Robert Shapazian, a scholarly art dealer who started importing art at age 13 and went on to become the founding director of the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, has died. He was 67.
Shapazian died of lung cancer Saturday at his Los Angeles home, said Robert Dean, a friend.
“Robert just kind of sailed under the radar a bit,” said Dean, who also was a colleague at the Gagosian. “He’s more like a poet’s poet, if the poets were collectors. He both influenced and inspired a lot of people.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Robert Shapazian: A news obituary in the June 25 LATExtra section on Robert Shapazian, founding director of the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, said that he was director of Venice-based Lapis Press from 1986 until its closing in 1994. Shapazian left Lapis in 1994 after the death of artist Sam Francis, who founded the press. Lapis Press remains in operation. —
When leading contemporary art dealer Larry Gagosian hired him in 1995 to oversee the launch of a West Coast outpost, he praised Shapazian’s knowledge of photography, 1990s art, and artists Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, The Times reported at the time.
Under Shapazian’s direction, Gagosian shows were “always provocative,” adding “a ‘big time’ dimension to the local scene,” online magazine Artnet said in 2004. The magazine gave as an example the gallery’s survey of black-and-white Warhol paintings derived from advertising.
Shapazian ran the blue-chip venue for a decade, advising collectors to do as he did: Don’t invest for monetary gain but follow “ideas and feeling,” he said in a 2008 interview.
Business tycoon Eli Broad was one of Shapazian’s primary clients, Dean said.
From 1986 until its closing in 1994, Shapazian was director of the Venice-based Lapis Press, founded by artist Sam Francis to publish fanciful, limited-edition artists’ books.
Many titles were experimental, resulting in “books with an unusual degree of presence,” Shapazian told The Times in 1993.
The texts were often obscure, evocatively illustrated and of the highest quality while aiming to amuse.
An example of Shapazian’s playfulness was evident in philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard’s study of Duchamp. The Lapis release was covered in green velour, the same material Duchamp used for his 1934 work “The Green Box.”
Robert Michael Shapazian was born in 1942 in Fresno to Ara and Margaret Shapazian.
Since he liked art, he started buying antique objects from Thailand when he was 13. He sold some of them to galleries and museums while starting his own collection, which grew to include Asian art, 18th century French furniture and illustrated Russian books.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley in 1964, Shapazian studied English literature at Harvard University, earning a master’s in 1965 and a doctorate in 1970. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on pastoral poetry and painting in the Renaissance.
He had worked in his family’s agricultural business in Fresno and built a collection of experimental photography that critics considered extraordinary.
In recent years, Shapazian taught writing and art to at-risk youths, friends said.
Since traveling the world alone at 20, he continued to globe-trot and liked to visit “very traditional tribes in distant places in Africa,” he once said.
His contribution to the arts and literature had been recognized by the French government, which named him a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.
Shapazian is survived by a sister.