An inside portrait of the movers and shakers of modern art.
In this hefty, meticulously researched history, Vanity Fair contributing editor Shnayerson (The Contender: Andrew Cuomo, a Biography, 2015, etc.) recounts the absorbing story of “how a coterie of dealers made a global market for contemporary art.” He opens with the rise of abstract expressionism and the “rather modest and uncertain beginnings” of galleries in the late 1940s, and he ends with the “wildly unpredictable financial roller coaster” of today. From the start, the author realized he would need to talk to the “art market’s four most powerful figures”: Arne Glimcher, Iwan Wirth, David Zwirner, and the “undisputed mega of megas,” Larry Gagosian. He did, along with numerous other dealers, critics, and collectors, and these conversations give the book an exquisite intimacy and air of excitement. Along the way, Shnayerson learned that “nobody really needs a painting,” as one dealer told him. “It’s an act of collective faith what an object is worth.” Dealers make “sure that important art feels important” and worth the investment. In 1957, Leo Castelli, the “greatest dealer of his day,” opened his gallery and “let his art sell itself.” His clients were a who’s who of the time: de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Pollock, Johns, Lichtenstein, and, later, Warhol. In 1979, Gagosian opened his first New York gallery, offering Cy Twombly and David Salle. Glimcher soon followed. In 1980, Glimcher “startled the art world” by selling Johns’ Three Flags for $1 million, and Gagosian continued to battle with the “brilliant, but drug-troubled, Basquiat.” Shnayerson incisively describes dealers poaching from each other, recessions negatively affecting markets, how galleries and auction houses operate, and Instagram’s emerging role in selling art. The narrative is packed with scrumptious anecdotes and revealing portraits of key players and artists. For example, for every two paintings Agnes Martin offered Glimcher, she’d destroy 10 while he watched.
In this rich, superbly nuanced history, Shnayerson fully demonstrates that he has his finger on the financial pulse of modern art.