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ART : Art Smart : Larry Gagosian was regarded as an arriviste in the gallery world of New York. Now, he has returned to open a gallery in Beverly Hills. And still his critics ask: 'How did he do that?'

October 15, 1995|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Go-Go is back. Twenty-odd years after he sold his first $2 print from a Westwood Village patio, more than a decade after he introduced Los Angeles to 1980s art stars David Salle, Robert Longo, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Eric Fischl in his West Hollywood showcases, nine years after he moved to New York--where his hard-driving style gave him his nickname and he fashioned a glittering niche for himself as king of the contemporary art resale market and creator of landmark exhibitions that include loans from museums--Larry Gagosian is launching a gallery in Beverly Hills.

The newest Gagosian Gallery--opening Wednesday with a show of Frank Stella's new unpainted stainless steel sculpture--is located in an 8,000-square-foot space, at 456 N. Camden Drive, designed by Richard Meier, architect of the new Getty Center. Few people have previewed Gagosian's new outpost, but Meier's reputation as an art museum builder and the dealer's habit of doing business in extraordinary spaces have created a buzz: This could be Southern California's most beautiful gallery.

That's the kind of talk Gagosian likes to hear. Fresh from a cross-country flight and taking his first look at the gallery in three weeks, he approves of the polished concrete floor, worries about the installation of a giant glass door that will roll up into the roof and reminds an assistant to change a set of too-pink light bulbs. "I'll be happier when the opening is over," he says with a nervous laugh.

Juggling construction in Beverly Hills with his continuing New York program--at his flagship Madison Avenue showcase and a chic industrial-style gallery in SoHo--has been a major challenge, but the 50-year-old dealer is thrilled with his new digs.

"It's designed so well, even when there's no art in the room, it's alive," he says of a soaring, 24-foot-high space illuminated by skylights, topped by a sweeping roof and enlivened by inset planes and a protruding balcony.

Meier's variation on the prototypical white cube is the gallery's central event. When the rolling door is open, viewers will glimpse the airy room from the street. At other times, they will pass through a pristine corridor with textured glass on the street side and a white wall on the other. Rounding the corner, they will enter an environment that is meant to be beautiful in and of itself while providing the best possible setting for art. A second, much smaller gallery also rises to the full height of the building, while the remaining space is divided into two floors, for offices and private viewing rooms.

Word-of-mouth publicity about the space bodes well for Gagosian, who has arrived in Beverly Hills with a lot of New York baggage. He's a hometown boy, born in downtown Los Angeles in 1945 to an accountant for the city and an actress-turned-housewife, and he had evolved into one of the city's most ambitious dealers before he left. He was also under-financed and had acquired a reputation for not paying his bills. But since moving to New York, he has become such a force that even his nay-sayers can't really hurt him. The Larry Gagosian who is setting up shop in Beverly Hills is one of the most powerful art dealers in the country and certainly the most discussed.

Since moving to New York, he has made an art of raising eyebrows. Whether he is placing multimillion-dollar bids at auction for publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse or record industry mogul David Geffen; brokering a $40-million deal to buy 50 Abstract Expressionist and Pop art works given to Richard Weisman by his parents, the late Los Angeles collectors Frederick and Marcia Weisman; joining forces in a joint gallery operation with Leo Castelli, the dean of New York contemporary art dealers; staging museum-quality historical exhibitions; luring hot artists such as Salle, Philip Taaffe and Chris Burden to his stable or simply hiring staff, Gagosian is in the news.

"He has taken the play away from everybody else in the sense of being talked about," Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens says.

Why?

"I don't know," Gagosian says. "You'll have to ask someone else."

Finding answers isn't difficult. For one thing, he has been viewed in New York as a bafflingly successful arriviste. Although he has built his business over the last quarter-century, he appears to have come from nowhere. Lacking the family connections, educational background and deep pockets of his top competitors--and frequently rumored to be in financial straits--he reportedly uses art as collateral and depends upon high-rolling partners in major deals. But he pulls off one coup after another in his galleries and maintains a lavish lifestyle, complete with an East Side townhouse and a luxurious beach residence in East Hampton.

As for the coups, Gagosian has distinguished himself by making high-end contemporary art's secondary--or resale--market seem as exciting to the New York media, which follows him avidly, as discovering new artists and selling art fresh from the studio.

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