Art Dealers

Dealers of Castelli’s ilk, erudite and with experience in areas other than art—Castelli started as a banker—guided collections as well as careers. Another of these larger-than-life figures was Sidney Janis, the trendsetting 57th Street, New York, dealer and onetime vaudevillian who in the 1950s and ’60s promoted such American Abstract Expressionists as Rothko, de Kooning and Gorky, along with European modernists like Picasso, Mondrian and Klee. He was also one of the first anywhere to show Pop art.

“Sidney Janis was graduate school for me,” says the New York collector Barbara Jakobson, reminiscing about her initiation in art in the 1950s, when Janis inculcated her with his passion for it even though she was not yet prepared to become a client. “I was in my early 20s and he loved to teach,” she says. “Few art dealers now have time to spend with the merely curious.”

How about the world’s most powerful dealer in contemporary art today, Larry Gagosian, who claims all artists are naturally magnetic? Some say Gagosian is charming only as long as it takes to sign a check. Jakobson demurs, calling him “completely extraordinary … very intelligent and well-read.” While admitting that he can also be distant, she says that “what makes you decide to invest these people with magical power has to do with their sense of authority. A lot of the most successful have no charisma whatever. But they must be willing to act in loco parentis by taking on the artists, [who can be] narcissistic and more demanding than one’s children. They have to be incredibly good liars and say they love everything their artists do. And they have to be able to suffer fools instead of telling them to go home and write a check.”

Other old-school collectors grumble that high-powered gallerists today never sit still long enough to regale their clients with art stories the way Castelli and Janis did. But the brisk pace may be imposed by the new collectors, many of whom have time neither for leisurely conversation nor for prepurchase deliberation. Those who want top pieces snap them up quickly, particularly at art fairs, where discussions are not just brief but also impersonal.

Yet stories keep surfacing about dealers with a Rasputin-like influence on the people around them. One of these was Alexander Iolas. A significant force in Surrealism, Iolas had galleries in Paris, New York, Geneva and Milan before he retired to Athens, where the British-born collector Pauline Karpidas, who has spent most of her adult life in Greece, met him in 1975.

“He was like the Countess of Graumont,” says Karpidas, “trailing this Fortuny cape. I first found him having his hair dyed in the sink by his housekeeper. With the flick of a finger encircled by a 48-carat-diamond ring, he pulls a turban around his head like Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great and starts winding a diamond necklace around the turban. I was totally enamored. And he says, ‘Darling, do you have any idea what it takes to form a collection?’ Long story short, it took 10 years. But the fun we had!”

Karpidas played Eliza Doolittle to Iolas’s Henry Higgins. He not only started her collecting contemporary art but also introduced her to another aspiring patron, Dominique de Menil, and, later, to Charles Saatchi, as well as to Andy Warhol, who did her portrait. “If you’re going to collect a certain period, you have to buy in depth, and that’s where mentors come in,” says Karpidas, who includes among her tutors both Castelli and Robert Fraser, the rocking British Pop-art dealer who introduced Yoko Ono and John Lennon. “But the one who gave me real entrée into the world of art was Iolas. ‘You will always think of me,’ he said, ‘because I taught you how to focus.’ ”

The Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann is another whom many in the art world still regard with awe as well as affection. Famously discreet, he would never reveal the names of his blue-chip clients, although Giovanni Agnelli, Gustavo Cisneros and Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon are all linked with him. By the time he died, in 1993, Ammann had made a place for the early work of such modern masters as Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol and Brice Marden in European and American collections. (His sister Doris Ammann runs Thomas Ammann Fine Art today as a prominent secondary-market shop.)

The writer Bob Colacello met Ammann in the 1970s while working at Interview with Warhol. “[Ammann] was the first person I knew to have Belgian slippers—the first to put soles on them so he could wear them outside,” Colacello recalls. “He was always smiling. Five minutes in his presence, and I was relaxed and cool and happy.”

Ammann easily persuaded many to pay high prices for artists he represented in Europe— Twombly and Marden among them. “If you were discovered by Thomas,” Colacello says, citing Ross Bleckner and Eric Fischl, “that was a huge boost. People wanted to do what Thomas was doing. He bought Clementes, so others did too.”

Such dealers could affect artists as much as they did the public. According to the New York painter Donald Baechler, the late Neapolitan gallerist Lucio Amelio was simply magical. “He had a stentorian voice and spoke many languages,” Baechler says. “He acted in Lina Wertmüller films and wanted people to believe he was a CIA agent. He’d fly you to Paris on the Concorde and throw lavish dinners for 40 and then not pay you for a painting. Then you realized that the painting had paid for the trip.” But it was well worth the missed check: Amelio’s high profile in the ’80s helped young American artists like Baechler, Keith Haring and George Condo replicate their domestic success in Europe.

Today’s primary-market brokers in contemporary art tend to be of the same generation as their artists, at least when starting out. The aristocratic Jay Jopling was as young as Hirst, the Chapman brothers and Gary Hume when he presented their early works in 1993 at Jay Jopling/White Cube, the immensely profitable London gallery that began as a project space. With his upper-crust accent and ability to hold the floor, Jopling is a commanding personality. “Jay has power, and power itself can be charismatic,” says Hume. “But look at what he was like before, and you see he always had it. He built White Cube from nothing, and you can’t do that without some sort of engagement.”

There is no one way to decode charisma, much less distinguish it from the glow that comes from success. “I think it’s chemistry and attitude,” says Lucy Mitchell-Innes, a British-born dealer who began her career in New York at Sotheby’s in 1983, when Schnabel’s first plate painting came up for sale. “Julian called me,” she says, describing a scenario that would be unthinkable now, “and told me we couldn’t put that painting in an auction. ‘I’ll swap you,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you another one just as good, and then I’ll buy the first and you can still have a great painting.’ Well, he did keep that painting, and we sold the other for a record price. He made that happen by sheer personality.” On the other hand, she says, Chris Martin, the Brooklyn-based abstract painter, “has a following like a religious sect, but that’s because of his work. If an artist’s work doesn’t hold up, charisma won’t help, even if it does raise the tide of public perception.”

Obviously, the art world is full of competing personalities and compelling eccentrics whose public images make their work more tantalizing. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Take Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose aura derived in part from his distinctive dreadlocks and an engaging smile. Yet he was often brusque and confrontational. “There was no separation between what went into his paintings and what you connected with in his persona,” says the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, a former consultant who has played a significant role in the careers of many artists, including Koons and Cecily Brown. With his round glasses and crisp suits, Deitch is no slouch at calling attention to himself. But he puts Basquiat in another category altogether. “A conversation with Jean was not a passive experience. He really did embody his artistic vision. ‘OK,’ he would say, ‘let’s lock horns.’ It was electric to be in his presence.”

The artist Matthew Barney, whom many regard as a visionary, can go into a gallery unnoticed, yet he exercises a fascination on art world denizens. It probably helps that he married a rock star, Björk, and has retained the matinee-idol looks that made him a successful J. Crew model while in college and the star of his own video and film productions. In person, though, he is anything but ostentatious and seems driven by his work.

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