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?'

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.

In his first New York appearance, in 1979, he rented a loft across the street from Castelli's legendary SoHo gallery and presented Salle's first exhibition, in collaboration with dealer Annina Nosei. But when Gagosian opened his first New York gallery, in 1985 in the scruffy Chelsea district, Salle and other artists he had shown in Los Angeles were represented by other dealers. Undaunted, he began to show older bodies of work by far more famous figures in exhibitions that could not be ignored: "Pop Art From the Tremaine Collection," "Willem de Kooning: Abstract Landscapes," "Andy Warhol: Oxidation Paintings" and sculpture by Constantin Brancusi from Romanian public collections.

Moving his gallery uptown to a luxurious suite on Madison Avenue in 1989, in a building that formerly housed Sotheby's New York headquarters, he launched an operation that sometimes seems more like a museum than a commercial enterprise. The gallery opened with a show of Jasper Johns' "Map" paintings, on loan from private collections. This last spring, Gagosian astonished the art world with a highly uncharacteristic exhibition of 16 paintings and oil sketches by 17th-Century master Peter Paul Rubens, only half of which were for sale.

"From a spectator's point of view, the quality of his shows always raises the question, 'How did he do that?,' " Plagens says. " 'How did he do a Jasper Johns 'Map' show? How did he do a Rubens show?' I don't think the Rubens show was very good, but when you walk into a gallery and see that works have been loaned by museums as if this were another museum, you have to wonder, 'How does he do that?' "

Gagosian often scores by cold-calling collectors and persuading them to exhibit and even sell a few pieces from their holdings. In the case of Rubens, he hired Columbia University art historian David Freedberg to write a catalogue and rounded up works from Old Master dealers, private collections and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which loaned a painting, "Triumph of Henry IV."

"The perception around here was that this was a serious, scholarly show with a catalogue written by a leading expert on Rubens that happened to be in a gallery," says Elyse Topalian, a museum press officer. The Met's loan of an artwork to a commercial gallery was unusual but neither unprecedented nor unique, she says.

"Believe me, we get rejections," Gagosian says, "but our track record helps us. Collectors know the level of our curatorial work and installations and that everything, including climate control, is up to snuff."

While exhibitions are the most visible aspect of Gagosian's operation, his behind-the-scenes business makes the public program possible. He reveals nothing of private deals, saying only, "At the end of the day, you have to sell that painting, you have to sell that sculpture."

By most accounts, Gagosian is fearless and doesn't stand on ceremony. "Larry has made the fact of being an outsider work for him," Plagens says. "He looks you in the eye and tells you what he wants. And, as he will tell you, he's absolutely relentless. If you are a collector and you have a painting hanging over your fireplace and Larry wants it, he will pound on your door until you give it to him. He's not known for subtlety or smoothness. He's not even very likable, but nobody hates him the way they despise some dealers in New York. Everybody sort of rolls with Larry."

He doesn't always get what he's after, however. In the late 1980s, the late Norton Simon resisted Gagosian's efforts to buy the contemporary artworks that Simon had acquired in 1974 when he took over the Pasadena Art Museum. But Los Angeles collector Robert Halff cheerfully tells the story of parting with his prize possession, a painting by Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline, when Gagosian called in 1989 with an opening bid of $1 million and raised it to $2.5 million.

"The thing about Larry is that he has a great eye," says television producer Douglas Cramer, a major collector and patron of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. "He always knows what a collector wants and he always knows what may be vulnerable in a collection. He has an encyclopedic memory. He has been coming back to me about certain things in my collection for eight or 10 years. I haven't sold anything, but I have traded pieces with him."

Gagosian downplays reports of unusual tactics. "I do historical shows. I represent artists, and the secondary market is a valuable part of my business," he says. "But I can imagine other dealers reading that and saying that's exactly what they do. I haven't reinvented the way galleries do business."

But in the next breath he admits: "I'm aggressive. It's just my nature. The great thing about being an art dealer is that it's not formulaic. I have a lot of respect for people who are very knowledgeable and [sell art in low-key operations], but that doesn't interest me personally. I like to push the envelope in terms of improving the gallery. I like to gamble. If I think I have a pretty good idea, and I have the capacity to do it, I act on it. I don't futz around and ask 100 people."

By his own account, Gagosian bumbled into the art business on the streets of Westwood. He had worked his way through UCLA from 1963-69 with a major in English literature and no career aspirations. His first full-time job was at the William Morris Agency, where he did a year's stint as a delivery man and secretary. "I was 24, and it was glamorous, but it wasn't for me," he says.

After supporting himself with various menial jobs, he opened a poster shop in Westwood, rented patio space from his landlord, sub-let it to artisans and began peddling prints himself. "I would buy prints for two or three dollars, put them in aluminum frames and sell them for $15," he says. They were "schlock," but they pushed him into looking at more expensive prints and then at fine art.

He closed his poster shop around 1976, when a former restaurant facility became available in the same complex on Broxton. "It was a sliver of a space," he says, but it housed his first gallery, Prints on Broxton, which was renamed the Broxton Gallery when he began to show a wider array of contemporary art.

"He didn't know much, but he sure learned fast," says Connie Lewallen, a Bay Area curator and writer who worked for Gagosian at the time, organizing exhibitions while he took care of business. "He had good instincts before he had the knowledge, and that intensity was always there. He read and read and read. He had enormous energy and extraordinary ambition. Once he set his mind to something, there was no stopping him."

With Lewallen's help, Gagosian showed the work of up-and-comers who are now well-known, including Vija Celmins, Alexis Smith and Elyn Zimmerman. He also developed a strong interest in photography, hosting exhibitions of work by Richard Avedon and Ralph Gibson. And he grabbed the attention of the late collector and television executive Barry Lowen, who spotted a piece by German conceptualist Joseph Beuys in the window of his gallery. Lowen, in turn, introduced Cramer to the upstart dealer.

As he became a player in Los Angeles' gallery scene, Gagosian relocated Broxton Gallery to La Cienega Boulevard around 1977, opened a gallery under his name on Almont Drive early in 1981, and moved to Robertson Boulevard at the end of 1982.

When he left Los Angeles in 1986 and closed the Robertson space the following year, he needed a bigger arena, Gagosian says, but now is the time to return. "Strangely enough, hearing that a lot of galleries have closed here encouraged me, although they may have closed for good reasons. I know about the recession, but I think that when you look at the collectors and potential collectors here, there aren't very many galleries to serve them."

There are, of course, dozens of galleries in Los Angeles--many of which have been in business for many years and sell Blue Chip art. And there's a celebrated newcomer, PaceWildenstein Los Angeles, a branch of the world's biggest dealership that opened only two weeks ago in Beverly Hills. Representing the estates of such modern giants as Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder and major contemporary figures including Chuck Close, Joel Shapiro and Claes Oldenburg--and having recently become the agent for the late television producer Mark Goodson's $40-million modern art collection--the firm has enormous clout and much more extensive resources than Gagosian, who leverages himself to the hilt to achieve his ambitious goals.

PaceWildenstein is "a major shopping center for art," Cramer says. "By comparison, Larry is a little bit of a very elegant carpetbagger, but he's sharp and quick. He has shown that when he wants to step up to the plate and compete with PaceWildenstein, he can do it."

Gagosian claims that PaceWildenstein's decision to expand on his former home turf merely strengthened his resolve to return. "It sent a good message to me. It was definitely a plus," he says.

"I did very well in Los Angeles. The base I established here allowed me to do what I've done in New York. Now it seems that the economy is rebounding here. There's a bounce to all the museum activity," he says, citing the growing presence of the J. Paul Getty Museum, construction of the massive Getty Center in Brentwood, the reopening of the Museum of Contemporary Art's auxiliary Temporary Contemporary, growth at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the establishment of the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum.

"All these things are engendering a keener and broader audience. It feels very expansive to me," he says. "When the Getty Center opens [in 1997], Los Angeles will feel prouder about its position in the art world. I don't mind coattailing. I figure if the Getty--arguably the best endowed museum in the world--can be here, so can I."

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