Larry Gagosian is the man who changed the art world. And he doesn't want to talk about it. Sarah Douglas spoke to dozens of his friends, colleagues and artists to find out who he is and how he works ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2008

On a December evening, in the teeth of a financial gale that may yet blow away the art boom, Larry Gagosian opened his seventh gallery, a 700-square-metre space in Rome. Even as many of his competitors braced for a recession, Gagosian did what he has always done: he forged ahead. The Art Newspaper brooded on recession, quoting an unnamed former associate: "If this one really kicks in, he's sure to be opening yet more new spaces, in Moscow, India or China." As it happens, Gagosian had already made headway in Moscow, taking a temporary space there in October, and, a few weeks after Rome opened, New York magazine aired a rumour that he was scouting in China. Gagosian has become such a force, synonymous with the market itself, that this spurt of activity may indeed herald a downturn.

It used to be thought that no dealer had ever matched Joseph Duveen, who criss-crossed America before the first world war, hawking Impressionist masterpieces from his briefcase to robber barons eager to add some status to their wealth. But then along came Gagosian. He has spent the past quarter-century creating a network of galleries--three in New York, one in Los Angeles, two in London, and now the one in Rome--that is unheard of in the art world. While others busied themselves in their boutiques, he built a multinational corporation for selling painting and sculpture--the contemporary collector's Wal-Art.

Avoiding scrutiny has become a Gagosian hallmark. Since the mid-1990s, when he hired a publicist, he has rarely given interviews. I made several requests, all fruitless, and found that his reticence and power made others think before speaking about him. "A no-win situation," was how one dealer put it. "You say something bad about Larry, it gets back to you. You say something good about Larry, it gets back to you." Another gasped, "Oh, L.G.," and leapt away from me, his jacket grazing the painting behind him. A third said that nobody would speak to me. But they did.

They painted a picture with several layers. "I have one word for him: fearless," says Irving Blum, an LA collector and one-time dealer.

Another collector who would not be named qualified that judgment a little: "I don't know that he's fearless. What I would say is, he is a person impossible to insult. You could say anything: he'll call you again. He's determined. He's incredibly tenacious."

Even if Gagosian is the art world's best businessman, "he's not a salesman," says Jerry Saltz, art critic at New York magazine. "You don't see him working the floor. He's like a visitor from another planet, an extraterrestrial trying to communicate with our species."

Even if he is an opportunist, "his opportunism is transparent," says Peter Schjeldahl, art critic of the New Yorker. "It's not underhand: it's all overhand. He is not complicated. He's like a shark or a cat or some other perfectly designed biological mechanism."

Even if he is a dealmaker, he is one with rare panache: "Larry enjoys these different types of transactions, that type of energy," says the artist Jeff Koons. "It's kind of like a sexual energy."

Even if Gagosian is all of those things, he also transcends them. "Look at how he navigates the art world," says Sandy Heller. "There is an artistic trailblazing. It's what we look for in an artist: absolute ingenuity; reference to the past but a trajectory into the future. And that's Larry Gagosian. Whether a calculated construct or just a by-product of an unbelievable moment in time, it's a perfect storm where Larry becomes art."

Like one of his own pictures, Gagosian appears ageless. He seems young for his 62 years, with a durable tan from summers in the Hamptons and winters on St Barts. A sharp dresser--once pegged as an Armani man, he has expanded his repertoire--he looks athletic, thanks, they say, to laps in the pool in his townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He has thick silver hair, cut close to the head, which is used by the reporters who have the fiendish task of spotting buyers at auction as a polestar in the constellation of the salesroom. If you keep watching him, you can detect a touch of vanity as he reaches up from time to time to smooth his 'do.

Damien Hirst, The Explosian Exalted, 2006 Gagosian is also easy to spot swimming through the throng that gathers for his openings. There he was in his 24th Street gallery, late in the New York summer, sleek in a dark suit and playing host to downtown curators, collectors and artists, including Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The show was for Paul Noble, a mid-career British artist who draws large landscapes of a seemingly borderless imaginary place called Nobson Newton. A few days earlier, Gagosian had attracted a higher-rent audience, including John Silberman, the lawyer for the de Kooning estate; the architect Richard Meier, who designed Gagosian's gallery in Los Angeles; and Heller, who works with clients like Steve Cohen, a hedge-fund squillionaire. That show was at his smaller space, two blocks south, with tens of millions of dollars of paintings by the late abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Some were on loan from museums, others for sale.

Gagosian was dancing his signature step between the two sides of the art market--the secondary, or resale market, with de Kooning, and primary merchandise straight from the studio, with Noble. Schjeldahl explains how the art business used to be made up of one-shop boutiques.

"It was going to get bigger and more organised, with or without Gagosian," he says. "He theatricalised the change. The shows in his front rooms are incidental to the business he does in his back rooms."

"For an artist, going to Gagosian is like playing for the Yankees," says Heller. He has the most money and the best players, and he seems to pick up talent whenever he puts his mind to it. He can resell artworks to his network of clients as if he were an auction house, but without the houses' overheads--or the public scrutiny that goes with them. Having launched a swashbuckling assault on the once-gentlemanly business of dealing, he has the money, the space and the masterpieces to stage mind-blowing, scholarly exhibitions, like a one-man museum--but without the boards and bureaucracy.

One dealer who has been nipping at his heels--his "heir apparent," as Vanity Fair put it in October 2006--is David Zwirner, who co-owns the Upper East Side gallery Zwirner and Wirth, but his main outpost is a vast space on 19th street, which he recently expanded (shades of Gagosian), and has been known for attracting artists away from other galleries (further shades of Gagosian). There is a Gagosian-shaped thorn in Zwirner's side. The sculptor Franz West, the only artist he has lost since opening in 1993, he lost to Gagosian.

Zwirner explains that Gagosian is not his role model. "I've embraced more and more secondary-market dealings over the years, thus I get these friendly comparisons. And he has done an amazing job creating a primary-market gallery with all these important artists. But I think he never wanted to be known as a talent finder. He wanted to be known as the guy who could really maximise the career."

Gagosian has clambered to the top of his world because of his sure transformation of the secondary-market business into a one-stop shop for both sides of the market over the past 30 years. All the while he has opened new galleries. Even now, he is still building.

"Gagosianopolis!" says Saltz, a few days later, as we stand together outside the 24th Street gallery. "That's what he's creating. "

Gagosianopolis began modestly in 1975 on a patio in the Westwood Village neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Gagosian, then 30, was an English graduate from UCLA who had left one job as an assistant at the William Morris talent agency and another parking cars. He has said that his upbringing brought him no real contact with art. His father was an accountant and later a stockbroker, his mother a bit-part actress. As he explained in an early interview, he borrowed the $75 rent for the patio from her and sold framed posters for $15 each. He moved on to more expensive posters and mounted his first art exhibition the following year, in a former Hungarian restaurant rented for about $400 a month.

By the early 1980s, Gagosian had a proper gallery space and became the LA outpost for artists like Eric Fischl, Richard Serra and Frank Stella, who were represented by New York galleries. But he was making most of his money by brokering deals between LA collectors, arranging for paintings to be plucked from the walls of one owner and rehung on the walls of another, while he pocketed the commission.

From the start, the Gagosian enterprise had a gilded aura. In 1980 Schjeldahl visited Gagosian's LA gallery for the . He wrote: "The space breathes the cold excitements of money. The air in the office is like vaporized stainless steel...Gagosian told me he figures to give the business two years to prove itself. 'If I weren't doing this, I'd probably be in real estate.'"

"I was appalled by his style when he first arrived and swore I would never set foot in his gallery," Schjeldahl tells me some 28 years later. "But then I quickly realised that he had art that I wanted to see, so I gave up."

Restless in LA, Gagosian bought a fifth-floor loft in New York's SoHo art district for $10,000 and a Brice Marden painting. He opened what he has called his "first real gallery in New York" on the ground floor of a building on West 23rd Street in far west Chelsea in 1985, a good ten years before any other galleries moved to the area. His first coup came when he persuaded Emily and Burton Tremaine to let him show some of their collection of pop art, including pieces by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein.

In 1989, at the peak of a boom, he opened his headquarters on Madison Avenue, in a space once used by Sotheby's. He had been working with (some would say courted) Leo Castelli, the dealer who had discovered Rauschenberg and Johns back in the 1960s. He had also been cultivating top-notch clients, including the British advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, the Condé Nast boss Si Newhouse, and David Geffen, the entertainment mogul. By the recession of the 1990s, Gagosian had opened a gallery, designed by Richard Gluckman, on Wooster Street in Soho. With access to capital that few galleries then had, he was able to start a stable of artists, in part by poaching them from other dealers. (His words to Schjeldahl were prescient: he did go into property. One of the few dealers who owned their space in SoHo, he also bought the Chelsea gallery in 1999, for a reported $5.75m. It is now worth something like $40m.)

Gagosian attracts artists and collectors alike because he understands the intense coupling between art and money. In 2004 the top price for a painting by Takashi Murakami at auction was $624,000. Since then, Gagosian has sold Murakamis to Cohen and others, and in November one was auctioned for $2.4m. He has repeated that trick time after time. Not long after joining his stable in 2003, the painter John Currin made his auction record of $847,500; his highest price before joining Gagosian was a little over half that. Recently Adam Sender, the head of the hedge fund Exis Capital Management, reportedly sold a Currin painting through Gagosian for $1.4m. Before Glenn Brown began showing with Gagosian, in 2004, his top price at auction was $46,000; in June 2007, a painting of his made $969,000. In May, when Anselm Reyle was still represented by Gavin Brown, his work was fetching at most around $200,000 at auction. In October, after he had joined Gagosian's stable, a work of his made nearly four times that amount.

In part, Gagosian raises artists' values just by anointing them, but there is also a splash of marketing. In October, during the feeding frenzy at London's Frieze Art Fair, he staged a show in his Britannia Street gallery called "Pop Art Is," in which he elevated his younger artists by hanging them next to Warhol and Lichtenstein. He priced the Parrinos at more than a million dollars each: a few years earlier, at a different gallery, they fetched only around $10,000. Rumours about manipulating prices abound--and, one dealer says, "there's a feared or loved thing, where there's an opting for feared rather than loved". Gagosian also had a fight with the law. In 2003 he and three others were sued by the US government for allegedly failing to pay $26.5m in income taxes, interest and penalties on art they had bought using a shell corporation. The following year, he and art collector Peter Brant paid $9.1m in a settlement. The suit looked like a roadblock, but in retrospect it was a bump.

It helps that Gagosian has a good eye. In 1989, after a dealer dismissed Gagosian as no more than a salesman, a reporter asked Leo Castelli if this was true. Castelli retorted: "of two great paintings, Larry can determine what makes one greater".

"He has an enormously sophisticated visual vocabulary," said Paul Schimmel, the chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LA Moca). "He sees, he remembers, he understands, and he can shuffle the cards. Is he a connoisseur? Unquestionably. Can he turn connoisseurship into profit? Absolutely."

He also has the connoisseur's instinct for what he doesn't like. Eight years ago Rick Wester left Christie's to start a short-lived photography programme for Gagosian. Aiming to impress his new boss, he presented some large work by "a photographer who was well into his career, had published a number of books, had big exhibitions and was well respected by curators and collectors alike". Wester found them "bold and stark": sure to appeal to Gagosian's sensibility.

"Larry came into the room and in 30 seconds he turned around and said, 'Why would I want to show this romantic crap?' and walked out. And he was right! I didn't see it. It was like, bang, I got a really good understanding of where his eye was at...He has a very critical eye, in a good sense, and a very sharp mind. He knows how to think through things more quickly and more succinctly and more decisively than anybody I've ever met in this business."

His charisma helps. "As much as he is the tough guy and has this reputation for being a shrewd businessman and negotiator, he has charm," says Aby Rosen, a collector and property developer. "When I get angry with him, it takes me two minutes to get not angry, because he knows what to say." He has humour too. And the enthusiasm that may come from having been a self-starter. "He watches his own show almost as though he is an observer, rather than a participant," says Rosen. "He works hard to get something to a certain point, and then he looks around, and he comes up to you and says, 'Isn't that great?' "

His manner appeals to a new class of collectors that has come to dominate the art world--collectors like Cohen, the founder and manager of SAC Capital Partners, to whom Gagosian brokered the sale of David Geffen's de Kooning painting "Woman III", for $137.5m two years ago. "These new buyers are shaking up the market," says Philippe Segalot, another art adviser. "These young very rich people, many of them from the new economies, recognise themselves in contemporary art. They are competitive, and want to put together ambitious collections. Gagosian is fast, he's reactive, and he's somewhat aggressive, and they respond to that way of doing business."

But the hedge-fund ethos is mirrored in art-dealing. In early November Gagosian was off to Los Angeles for the opening of a travelling exhibit by Murakami at LA Moca--complete with a live performance by the hip-hop singer Kanye West. A year earlier Murakami had left Marianne Boesky, his long-time New York dealer, for Gagosian. Controversial? Nonsense, says Sandy Heller. "He's initiated this predatory practice that takes place in every other business in the world. Brokers and top traders leave to go to another firm. It's no different in the art world. He's not the only one who steals artists. It's about what the artist wants."

Indeed, Murakami told me in an e-mail what had happened. "Two friends of mine, Philippe Segalot and Emmanuel Perrotin"--his Paris dealer--"introduced me to Larry, and told me that he would take very good care of me...And that was it!"

"Takashi was ready to make this move," Segalot says. Murakami's massive sculptures cost a lot to make and need a lot of room to show. When I asked what joining Gagosian meant for artists, Jerry Saltz furrowed his brow. "If you go there, you can't be looking for a parent-child relationship. You have to be independent."

The new crop of artist-businessmen, who have tuned Warhol's Factory to a higher pitch, thrives with Gagosian. Murakami has his own company, Kaikai Kiki. Damien Hirst, who bought a cache of his own work back from Charles Saatchi five years ago, retains a business manager. "Who's the better dealer," one rival jokes, "Hirst or Gagosian?"

On a Saturday evening in early September, the New York art season was heaving into motion. Outside a gallery on West 24th Street, velvet ropes and a phalanx of black-clad young women barred the way. Inside, the gallery was brimming over with the cream of New York's art and fashion worlds. Models traipsed down the runway in jeans bearing ghoulish patterns. The jeans were Levi's, with a difference or two: they were co-designed by Hirst, to echo his famous diamond-encrusted skull, and they cost $4,000 a pair. Gagosian was watching with undisguised enthusiasm.

This wasn't just a fashion-week show for a denim manufacturer: it was a super-sized slice of zeitgeist. There were five brands in action, of four different kinds. There was Levi's, a mass-market label, and Hirst, whose distinctive polka dots were emblazoned on the runway and whose paintings lined the walls. Then there was Swarovski, which supplied the crystals for the jeans. There was Warhol, whose photograph greeted visitors and whose name Levi's is using to sell the jeans, which are called Warhol Factory X. Tying the whole parcel neatly together was the fifth and final brand: Gagosian.

A few weeks later Gagosian's Beverly Hills gallery was "maximising the career" of Tracey Emin, the British artist best known for a tent--"Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95". I stood in the white jewel box, designed by Richard Meier, which rubs swanky shoulders with stores like Burberry and Barneys. The film star Orlando Bloom was swanning about, admiring the Emins.

In Bloom's wake, along came the formidable, diminutive figure of Eli Broad, an LA property magnate and a Gagosian client of 30 years. It was Broad whom Gagosian was representing when he bought Warhol's "Torn Campbell's Soup Can" for $11.8m at Christie's in 2006.

In the early days, Broad tells me, "If you knew what you wanted, I could think of no dealer who could find it for you faster and more effectively than Larry." And today? "Neither Larry nor I have a lot of time to waste. We don't need hours of discussion. We talk about things quickly and make decisions. He enjoys bidding for me. He likes to have people think he's the buyer of the work he's bidding on. And that's fine."

That mastery of the auction is the last, vital part of Gagosian's commercial arsenal. His first coup came in 1989 with Jasper Johns' seminal "False Start", which he bought for Si Newhouse at Sotheby's for $17m. In 2005, he bought a large stainless-steel sculpture by David Smith for $23.8m, setting a record for a post-war work.

He was also to go for the kill at November's New York sales, when everyone in the international art world is in town. But first he had some work to do. He opened a sold-out exhibition of giant new paintings of peonies by Cy Twombly on 21st Street. He put on a show by Georg Baselitz, Germany's foremost Expressionist figure-painter, on 24th Street. He took the stage to belt out Bobby Fuller's hit "I Fought the Law" at a party in the modernist skyscraper Lever House, owned by Aby Rosen. She was celebrating the $10m he spent on works by Damien Hirst, including the carcasses of 29 sheep and one shark, floating in formaldehyde-filled tanks.

Gagosian paused to cast winning bids at other sales, picking up a late Picasso at Christie's for $16.8m. (As it happens, he is the owner of Picasso's last painting--or so says Koons.) And then came Sotheby's New York sale, where he pounced on a 1.5 tonne stainless-steel sculpture from Koons's "Celebration" series--a giant, gleaming, hot-pink heart tied at the top as though gift-wrapped with a gold ribbon and designed to dangle from the ceiling like a Christmas ornament.

The night he won the Koons, Gagosian swaggered down the centre aisle of the saleroom while it was still empty. He stopped midway to cock his head at an Alexander Calder mobile, before noisily unwrapping a Koons-pink lollipop. Gagosian had helped fund the sculpture and it had been bought from him just a few years earlier by Adam Lindemann, a collector who, as things go in the art world, is married to Amalia Dayan, one of his former employees. Frowning as the bidding escalated, Gagosian finally won Hanging Heart for $23.9m, after doing battle with an anonymous collector on the telephone. Koons tells me he bought it for a client--but not which one. With that bid Gagosian made Koons the highest-priced living artist at auction, breaking the record set in June by Damien Hirst.

All Gagosian's flair was on display at the opening of the new gallery in Rome. Its spacious oval core cements his relations with Twombly, who lives in Rome and supplied three huge new paintings for the inaugural show. Anna Somers Cocks, the Turin-based group editor of the Art Newspaper, thinks Gagosian is in Italy to buy, as well as sell. "There is oil here," she says, "and he wants to strike oil." Philippe Segalot elaborates: "Italy is a country where a number of very audacious collectors bought some works by American artists early, in the 1960s."

On the gallery's opening night, there were barricades and a handful of carabinieri keeping an official eye on what the Italian press said would be the "party of the year". At the nearby Palazzo Barberini, the guests drank champagne before descending a marble spiral staircase to four rooms where buffets were laden with food and drink. Next door were paintings by Guido Reni, Il Guercino and Caravaggio. In the grand salon were artists, designers and the fabulously wealthy--Gagosian's own stars. Gagosian, the feared; Gagosian, who by force of will has turned art into money and money into art; Gagosian, who had gone from a patio in Lalaland to a palazzo in Rome.

The art market may be teetering--"We are several months into a recession!" one dealer had taken to barking by January--but Stefania Bortolami, a dealer who worked for Gagosian, tells me that some rivals "have this fantasy that he will implode and then they can all take his artists, but in actuality no one wants that, because he is holding up this market".

Jerry Saltz agrees: "People grouse because he has hundreds of thousands of square feet of exhibition space and represents like 95 artists, but New York would really miss him if his gallery closed down. He's sort of a combination of a corporate raider, a dark lord, Peggy Guggenheim, and a railroad magnate."

(Sarah Douglas is staff writer for Art+Auction and has written for the Art Newspaper. She lives in Brooklyn)