New York’s most successful art tycoon has built a billion-dollar empire by being the dealer of choice for Russia’s biggest oligarchs.
One art world source dubbed Gagosian “the official art dealer to the Russian oligarchy,” adding that “the Bond villains he consorts with are dangerous, repulsive and devalue art by their very presence.”
Larry Gagosian, 76, has worked with billionaire and Putin confidant Roman Abramovich, whose assets were frozen by the British government Thursday over Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and Mikhail Fridman, the sanctioned co-founder of Alfa Bank.
He is also said to have cultivated relationships with Russia’s most important museum, run by a close associate of Putin.
With Ukrainian artists and others calling for more sanctions in the cultural sector, such relationships may soon be under scrutiny, analysts say.
The Gagosian Gallery in New York did not return The Post’s calls and an e-mail seeking comment this week.
Gagosian, who owns several galleries around the world, has long held close ties to Abramovich, the owner of the UK’s Chelsea football club, helping him and ex-wife Dasha Zhukova build up a massive art collection. It includes pieces by Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst, whose work has been represented by Gagosian’s galleries.
“In my years working for the Gagosian gallery, I watched Larry’s interest move from key American collectors to mother Russia,” said a former gallery employee who did not want to be identified.
In his pursuit of wealthy Russian clients, Gagosian hosted exhibitions in Moscow, beginning in 2007, featuring artists Hirst, Willem de Kooning and Jeff Koons, among others. That inaugural show was partly financed by Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private financial institution, which was sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury last month.
One of the bank’s founders, Fridman — who, as of 2017, was Russia’s seventh-richest citizen — was a client of the Gagosian Gallery, and sanctioned by the European Union in February. He resigned from the bank’s board earlier this month, according to reports.
Fridman bought an Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe through the gallery for more than $38 million in 2013. He then flipped the 1962 acrylic and silk-screen “Four Marilyns” two years later for $44 million.
At the beginning of his business relationship with Gagosian, Fridman had bought “Midas,” a monochrome painting of butterflies in a gilded cage, by Hirst from the Gagosian Gallery.
“Gagosian is no different from all the other art dealers who were circling around the money trough of the oligarchs,” said an art world source who did not want to be identified. “Everybody, including Christie’s and Sotheby’s were shamelessly courting the oligarchs.”
But Gagosian, whose net worth is estimated at $600 million, may have been better than most at courting these billionaire clients. His gallery is the most successful modern dealership in the world, with outposts in Geneva, Los Angeles and even a hangar at a Paris airport. The nearly 18,000-square-foot space near a runway at Le Bourget has featured exhibitions of Gagosian artists Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer, among others.
“Larry occupies a unique position that hasn’t been reached by any dealer in the history of art and will never be reached after him,” said fellow contemporary art dealer Philippe Segalot in a 2018 interview with allinet, an online art journal. “He is the greatest on the market. He is a true military machine.”
To that end, Gagosian has maintained a close connection with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and its longtime director Mikhail Piotrovsky, who is so close to Putin that he boasted about helping the Russian president draft constitutional amendments in 2020. Piotrovsky’s wife Irina worked with Putin for six years while he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s.
“It’s not that I’m Putin’s person since the early ’90s,” said Piotrovsy in an interview with the Art Newspaper last year. “Putin has been my person from the early ’90s. He is from Petersburg. He had approximately the same job that I did. We both worked for the reputation of Petersburg. So indeed he is closer to me than many others.”
In partnership with Piotrovsky, Gagosian has staged several art exhibitions of his clients’ work at the Hermitage in the past, and wined and dined Piotrovsky on his numerous trips to the US.
“My relations with Dr. Piotrovsky are excellent,” said Gagosian, the son of Armenian emigrés, in a 2018 interview. “After all, he is half-Armenian. For me, to be an Armenian means to have a kinship with Russia.”
Gagosian and the New York-based Hermitage Museum Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for restoration projects and artistic donations to the Russian museum, hosted Piotrovsky on visits to the US, including “whirlwind” tours of Palm Beach and Washington, DC, in 2009, according to the group’s federal tax filings.
During the Palm Beach trip, Piotrovsky was treated to a farewell brunch at Mar-a-Lago, hosted by Donald Trump. In Washington, he was given a private tour of the Library of Congress and awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service. He even laid a wreath at Mount Vernon where George Washington is buried, according to tax filings.
In 2017, “Larry Gagosian graciously hosted an intimate dinner for Professor Piotrovsky and several art collectors in his home,” according to the Hermitage Museum Foundation’s Web site.
Abramovich, who made international headlines when he paid $86.3 million for Francis Bacon’s “Triptych” and another $33.6 million for Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” in 2008, was added to the British sanctions list of “pro-Kremlin” oligarchs with ties to the UK.
Rush hour in Copenhagen is dominated by people on bicycles: Around two-thirds of the city’s residents now bike to school or work instead of driving. That wasn’t an inevitable reality. Bikes were popular in the city early in the 1900s, but by the 1950s, as people got richer and moved to the suburbs, cars had overtaken bikes on roads.
By the 1960s, city planners saw cars as the future and bicycles as outdated. They sketched visions to add new urban highways and take out bike lanes that some thought were a waste of space. But the global oil crisis of 1973—when oil prices quadrupled within a few days—helped push the city in a different direction.
Even before the oil embargo, when Middle Eastern suppliers stopped selling fuel to some countries because of a conflict in Israel, some Copenhageners were beginning to question the wisdom of following the American example of city planning. (At the time, Danish leaders visited American cities to see car-centric design in action; Americans now visit Copenhagen to see the opposite.) A proposed highway that would have paved over lakes in the city sparked protests. A busy street in the center of the city was pedestrianized, though the mayor at the time faced death threats for making the changes.
The oil crisis helped lead to faster changes in the 1970s. Driving was temporarily banned on Sundays because of the shortage of gas. “I remember, as a child, walking in the middle of the highway,” says Klaus Bondam, CEO of the nonprofit Danish Cyclists Federation. A growing environmental movement started talking about bikes as alternative transportation. The city eventually abandoned plans for some major new road projects, pedestrianized more streets, and banned through-traffic in other areas.
As Denmark confronted its dependence on foreign fossil fuels—when the oil crisis happened, imported oil covered 80% of its energy needs—it looked for ways to generate electricity and heat differently and to drive less. Danish Cyclists Federation proposed a plan for a citywide bike network, and the city slowly started building new bike lanes.
“Since the ’70s, the city has basically set aside money every year to expand and expand and expand the bicycle infrastructure of Copenhagen,” Bondam says. The changes accelerated further in 2005, when a new mayor was elected on a platform that championed cycling. Bondam was deputy mayor at the time.
“We started some huge investment schemes in more cycling infrastructure,” he says. “But I think more importantly, we moved cycling and cycling culture up on the political agenda.” The city also launched a marketing campaign to encourage more people to bike, with an “I CPH” logo and messaging about how cycling could cut congestion and pollution and help improve quality of life.
Copenhagen now has 250 miles of bike lanes—with curbs that separate them from car traffic—17 recently built bike bridges, and cycle “superhighways” that let suburban commuters ride into the city without stopping at traffic lights. “If you don’t make those investments, people won’t change the mode of transportation,” Bondam says. “You can paint white lines and stuff like that, it’s fine to begin with, but you should move it to the next level, where you actually build proper, segregated infrastructure.”
Even the most bike-friendly American cities don’t look like this. But it’s possible that the current spike in gas prices could help accelerate the changes that have started to happen in the U.S. over the last decade.
Copenhagen is unique in some ways. It’s compact, so biking anywhere doesn’t take long. It’s flat—although so is Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, with much better weather, and few people commute by bike there. Denmark never had a car-manufacturing industry lobbying for car-friendly roads (neighboring Sweden, home to Volvo and Saab, developed fairly differently.) Denmark also taxes cars heavily, making bikes even more attractive.
Still, Bondam says, change is possible anywhere. Take the example of Paris, where an influx of new bike lanes has quickly filled the streets with cyclists and made it look a lot more like Copenhagen. The full transformation takes time, he says.
“I think it’s important to understand that there’s no quick fix in this. It is an ongoing development that really needs political attention. It needs a public dialogue,” says Bondam. “It needs also courageous politicians sometimes that say okay, we’ll remove 100 parking spaces. Trust me, having been a politician, I know that it’s not an easy thing to do. I mean, people hate you. They literally hate you. But the funny thing is that, when you have done the changes, they kind of understand that it was probably the right thing to do. Because they suddenly see, it’s more quiet now. There isn’t as much air pollution. It’s actually safe for our children.”
Love the art, disgusted by the artist? Maybe philosophy can help
On the set of Edward Scissorhands (1990). Photo by Fox/Corbis/Getty
Reflecting on her long-standing love of Edward Scissorhands (1990) amid allegations of domestic violence against its lead actor Johnny Depp, the culture critic Constance Grady wrote in 2019:
I loved this movie. It made me feel all kinds of deep and profound teenage feelings, and those feelings were real and I could not unfeel them. But now, whenever I thought about Johnny Depp, I felt a deep and profound disgust, a moral outrage. That was a real feeling too, and I couldn’t unfeel it either.
There are a range of moral questions surrounding how we should respond to the immoral acts of artists whose work we love. But, for art lovers, a central aspect of revelations about artists’ behaviour is how it makes us feel. Maybe you were raised on the music of Michael Jackson or the novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley, but you’re disturbed by the child-abuse allegations against them; maybe you love Kevin Spacey movies, but find them hard to stomach since you’ve read about his alleged predatory behaviour. In such cases, we’re left with the wrenching discomfort of our heartstrings being pulled in multiple directions.
How do we relieve that emotional torque? We could abandon it all, art and artist. Indeed, some strands of ‘cancel culture’ seem to endorse completely rejecting the artist and their work as a moral imperative. But that doesn’t feel like a way of really reckoning with the injustice and what it means to us as people who love art. Alternatively, we could try to rend apart the art and the artist, as if they’re not parts of a whole. This is what the film critic Wesley Morris described in The New York Times in 2017 as the ‘impossible moral surgery that hopes to cut off the artist to save the art’. But as Morris’s choice of the word ‘impossible’ implies, this approach is challenging to maintain. Trying to artificially separate our positive and negative feelings about a work of art and its creator, perhaps by suppressing one or the other at any given time, doesn’t relax the tension – it simply leaves us of two minds (or two hearts). It’s as if you had two children who weren’t getting along, and so you aimed to keep them from ever being in the same room. Not exactly a tenable solution.
Perhaps we shouldn’t aim to separate the art from the artist, but instead forge a way forward that takes seriously the entanglements between them – eschewing the pitfalls of impossible surgery, and allowing the possibility of a stable, if uncomfortable, emotional equipoise.
The immorality of an artist is a burden, something that must be borne by us if we’re to retain a connection with the art
Philosophy sometimes begins with a way of looking at things, a perspective, rather than an argument. You might think of this as a different vantage point that reveals the best site on which to build, or a lens that allows you to see elements of the world that are otherwise indiscernible. One such perspective is found in an aphorism by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. It has always stuck with me, perhaps because it is as odd as it is illuminating. He wrote:
Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.
There’s so much to unpack in this weird metaphor. The brother who acts unjustly is another example involving conflicting emotions – love for a family member, contempt for their immoral action. The idea that this is a situation we must reckon with and move forward from is evoked by the metaphor that it is a thing that must be carried with us. But we can’t carry it in just any way! To focus on the injustice (or to carry the action by that handle) is untenable. Epictetus doesn’t say why, but an answer is apparent in the cases of immoral artists. You can’t approach watching the US sitcom The Cosby Show (1984-92) by foregrounding Bill Cosby’s immoral off-screen acts and thinking about this TV series primarily as cover for a sexual predator. There doesn’t seem to be any viable way forward there. To echo the writer Roxane Gay – who argues for abandoning Cosby’s legacy in her article ‘Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist?’ (2018) – his actions seem to destroy the work.
But there’s a different way to carry it. In the instance of the brother who acts unjustly, Epictetus emphasises your emotional connection with him, your history together, and contends that this is the way to grapple with his unjust act. This doesn’t mean ignoring the injustice or leaving it behind. Rather, as I interpret it, the point concerns the attitude that we take toward an injustice. The immorality of an artist is a burden, something that must be borne by us if we’re to retain a connection with the art. By foregrounding our emotional connection with an artist’s work, its personal meaning to us, we offer ourselves a handle by which to carry that burden.
With this approach in mind – focusing on the art and our love of it, while keeping the artist’s immoral actions in view – what might it mean to successfully integrate our conflicting feelings about the art and the artist?
We can find some helpful frameworks in discussions of the seemingly paradoxical conflict of emotions that attends certain kinds of artwork, such as tragedy and horror. How can we enjoy art that saddens or terrifies us? On one account of the paradox of horror, we experience two competing emotions, such as thrill and terror, and the terror, while unpleasant, is simply the price we pay for the thrill. So, perhaps anger or disgust at an artist can be seen as the price one pays to continue enjoying the art, and that’s a sacrifice we might be willing to make if we love the art enough. (Note that this is nothing like the claim that the artist’s immorality is a price worth paying for their art to exist – we’re talking only about our emotions here, not the artist’s actions.)
However we end up balancing the flavours of this emotional stew, the art itself is an indispensable tool
It’s common enough to experience an emotional integration that is not perfectly harmonious. For example, moving to a new place can feel bittersweet: the excitement of a fresh start mingled with the sadness of leaving friends behind. What makes bittersweet qualify as an integrated emotional experience is that the conflicting feelings interact with each other rather than being artificially bifurcated as they are when we suppress one of two opposed emotions.
According to another way of thinking about the paradoxes of horror and tragedy, our feelings aren’t simply weighed against each other but instead actively inform and enhance one another. The pleasure you take in seeing a performance of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t simply outweigh the sorrow of the tragedy, but rather is shaped and developed by it – the ‘strange kind of sadness’ that the philosopher Marcia May Eaton explored in 1982. Perhaps there are some cases in which our negative feelings about an artist can deepen our response to their work, if not in an enjoyable way (nor in a way that would justify their misdeeds).
Views such as these offer models for how our feelings about immoral artists and their work might be integrated in different ways. But however we end up balancing the flavours of this emotional stew, the art itself is an indispensable tool.
Consider Aristotle’s account of the paradox of tragedy. For Aristotle, tragedy offers the opportunity for catharsis, an idea that is subject to multiple interpretations. On one view, catharsis involves the expunging of your emotions – you watch a horror movie and it allows you to release your pent-up fears. On another view, catharsis is about clarifying your emotions. Reading a tragedy offers the opportunity to home in on the source and nature of your own feelings of sadness. Of course, people don’t watch Woody Allen movies and find that they’ve been able to expunge their negative feelings about him. The idea of catharsis as clarifying, however, can provide a useful lens.
I have a lot of affection for Allen’s film Love and Death (1975). When I was younger, I thought the movie’s sensibility (bookish, silly, philosophical, weird) said something about me, represented my taste. Since then, I have found that loving the work of an immoral artist doesn’t need to result only in feelings of betrayal: it can also offer an agent for crystalising my complicated feelings about someone who made art that I love but whose personal behaviour disturbs me.
This doesn’t mean I still want to name Love and Death as my favourite movie, as I did when I was in college. I don’t want Woody Allen to represent me any more
At the end of Love and Death, Allen’s character is (spoiler alert) executed, and he delivers a monologue from beyond the grave before the credits roll and he dances off through the mournful landscape, accompanied by a scythe-wielding Death. During the monologue, he says:
The important thing, I think, is not to be bitter. You know, if it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that, basically, he’s an underachiever.
I can see how someone like Allen could write those lines, with their blasé attitude toward morality and responsibility, while still accepting that they can be funny, perhaps even apt.
In the abstract, when we’re not directly engaging with a work of art, it’s easier to conflate the artist and the artwork and to allow our conflicting feelings to become a confused muddle. It’s easier to assume that there’s little hope of recovering my affection for Allen’s film given my negative attitudes towards him. But, in engaging with the work, I find that the focuses of my various emotions are clarified. I discover that the art isn’t equivalent to the artist, even though they are intertwined. I anticipate my favourite scenes and, sure enough, they’re still funny, even keeping Allen’s actions in view. This doesn’t mean I still want to name Love and Death as my favourite movie, as I did when I was in college. I don’t want him to represent me any more, and I haven’t seen a new movie of his in a decade. Nevertheless, I find that turning toward the artwork that I already love, rather than spurning it, is cathartic in the clarifying sense – I emerge on the other end with my feelings of affection (for qualities of the film) and disdain (for the filmmaker) both just as present, but also balanced, more clearly focused.
Of course, returning to a treasured work of art might clarify your feelings by indicating that there’s nothing left to love about the work. You might, in the end, see only loathing for the artist and nostalgia for a work that once inspired but now repulses you. The idea of catharsis that I have invoked doesn’t prescribe any particular conclusion. But there’s nothing easy or obvious about how to work through these complex emotions. It’s a process of discovery. And that shouldn’t be surprising: neither art nor our emotions are well known for being transparent.
Adapted with permission from thebook‘Drawing the Line: What to Do with the Work of Immoral Artists from Museums to the Movies’ (2022) by Erich Hatala Matthes (Oxford University Press).