Tuesday, July 25, 2023

7 Days: Larry Gagosian



7 Days: Larry Gagosian, Art’s Bad Boy

He came to New York and got Charles Saatchi to sell some paintings. He wooed Leo Castelli and is getting awfully friendly with his artists. He has a "past," a future, and a slick wardrobe. He's Larry Gagosian, the man the art world loves to hate.


When Adam Moss stepped down as editor of New York magazine last month, it marked the end of an era. Since taking the helm of the august title in 2004, Moss had helped set the industry standard for magazine journalism, documenting the life of the city in all its highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, and despicable glory. 

Of course, as dedicated media-watchers know, much of the New York‘s DNA was apparent three decades ago, when Moss emerged from Manhattan’s media landscape as the 30-year-old wunderkind behind the much-loved, short-lived 7 Days magazine. Published by then-Voice owner Leonard Stern for two years bridging the ’80s and ’90s, 7 Days was a glorious failure, bleeding money, but minting the reputations for a generation of fledgling journalists

Flipping through the 7 Days archives today is an exercise in delightful discovery. There’s Jeffrey Toobin writing about the Yankees, long before he became the lead legal analyst for the New Yorker; future best-selling author Meg Wolitzer (The Wife) writing the weekly crossword puzzle; a regular magazine-watching column from fellow future best-selling author Walter Kirn (Up in the Air); Peter Schjeldahl covering the arts scene; Joan Acocella on dance. 

Over the next week, we here at the Voice archives will be sharing some of these treasures from the vault. Welcome to seven days of 7 Days.

December 20, 1989

What Makes Larry Go-Go?

In early fall, the Dia Art Foundation held a glittering benefit honoring artist Tim Rollins and his sta­ble of proteges known as K.O.S. After viewing the art and scarfing down the $300-a-plate dinner, the black-tie crowd stood around the disheveled tables commenting on the food and one an­others’ clothes, trading the usual art world gossip­ — who bought what artworks that week, and for how much.

In the center of it all stood one man in his early 40s, surveying the elegant carnage. His prematurely gray hair standing out like a silver beacon, he rotated rest­lessly, purveying all corners of the room. Skipping over the unknowns, his steely eyes focused only when they lit on one collector or another. The man seemed a bit distant — as if he hadn’t yet gotten what he’d come for.

The crowd, which included such collectors as Elaine Dannheisser, Gerald Elliott, and Jan Cowles, as well as “arts socialites” like Kitty Carlisle Hart, gave this man wide berth. They knew — some from firsthand experience — that his magnetic personality is powerful enough to attract even the unwilling.

The man suddenly spotted an important midwest­ern collector with whom he formerly did a lot of busi­ness and with whom he would like to do more. In one fluid motion he darted across the room. The collector, cut from his group of friends like a steer from its herd, was almost pinned against the wall. They spoke for a few moments, the collector clearly writhing in pain under the pressure of the conversation. He final­ly spotted a friend and managed to wriggle away.

“With Larry around,” the collector confessed, al­most out of breath, ”I’ve got to keep my hands in my pockets.”

THE MAN IS LARRY GAGOSIAN. He’s called a dealer but is really more of a broker, since he has made his reputation by selling other people’s art at better prices than other dealers can. Because he works in a manner more typical of real estate devel­opers and movie executives than of circumspect art dealers, he’s achieved a stranglehold on the resale market, the only independent dealer able to compete with the auction houses in, today’s frenzied art mar­ket.

In a sense, Gagosian is a product of the times. He isn’t much interested in finding a brilliant young art­ist toiling away in a garret. He is interested in selling the artist’s work once the artist has made it and the painting has been bought. But, then, resale is where the biggest art bucks are. And it’s at resale — or the secondary market, as it is called — that Larry Gagosian is such a genius.

It’s not so much his taste as his nose for the market and his ability to coerce that have made him both en­vied and feared. He has a knack for getting people who love art and have lots of money to take the paint­ings off their walls and then sell them to other people who love art and have even more money. It’s a neat business: if there’s a buyer with ready money, ready to snap up a painting, it requires little working capi­tal except for gallery overhead. Although Gagosian never says how much he purchases himself and how much he handles on consignment, it’s clear that much is on consignment. In other words, he can make much of his money without spending a dime.

The trick in the resale market is to collect collec­tors, and nowadays Gagosian associates with some of the major collectors of contemporary art around. Conde Nast’s Si Newhouse is a client of his, as is In­terview owner Peter Brant. But perhaps Gagosian’s biggest fish is advertising giant Charles Saatchi, who has begun gently selling off one of the finest col­lections of contemporary art in the world.

For about the last year and a half, Gagosian has touted himself as the sole agent for the collection, though Saatchi himself has never publicly acknowl­edged this arrangement. To date, Gagosian has sold perhaps 10 percent of the great contemporary hold­ings that Saatchi has amassed over the past decade, but this may just be the beginning. Saatchi’s not commenting on how much he’s ultimately planning to sell, but his pictures have been regularly showing up in Gagosian’s gallery. Signs are that more will soon be sold, and Gagosian gets a healthy commis­sion (5 to 15 percent) on each piece.

Indeed, it was through Saatchi that Gagosian got some of the best major works he’s handled — works by Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, Eric Fischl, Francesco Clemente (Gagosian helped sell the 12 Stations of the Cross), Sigmar Polke (Paganini, a seminal work, now belongs to Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann), Anselm Keifer, and others. Gagosian also happens currently to be handling a Keifer of Sylves­ter Stallone’s, Das Wolundlied. At $1.6 million, Stal­lone overpaid for this painting. He entrusted it to Ga­gosian simply because only Gagosian seems likely to come close to recouping on the investment.

In addition to his good offices with major individ­ual collectors, Gagosian has a relationship with the Andy Warhol estate he describes as “close.” He’s sold a number of important Warhols, including many from the estate, and has quickly become a major player in the Warhol market.

What does he actually do? Gagosian’s a human perpetual-motion machine. When it comes to a paint­ing he knows he wants to sell, he demonstrates al­most unyielding tenacity with both the original own­er and the prospective quyer. He makes hundreds of calls a day — from his office, his home, his car. To catch up with Gagosian on his car phone when the line begins to fade is to find Gagosian talking relent­lessly through the static. (“The phone is Larry’s weapon of choice,” a fellow dealer suggests.) No wonder they call him Go-Go.

Day in and day out, he hangs on the wire, offering vast amounts to collectors like Newhouse, MoMA board member Agnes Gund, and Wall Street wizard Robert Mnuchin for their pictures. Not taking no for an answer is almost a game for him.

He can be, as many will recount, persistent and abrasive — especially if something or someone is im­peding a business deal. Everything is for sale and Ga­gosian wants to sell it. He spots his quarry early and keeps upping the ante until, in true godfather fash­ion, he makes collectors an offer they can’t refuse.

MUCH OF HIS PAST IS UNKNOWN and he likes to keep it that way. He came from California, where he went to UCLA in the ’60s, but is reluctant to give details of his life in the late ’60s and early ’70s, which gives him an air of mystery he seems to like to cultivate.

Bypassing the traditional routes — art school or apprenticeship at a gallery — Gagosian started in business by selling posters, presumably because this was where he first saw the opportunity to make mon­ey in art. In 1980 he opened his first gallery in Los Angeles and found a few collectors like Dynasty pro­ducer Douglas Cramer and industrialist Eli Broad, people who understood Gagosian when he spoke the language of the deal. He got them great pictures, and they became allies.

Within a couple of years Gagosian was cooking; mounting a huge Richard Serra installation, Plunge, in California; doing the first show of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings in 1982; and exhibiting Frank Stella’s important “South African Mines” series around the same time. The Stellas, unpainted wall pieces that pro­trude as much as 8 feet, were not neces­sarily easy sells. Gagosian did sell them, however, for a whopping $85,000 each, and people noticed.

But L.A. was a small pond. As early as 1978 Gagosian was maintaining a loft space on West Broadway, in which he in­formally showed David Salle’s first paintings before dealer Mary Boone did. The place was not necessarily on the gal­lery circuit, but it was near enough to al­low collectors like developer Edward Minskoff and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo to begin stopping by to see paint­ings by Salle and the other important works that Gagosian came up with for display. He began spending more and more time in New York, and in October 1985 he opened his first New York gal­lery on the corner of 23rd Street and Tenth Avenue, in a building that’s still owned by artist Sandro Chia.

In 1985, almost out of thin air, he managed to pry some important paint­ings from a number of hotly desired col­lections, the most notable of which was that of Burton and Emily Tremaine. The Tremaines had assembled a major group of contemporary and modern works, in­cluding Jasper Johns’ iconographic White Flag. Other dealers had been dancing around the Tremaines. Gago­sian was more direct.

“I looked up their phone number from Connecticut information,” he says. “I of­fered them a lot of money for a Brice Marden painting. Mrs. Tremaine liked me on the phone; she thought I was fun­ny. Or maybe she liked the money I of­fered for the painting.”

Gagosian sold a few works for the Tre­maines — including Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie — and was permitted to show White Flag, but not sell it. Al­though he couldn’t have been too happy about not getting to sell the rest of the Tremaines’ material, the result of the Tremaine show was instant credibility.

Gagosian was attached to some rather heavy baggage, including accusations of crude behavior and — worse, in the art world — of making transparencies of art from books and magazines, the implica­tion being that he was offering work that was not his to sell. (Says Gagosian, “I don’t think I’ve ever actually done that. But in a funny way, so what? If someone wanted to look at a painting I was han­dling and this was the quickest way to get them an image, it would be legiti­mate. Any sophisticated collector would understand.”) But the baggage didn’t matter much. The Tremaines did. The exhibition of work from the Tremaine collection was almost more important than a single sale from it, since it pro­claimed Gagosian’s association with the collectors, and, significantly, access to their holdings. Connections like the Tre­maines are Gagosian’s stock in trade. (The Johns was later sold at Christie’s for an astonishing $7.04 million.)

By 1987 Gagosian was convinced New York was where he had to be full time. (“Why did I come to New York?” he says. “That’s like asking why a starlet goes to Hollywood.”) He closed the Los Angeles gallery and suddenly the New York art world was facing a new force in its midst.

“It’s amazing what he has accom­plished in such a short time,” says a New York collector. “Two or three years ago, Larry was after things like my Glenn Goldberg or Mark Dean. I sold him a piece by the Starn twins, but all that’s small potatoes to him now.”

In early 1989 Gagosian stunned everyone again by opening not one but two New York galleries: one rather imposing one on upper Madi­son Avenue and another at 65 Thompson St., in Soho, in collaboration with dealer Leo Castelli, whom Gagosian had en­gaged in a genial mentor relationship. In the past year Gagosian has offered a string of important shows at both spaces. Uptown, he’s exhibited Warhol’s “Most Wanted Men” and “Shadow Paintings” series, early work by Rauschenberg, and Lichtenstein’s “Picasso” series. In the Castelli space, he’s shown such blue-chip work as early bronzes by Lichtenstein. Gagosian also recently took on the estate of seminal artist Yves Klein, who died in 1962.

It’s not enough to have blue-chip chip ents; Gagosian needs blue-chip paintings to sell. He has his ways of getting them. This fall, according to an art-world source, Gagosian decided he wanted to do some business with a painting by Eric Fischl that belonged to a prominent New York collector. The collector, in turn, wanted a piece by Robert Ryman and was willing to trade, but Gagosian didn’t have one. Knowing the collector would be visiting his gallery, Gagosian ap­proached another collector who had a Ryman for sale. Collector number two, though, would not let his Ryman out of his house without a check. Gagosian went to the house at 9 a.m., wrote a check for the painting, and took it away. But by noon the first collector arrived at the gallery and said she was not interest­ed in a Ryman anymore. Gagosian polite­ly bid good-bye to the collector when she left, then immediately called the Ryman owner and canceled the deal.

Though Gagosian denies some of the details, contending that the Ryman came from Charles Saatchi and had been paid for by wire transfer weeks before, this is the kind of story that gives Gagosian his mottled reputation. Though his modus operandi is not exactly unethical, some of Gagosian’s more creative practices have been called into question. There are, after all, conventions of dealing still in force — though many say that Gago­sian’s influence on the art world has been both to electrify it and drag it into the gutter. (Gagosian lost the Fischl to deal­er Mary Boone, by the way.)

Detractors say that Gagosian has little real association with any of his heaviest clients (with the exception of Newhouse) but uses their names to advance his ca­reer. The more money he makes from them, the more big money names he can attract. Asked whether Gagosian’s per­verse charisma is a factor in his success, one dealer says, “All the people Gago­sian has associated with are people with power and position. They can’t afford to be naughty. So Go-Go is their bad boy, the renegade. They get vicarious plea­sure out of his antics, and if they make money and get great art through him, so much the better.”

But these bad-boy attributes often work against Gagosian. Last May, when he wasn’t invited to a Sotheby’s recep­tion before the sale of the collection of the late Edwin Janss, he is said to have called the auction house’s contemporary department and showered an employee there with graphic expletives about Janss’ daughter Dagney, who had ap­parently been the one to exclude him from the dinner. This did nothing to win Gagosian his invite.

It’s been said that Gagosian doesn’t care about the reputation of the dealer or collector, as long as there’s money to be made with art. Lately there was even a rumor circulating that Gagosian sold some paintings to South American drug interests. While straining credulity, the rumor takes Gagosian aback.

“Who told you that?” he says. Then he pauses. “It’s amazing to me that people don’t have anything better to do than make up gossip of this magnitude.”

So is it simply all the money he’s mak­ing that spawns all this talk?

“Well, I’m not going to stop making money to squelch rumors,” Gagosian re­plies with a jagged little laugh, “but it isn’t in my nature to take myself that se­riously, and the attention seems a little unreal. I’ve seen this kind of thing un­wind some people, and I try to keep in mind that it has nothing to do with work; it’s a distraction.”

In the course of his power dealings, Gagosian has acquired many of the pow­er accoutrements of his best clients. He owns a big oceanfront house in the Hamptons (gotten in a partial trade for art with a California collector), as well as a comfy place in Manhattan (a carriage house in the East 60s once owned by heiress Christophe de Menil). He likes big cars — calling from the phone in his limousine, he’s likely to pause for a min­ute and yell impatiently at the driver — ­and big publicity. This fall alone, Gagosian’s name appeared prominently in publications such as Vogue, Tatler, Time, and The New York TimesSpy called him “most hated in his field.”

Most of the time, Gagosian knows that charm can be more effec­tive than vitriol, which is proba­bly how he has managed his most astonishing feat to date: charming his way into the good graces of the grand old man of New York art, Leo Castelli.

“Relationships are a matter of chemis­try,” Gagosian says. “You’re either re­pulsed or attracted. Leo and I really like each other.”

For the past three decades, Leo Cas­telli has been the most powerful single human force in the art world. At the mo­ment when Castelli walked down the shaky wooden stairs to a cold-water flat on the edge of the financial district in March 1957 and inadvertently came upon the flags and targets of a young artist named Jasper Johns, the art world as we know it stirred into being. Castelli and his artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosen­quist, in addition to Johns) made pop art in the ’60s, and he has added some choice newcomers to his sturdy original stable. More than simply the first superdealer, Castelli has been credited with changing the way America thinks about the art market. Now, like pop art, the market is part of our vernacular.

In the past few years, Castelli has slowed down, though even now, in his early 80s, he greets visitors in the back room of his gallery with a chirpy hello and a hand in the small of the back. Turned out in a perfectly tailored Italian suit, Castelli is a legend, and the person in whose footsteps most Go-Go-watchers say Gagosian wants to follow.

Castelli is still sharp — although many art aficionados think that the only sign of Leo slipping is his recent and growing association with Larry Gagosian. Castelli is well-known for helping younger deal­ers get started (like Deborah Sharpe and Pat Hearn), but his relationship with Ga­gosian includes a business partnership, which was unprecedented for Castelli.

“After Ileana [Sonnabend, Castelli’s ex-wife and a dealer herself], Larry is the closest person to me in the art world,” Castelli says. That’s the kind of statement that sends a chill into the hearts of those who find Gagosian’s methods crude and fear he may be an­gling to take over the Castelli stable if and when Castelli decides to retire.

Gagosian and Castelli couldn’t be less alike. Castelli is elegant, discriminating, a true connoisseur in the mold of turn-of­-the-century figures like Joseph Duveen and Daniel Henry Kahnweiler. Larry Ga­gosian, on the other hand, is flamboyant, restless – perhaps the way all dealers will have to be in the ’90s, if the market stays as heady as it is now.

“A dealer isn’t just someone who sells pictures,” says a prominent New York dealer. “The only thing Go-Go proves is that everyone has a price. He has made no contributions of his own, but has coasted on the work of other dealers.”

Castelli disputes this characterization. “Of two great paintings, Larry can de­termine what makes one greater,” he says.

Gagosian started visiting the Castelli Gallery several years ago, while still in business in California. (His West Broad­way loft happened to be across the street from the Castelli Gallery.) Instantly, he began insinuating himself with the master.

“Sometimes we would lose Larry in the gallery and find him browsing in the racks,” recalls Susan Brundage, Castel­li’s gallery director, who has worked for the dealer for 16 years. “One of the best things about Gagosian is that he does have a sense of humor. We’d have to say, ‘C’mon Larry, enough,’ before he’d stop going through our inventory.”

It was the Tremaine connection that had made Castelli first sit up and take notice of Gagosian. According to gallery sources, the Tremaines didn’t go to Cas­telli with their material — much of which was by “his” artists — because they sim­ply weren’t fond of him, something that hurt Castelli deeply.

Gagosian and Castelli act as if they’ve always been in each other’s lives, like family. According to dealer Perry Ru­benstein, who lives and works at Gago­sian’s first New York premises, Gago­sian always woos the person who can give him what he wants.

“With Larry, it’s always a matter of what can you do for me right now,” he continues. “Gagosian’s capable of sit­ting at someone’s table for dinner, get­ting information he needs, and leaving without even saying good-bye.”

Susan Brundage and her sister Patty, who also works at the gallery, describe the relationship between their boss and Gagosian as something like a romance. When the younger dealer was trying to ingratiate himself, he tendered endless attention and flattery. There were pres­ents for Castelli, including a $7,500 Pa­tek Philippe watch; long lunches at Cas­telli”s favorite restaurant, Da Silvano; longer dinners at Odeon and 150 Woos­ter; innumerable phone calls.

Leo, who likes to be courted (and truly is one of the few art people deserving of such treatment), was won over.

“You would have thought Leo was talking about a girlfriend,” Patty Brun­dage says of the early courtship days. “He talked about how Larry looked, the things he did, but didn’t say a word about his business acumen.”

Indeed, Castelli has been known to wax rhapsodic about Larry, talking about his “distinctive, close-cropped looks” and how “no one else does things in such a grand style.”

“Suddenly Leo was calling Elaine de Kooning, to try and get Larry the es­tate,” says Susan Brundage.

Contemporary master Willem de Koo­ning is still living but has Alzheimer’s disease. When he dies he will leave an es­tate rich in his work. (Elaine, an artist herself and now deceased, was the art­ist’s wife.) You may wonder why Castelli wouldn’t chase the de Kooning cache for himself, but he is still devoted to artwork fresh from his artists’ studios; he’s never been an aficionado of the secondary mar­ket. Furthermore, he seems to have a great time watching his young associate make deals. (Gagosian, incidentally, hasn’t yet won the de Kooning estate.)

“Not only is Larry the best dealer in the secondary market, but if he weren’t a dealer he would be a brilliant curator,” Castelli says. “The stories you hear about him seem unjustified gossip. Peo­ple don’t dare offer the prices he offers when he wants to acquire something, and then they complain that he gets all the material.”

Gagosian came along at just the right time, Castelli says: “Art and money, to the degree that they are related, have turned the art world upside down. No one knows how to adequately deal with it. My great love was to detect not painters but movements; Larry’s is the secondary market. I wanted to be involved in the great flowering of the secondary market, and he gave me a way to do it.”

Asked if he thinks Gagosian can resist the allure of the primary market, Castelli grows philosophical. “He will go into it,” he says, “but he’s biding his time. He would not be satisfied with lesser artists, and good ones are difficult to find.”

Sometimes, however, even these two get their signals mixed. In a flurry of phone calls in the early fall, it seems they each sold the same Lichtenstein bronze  — to an unidentified collector and to comedian Steve Martin, who had first dibs on it.

Those who first think that Castelli completely lost his marbles over Gago­sian should take a second look. Castelli has the opportunity to make money with Larry with relatively little exertion on his part. Their gallery at 65 Thompson St. has almost no overhead, and Gagosian pulls together the shows. True, the gal­lery has been primarily showing Castelli artists — much, some say, to Gagosian’s chagrin, because the arrangement limits his field — but then the Castelli name, is as good as gold.

”Leo has a history of dealing with peo­ple who are universally disliked,” Susan Brundage says. “He gets a kick out of them. Before Larry, it was Doug Chris­mas [a rough-and-ready L.A. dealer] and Daniel Templon [a Paris dealer].

“As for Larry, he keeps the other vul­tures off. Everyone thought that Toiny [Leo’s late wife] would someday be in control. When she died, you wouldn’t be­lieve the people who descended on Leo. Leo admires Larry for being a wheeler­dealer, but I don’t think Leo’s so gullible that Larry can send him down the river. You have to remember there is a lot of envy in people’s talk about all this.”

On Madison Avenue, at the old Sotheby’s premises, the Gagosian Gallery feels a bit like a private fiefdom. A visitor ascends in an elevator separate from the one serv­ing the rest of the building. The doors open on the sixth floor to a reception desk flanked by the video cameras that give the master of the house a view from his office of who is arriving. The decor is sleek and classy. Gagosian’s California space was once characterized by a critic as having an atmosphere of “vaporized steel”; this also happens to be the color of Gagosian’s eyes.

Gagosian’s office is itself an almost perfectly formed square, technicized clean by state-of-the-art Italian furni­ture, the walls emblazoned with the best of art everywhere: a Roy Lichtenstein ra­zor blade behind the desk, a three-di­mensional Frank Stella wall piece, Don­ald Judd’s stacks in the small room outside the door. Also in the office is an early, much-coveted, Coke-bottle green car-crash painting by Andy Warhol once owned by Si Newhouse, now the proper­ty of a European collector.

“We talk almost every day,” Gagosian says of Newhouse. “He’s got a quick, in­telligent eye and the means to pursue a very intelligent approach to art. He loves looking and thinking. His art is not a bunch of trophies. If you’ve got a paint­ing that is tough, a bit off-center, Si Newhouse will see it.”

Why does he deal with Go-Go?

“Who knows?” Gagosian says. “May­be because I find pictures that he likes.”

Gagosian is impeccably dressed head to toe in dark Armani and graciously does not take phone calls during a chat. But he can be abrupt — when asked about the Saatchi collection, for in­stance. The unloading of the collection makes many art people nervous — nota­bly artists in the collection and the deal­ers who represent them. The fact that Gagosian is expanding the floor space of his gallery is a frightening sign: is he making room to house a full-scale Saat­chi fire sale?

“With another exhibition room, I’ll have the flexibility to do two shows at a time,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’re also a little crowded as to storage and personnel, and this will solve the prob­lem.” He adds that currently he has no room to stock the overflow of inventory at a time when most people have trouble finding material.

More pointedly, then: is Saatchi sell­ing off his whole collection?

Go-Go is almost sphinxlike.

“People lose the forest for the trees here. He loves his collection. Don’t for­get, it’s primarily the older work from the catalogs [of the collection] that he’s selling. They’re four or five years old. There’s been a tremendous amount of collecting since then.”

Gagosian has reason to protect the Saatchis, with whom he has forged a strong alliance. The story of how Go-Go made the alliance, at least as told by Per­ry Rubenstein, is vintage Gagosian.

“A friend of Peter Langer [a 57th Street dealer] had gotten out one paint­ing, Anselm Keifer’s Die Drei Nornen (Urd, Werdandi, Skuld), from the Saat­chi collection in late 1986 or early 1987,” Rubenstein says. “I went to see it, but I didn’t like it very much and it was overpriced.”

But then another painting from the collection, a second Keifer, appeared.

“I suggested to Larry that we go look at it, perhaps consider going in on it as partners. We went — there was Larry in his dark coat, swaggering— and after walking in the door he was extremely quiet through the whole meeting. He just watched.”

Rubenstein and Gagosian did not like the second Keifer, but they bought a Cy Twombly together that day — and sold it, according to Rubenstein, “very well.”

“At that time,” Rubenstein continues, “I took Pete Langer aside and said, ‘I trust you; any business yoµ do with Larry I expect to get part of.’ ”

But Gagosian had not been quiet for nothing. He had noticed that not one but two paintings had now come down from Saatchi’s walls, and he immediately grasped the situation. Within weeks, Ga­gosian apparently went alone to see Saatchi in London, to deliver the names of some of the important collectors asso­ciated with him. He convinced Saatchi that he was the man for the job and got a stranglehold on the Saatchi material.

“You’ve got to hand it to him,” says Rubenstein with guarded respect. “He saw the chink in the armor and he went for it.”

Not surprisingly, Gagosian’s version pf the story about his selling Saatchi’s collection differs from Rubenstein’s.

“I knew Charles for a long time,” Ga­gosian says. “I sold him a lot of things. He called me up in the summer of 1988, asked me if I remembered a certain painting [Go-Go wouldn’t say which one]. He asked me what it was worth; I told him. He asked me if I could get that sum for him; I said yes. That’s how that phase of our business relationship be­gan. If I had seen he was selling first, I certainly would have approached him.”

Gagosian talks about Saatchi as though he were just one of the boys.

“We’re about the same age, and we have a lot of interests in common,” he says, “like shooting pool and playing tennis.”

Where is Go-Go going? He may be closer to representing artists directly than anyone thinks. In recent months, he has approached several artists, including Brice Marden and David Salle, with invitations to show at his New York space. Salle, whose work Gagosian also showed in Los Angeles, is an old friend who has been known to pass evenings with Gagosian at home, or at a choice table at Barocco.

With Mary Boone, the primary dealer who currently represents Marden and Salle, Gagosian maintains an almost pathological competitiveness. While he was still in Los Angeles, and presumably not a threat, Boone agreed to let Gago­sian show many of her best people, but this fall, as Gagosian’s attempted raids on her stable have accelerated, Boone has had to maintain her cool.

Boone has had her share of business problems with Go-Go. In three of the five California shows she did in tandem with him, she had to sue to get paid.

Artist Brice Marden is another story.

“Larry never made me a concrete of­fer,” says Marden, “but we talked and then I checked things out. He had said other artists were coming to the gal­lery — not that he lied, it just didn’t look like it was going to happen.”

Marden took the offer seriously enough to have his lawyer consider approaching Gagosian with a wish list of conditions.

”I realized that if Larry had said yes to everything, I would have had to go,” Marden says, “though I was told that if I went there, people would say I did it for the money.”

He told Boone about Gagosian’s over­tures — which, according to Marden, included some calumny about Boone — af­ter which she reportedly bolstered her arrangement with the artist.

“Mary’s done a good job for me,” says Marden, “but let’s face it: if you want to know what’s going on that’s interesting, you go to Gagosian.”

Marden does have reservations, how­ever. “Even though I like Larry,” he says, “I feel his gallery is at this point more for big collectors than for artists. He had a Bouguereau there, a painting that I feel goes against everything a modern artist is about. He had it there to stay in good with Sly and didn’t under­stand why I took umbrage at its pres­ence. This doesn’t mean we’ve stopped talking, though. I didn’t say a definitive no, I said no for now.”

For her part, Boone will say only that dealers, like artists, are judged on origi­nality and invention. “And I don’t think Larry has made this kind of contribu­tion,” she says.

Meanwhile, despite his adamant assertions that he goes to bed early and runs five miles several times a week, Go-Go’s bad-boy image stays strong. He continues to make offhand comments that tend to minimize his pretensions to greatness. He frequently repeats one of his classics: “When women meet me, they either want to fuck me or throw up on me.”

So how do you read this man? Is he honest? sleazy? smart? just lucky? Gago­sian does seem aware — even delight­ed — that his image is so colorful, partic­ularly that it reflects Big Money as much as Great Art.

“I think people like to read all this wheeler-dealer talk,” he reflects, “but what I am really concerned about is the quality of the exhibitions. Since I’ve been in New York, I think the shows that I’ve done have all been museum quality.”

At 65 Thompson St., Gagosian and Castelli soon will be showing bamboo sculpture by Japanese documentary di­rector Hiroshi Teshigahara (“a fanciful show during cherry-blossom season,” says Go-Go), an installation by Bruce Nauman, and new work by Frank Stella. Starting this week at the Madison Ave­nue gallery, he will be showing never-be­fore-exhibited paintings by Cy Twombly from the “Bolsena” series. And in May, Gagosian plans to open, with Peter Brant, a large exhibition space at Broad­way and Prince, designed by Renzo Piano.

Will there ever be a show of the Saat­chi inventory? “I’m not sure,” says Gagosian with al­most self-conscious mystery, “but it is possible.”

As happened at the end of the last cen­tury, people seem to be in a palpably fin de siecle mode, scurrying to purchase — ­often for too much money — elements of the culture they fear may be over for good. Is Gagosian simply the purveyor of a passing time and place, or will his influ­ence be lasting?

“Give me a break,” Go-Go says with a laugh, when asked about the legacy he might leave. “The important thing is how effective you are at the activity. You want to keep things interesting and you want to pay the bills.”

Is there anything Gagosian would like to see changed in the art market?

“That,” he says with a touch of evil, “is like asking Dante what he would change about the structure of hell.”