Cult of Personality

The art world thrives on charisma. Here’s a look at a few of the artists and dealers who have made their mark by putting themselves front and center.

Moments after a press conference for “Jeff Koons on the Roof,” this year’s outdoor sculpture exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, a clutch of reporters made a tight circle around the artist. Clean-shaven, dressed in a metallic gray business suit and gracious to a fault, Koons hardly batted an eye as he linked the three bright and shiny chromium works on the roof—monumental replications of a child’s drawing, a wrapped candy and a balloon toy from his 1994–2000 “Celebration” series—to contemporary, early Christian, and Greek and Roman sculptures inside the museum. The reporters didn’t just hang on every word. They clamored for autographs. And they got them. “This is going right next to my Mickey Mantle,” announced a lumbering photographer, holding his prize aloft.

Only one other artist today excites this kind of hero worship: Damien Hirst. Koons and he both create provocative work. But that alone can’t explain their star power.

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Is it mere celebrity that imbues them with the sort of aura that makes people seek out their company—and happily pay whatever their dealers demand? How is it that a handful of those dealers manage to attract—some might say manufacture— such supernovas? Do artists who have crossed into the cultural mainstream share a character trait that grants them not just social status but lasting success? Does their charisma affect their art profoundly enough to alter its place in history?

If there is no easy answer to these questions, it seems safe to say that however well received an artist’s work is, the legend around its maker and, sometimes, his dealer is often what gives them staying power. Julian Schnabel’s broken-plate paintings put him on the map in the 1980s, but it was his arrogance—he claimed that Giotto and van Gogh were his peers—that made him famous.

Of course, many successful artists make challenging, button-pushing work without spawning a cult following—Paul McCarthy and Marc Quinn, for instance. Perhaps it’s because their material is too dark to excite much curiosity about their lives, or because they simply decline to influence public perception of their oeuvre. Nevertheless, it is hard to dismiss the impact of personality on something as subjective as the valuation of art.

Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in New York, believes that an artist’s importance is determined by his or her work alone. “That’s what will survive over time,” she points out. “Dan Flavin had zero charisma, but he was a great artist. Russell Crowe, the actor, is not charismatic, but his fame attracts a crowd. They’re different things.” On the other hand, she says, “Leo Castelli had great charisma. He was the number one dealer in New York, the top guy with the best stable of artists, a consummate gentleman who was very accepting and incredibly charming. And the genuine excitement he stirred up for the art came partly through the strength of his personality.”

The New York dealer Mary Boone saw her own fame rise in the 1980s along with that of gallery artists like Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl and Schnabel, especially after she collaborated with Castelli on a precedent-setting two-gallery show for Schnabel. “Leo used to tell me that his strength as a dealer was as a mythmaker,” she recalls. “I think he felt the art sold itself. It was people he made desirable.”

Perhaps that is why collectors today see gallerists as glorified salesmen, marketers of cultural merchandise rather than connoisseurs whose success with both clients and artists turns as much on their own charm as on their powers of persuasion. Joseph Duveen, early 20th-century New York’s leading purveyor of European painting, who handled clients like J. P. Morgan, remains the epitome of a dealer who built his business as a monument to himself, going to any length to sell a painting for an extravagant price, retaining (or bribing) scholars and conservators to promote average pictures as masterworks. The avant-garde gallerists Betty Parsons and Peggy Guggenheim, Abstract Expressionism’s early champions, were bona fide characters who continue to be identified with the artists whose careers they shaped, the most celebrated being Jackson Pollock, whom they both represented, at different times and in very different ways.

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.

Time is the final arbiter of greatness, but the unprecedented prices commanded by artworks of late have given the personalities behind them such great fame that it is getting hard to say which matters more: the artist or the art. At times, it seems as if the oeuvre is merely a by-product of the charm. “Whether or not Damien Hirst is a good artist, he will have made a mark that history will record,” says the painter Sean Landers, whose ironic, self-aggrandizing canvases obsess on his nearly paralyzing anxiety over making art in today’s market. “Damien was a celebrity from that first show in London, ‘Freeze,’ in 1988, when Charles Saatchi bought the shark,” Landers says. “And he knew how to parlay that early success. Early successes of mine made me think they just hadn’t found out what a fraud I was.”

Hume, who took part in “Freeze,” says Hirst’s self-confidence is part of his attraction. “He finds doubt laughable,” Hume says. “So if you get involved with him, you can laugh and you can be naughty, and that’s a liberation. He disempowers the powerful. And that’s fun.” Hirst’s wealth and renown are now so enormous that it may be decades before history can determine if he is as great an artist as he is a market phenomenon. The same may be said for Richard Prince, who does not go out of his way to court the public but grants considerable access to his inner life through his writing.

The question is, how often does a work sell on the strength of an artist’s personality alone? “Most collectors are unaffected by artists’ personalities,” says Boone. “They only care about the art.” But Donald Baechler has observed just the opposite. Through his friendship with such collectors of his art as Yoko Ono, Baechler has been bumping up against celebrity ever since his paintings of dripping ice-cream cones and long-stemmed roses hit the market in the early 1980s. “I met George Condo then, and it seemed to me people were taken with him before they were with the paintings. Everyone was charmed by him. [The sculptor] Walter De Maria, on the other hand, was notorious for not showing up at his openings. It was always a puzzle how he got to be so famous without bothering to be there.”

The art world has its share of personalities who exhibit De Maria’s kind of inverse magnetism. Their diffidence, in fact, makes them as fascinating as uninhibited types. The New York dealer Matthew Marks, for example, may find it difficult to extend himself socially, but it doesn’t matter; with a roster that includes Ellsworth Kelly, Nan Goldin and Andreas Gursky, he has no trouble attracting clients to his four exhibition spaces. Then there’s the collector Charles Saatchi, whose discerning appetite for young art becomes more voracious each year. Saatchi hides behind exhibitions in his gallery and on his Web site, thus seeming to be everywhere at once, buying up the many while seen by the few.

Warhol was one of the past century’s most charismatic figures, a bewigged enigma who attracted crowds of the curious and paparazzi wherever he went. He galvanized not just artists and musicians but collectors and socialites, and his influence has only grown over time. Yet he spoke in monosyllables and revealed very little of himself. Like Koons, he disarmed through flattery, although in a different way. “Despite his fame,” says Colacello, “Andy would still ask for advice—should he use this wallpaper or not?—and he was accessible. You weren’t going to run into Jasper Johns or Cy Twombly in a nightclub. And even if you did, you wouldn’t hear, ‘Oh, hi! You should come up to the Factory and be on the cover of Interview.’”

For Mary Boone, “the underwhelming can become amazing, as in Ileana Sonnabend. Everyone always called her the Sphinx.” Jakobson remembers the sedentary, tent-dressed Sonnabend, who died last year, as “an enormous coquette—one of the sexiest women I’ve ever known. She could flirt with a doorknob. She had glinty eyes and a little giggle and was very passive. She drew people to her without even moving from her chair.”

Amy Cappellazzo also stood in awe of Sonnabend. “Ileana was sovereign. She was powerful,” says the Christie’s postwar and contemporary-art dynamo, adding, “[The Museum of Modern Art’s associate director] Kathy Halbreich is also immensely sovereign … in the sense that you own yourself and your destiny in the most profound way.”

The upbeat Capellazzo’s sunny temperament and appreciation of art and the value that the auction market can add to it have persuaded many a collector to consign a piece. She seems to work at making herself appealing to both men and women. But, she says, “for women, power is about being demure and charming. How does a woman have it and not look like she’s just showing her female charms to make a deal? It’s challenging for me as well.”

Perhaps for this reason, most of the women whom the art world generally finds magnetic are directors of museums—not just Halbreich and Phillips but also Ann Philbin, of UCLA’s Hammer, and the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Thelma Golden. “Philbin has turned the Hammer into a major force, and she’s done it with an enthusiastic personality, not fame, money or power,” says the collector Marty Eisenberg, a vice president of Bed, Bath and Beyond. “Golden is a stunner who turns heads. She’s utterly brilliant, has a killer smile, is fashion forward, and her programming has elevated African-American art to a place that it has never been before.” In other words, money and charm are both assets. But in the art world today, the first is merely desirable; the other is a necessity.
By Linda Yablonsky

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