. These included a Rothko painting, dispatched for $8.3m, later declared, ‘Not by the artists’s hand’. This and many other pieces were bought from the little-known dealer Glarifa Rosales, whose collection of work had no documented proof of provenance. The court cases continue!

A similar nosedive into infamy befell Marlborough Fine Art, whose owner Frank Lloyd was a charismatic forerunner of later dealers such as Charles Saatchi and Gagosian. In the 1960s, Marlborough, with a gallery space in Mayfair, was the dealer for Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Lucian Freud. In America, it was at the centre of the abstract expressionist explosion, taking on the estates of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Its relationship with Rothko, however, was to tarnish the gallery’s reputation indelibly, ending in a court case described as the art world equivalent of the Watergate scandal. After Rothko’s death, 800 paintings were left in the hands of his appointed trustees, all Rothko’s good friends, as well as being close to Frank Lloyd. A hundred of these Rothko paintings were swiftly sold to Marlborough for $1.8m, a fraction of their market value. In 1972, Rothko’s daughter took Rothko’s executors and Marlborough to court, in a case that that blew open the pervasive manipulation of the market and artists by top dealers. Marlborough Fine Art survived, though Frank Lloyd was forced to leave, and the gallery lost its eminent position in the contemporary art world. It is now run by Lloyd’s son, who is making a huge effort to shed its past reputation.

More recently, an even more spectacular scandal engulfed another world-renowned dynastic dealership.  Wildenstein & Co. is a family-run, multi-billion dollar art business that dates back over five generations, when it was founded in Paris in 1875. It quickly won a reputation for selling old masters, and was ahead of many of its rivals in exhibiting the Impressionists. Today, you can walk past the limestone facade of its Headquarters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, while its research institute sits across the Atlantic on the Seine’s right bank. While controversy and accusations have swirled around the business for decades, in 2011 they reached a particular intensity, culminating with company president Guy Wildenstein being arrested for “receiving fraudulently obtained goods.”

Police were already investigating Wildenstein for alleged money-laundering and tax evasion, when they discovered a vault in his Paris research institute packed with artwork that had been reported missing. Among the items were works by Degas which hadn’t been seen since they were looted by the Nazis from a mansion near Paris in 1941. The discovery added weight to accusations made in a mid-90s book, The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art, which alleged that during World War II George Wildenstein worked with a prominent Nazi art dealer who dealt in art stolen from Jews. Other works of art in the vault belonged to relatives of collectors whose prized pieces had mysteriously vanished after their death. As these accusations and lawsuits began to circle, Wildenstein & Co’s reputation plummeted.

Of course, none of this history is meant to imply that Larry Gagosian has dealt mendaciously in Rothko paintings, bought artwork looted by the Nazis or any other sorted art transactions. But it is a reminder that, in the art world, size, wealth, and decades of success are no guarantee against a swift and thorough fall from eminence. Few international galleries have survived beyond a few generations – are we seeing the first signs that the Gagosian will meet the same fate?

Words: Toby Hill Photo: Go-Go makes a rare appearence on his stand at Art Basel Miami © ArtLyst 2012


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