This New Book Rounds Up All The Most Explosive Art-World Gossip

'Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art' spills the contemporary-art tea (did you know Madonna used to be Basquiat's chauffeur?)

by Nadja Sayej
Jun 5 2019, 2:51pm

How did the art world become the greedy, no-holds-barred ‘art market?’

A new book uncovering the who’s-who, the what the hells and whys are featured in veteran Vanity Fair reporter, Michael Shnayerson’s Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art, which came out last month. Point blank, this book focuses on the world’s most powerful art dealers and thecutthroat truths that fuel the art business.

It traces the rise of contemporary art in New York in the 1940s when Peggy Guggenheim was fed up running her Midtown gallery in the 1940s, to the rise of Leo Castelli in the 1960s and the Gagosian monopoly in the 1970s. It also follows the boom of the 1980s art market, the recession of 1990 and how the mega dealers like David Zwirner, Paula Cooper and Mary Boone struggled for power in a sharky art scene. “Art dealers are fascinating, and they’re always at the center of everything,” said Shnayerson. “I thought if I could tell their story, I could tell the broader story, too.”

Behind the price tags, each art dealer has their own signature business tactics. Their personalities are their brands that sells the art. There’s also the gossip, May-December flirtations and soap opera drama with artists. Here are the most shocking takeaways from Shnayerson’s book, as he walks us through them.

Larry Gagosian might be the toughest boss ever

There have been countless reports on what its like working for Gagosian—that he is impatient, short tempered and his employees have nonstop work hours, and this book details various accounts from some anonymous sources. “In the book, when you get to the part of what Larry Gagosian is like as a boss, it’s pretty harrowing,” said Shnayerson. “He is so motivated by the next deal; he will call the client 10 times a day and drive them crazy. Not an easy guy to work for.” There’s an anecdote from a former employee who was in an elevator while Gagosian was swearing at a client (he has a ‘pay immediately’ policy). “I was fascinated by Gagosian from the very start,” said the author. “There’s a good sense of humor to him, even though he’s usually scowling.”

Stefan Simchowitz is the most dangerous man in the art world

Among the unscrupulous characters the this book, there is Stefan Simchowitz, a rich kid art collector who drives a Porsche SUV who was once called “The Art World’s Patron Satan” by The New York Times. Simcohwitz built a collection buying low-priced artworks from undiscovered artists, then flipped the art like real estate. “Dealers hate that, it’s a destructive thing to do to the market,” said Shnayerson. “He’s wildly loathed by dealers.”

Though, Simchowitz discovered the early works of Oscar Murillo, he isn’t as popular as he was five years ago. “Some say his threat has waned somewhat because he isn’t as much written about, I don’t know about that,” he adds.

Before Madonna was famous, she was a chauffeur to Jean-Michel Basquiat

No doubt the famed Andy Warhol protégé was one of the most influential artists of the 1980s. He also dated Madonna in 1982. “Madonna was his girlfriend, she was also his chauffeur,” said Shnayerson. In the book, he details how Basquiat (who slept half the day) let Madonna stay with him in exchange for driving him around town (in Larry Gagosian’s car). Madonna was disciplined and sober, doing yoga and running every morning, and doing business with her agent, all likely before her boyfriend woke up. “But he’s one of those classic flameout stories, he died by 1988,” he says. “It fascinates everyone.”

Did Mary Boone flirt her way up the ladder?

Shnayerson interviewed famed New York art dealer Mary Boone for his book before she was jailed for tax fraud last month. Though she made her name in the 1980s in the SoHo scene, where she befriended senior gallerist Leo Castelli, there were some questionable moments. “Her relationship with Leo Castelli was flirtatious,” said Shnayerson. “She is a beautiful, demure woman, she rented in Castelli’s building and asked him to co-present an art show of Julian Schnabel when Castelli was in his 70s and Boone was 30. One person recalled seeing Mary in Leo’s lap for that opening night, that was typical of Mary, she was a very sensual woman, other women dealers never really came to admire her because they felt she was using her sexuality.”

Gavin Browne doesn’t ‘suffer fools gladly’

Though Gagosian “is so obsessed with buying and selling the next painting, he’s unnerving to a lot of people,” says Shnayerson, art dealer Gavin Browne is quite the opposite. “Gavin is terrific and charming, he’s gruff but that’s different from Gagosian, who is a tough, sharp-elbowed guy in his deal-making.”

Gavin was unresponsive for interview requests, then finally caved and spoke to Shnayerson for the book. “I found it hard to get him to talk to me, but he did eventually,” he said. “He’s the most articulate dealer in the whole field, he’s more than articulate, he’s smart about the business.”

But Browne’s cliquey nature is symbolic of the art world. “He has his tight circle of friends and if you’re not in it, he’s not going to suffer fools gladly,” he adds.

Takashi Murakami left dealer Marianne Boesky post-maternity

In 2005, the Japanese artist felt that he could no longer work with his art dealer Marianne Boesky because she just had a child. Boesky, who Shnayerson interviewed for the book, recalls Murakami telling her: “You’re lactating, you can’t be my business partner.” Boesky, the daughter of notorious Wall Street fraudster Ivan Boesky, was dumped. “Murakami felt she couldn’t be a full-service dealer to him if she was still breastfeeding her child,” said Shnayerson. “It’s something we wouldn’t hear anyone say today.”

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Larry Gagosian