4 aug 2020

Mega-gallery owner Larry Gagosian as seen by British painter Jenny Saville

Leader of the Young British Artists in the 90s, Jenny Saville stands out with her striking nude paintings. As part of our summer series on the relationship between artists and gallery owners, the British painter Jenny Saville opens up about her singular relationship with gallery owner Larry Gagosian – founder and leader of the mega-gallery that bears his name – who introduced her to Willem De Kooning’s New York.

Interview by Thibaut Wychowanok.

Jenny Saville, “Red Stare Collage” (2007-2009). Glueing on cardboard, 252 x 187,3 cm.

Numéro art: How did you first meet Larry Gagosian?

Jenny Saville: I first met Larry in London in September 1997 at the opening of the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy. Afterwards we went to the Groucho Club and Larry came over to me, said he liked my paintings and asked if I’d like to show at his gallery in New York. I said yes, and we started working together.


What was your first collaboration with him?

My first ever solo exhibition was with Larry in his Wooster Street Gallery in New York. Ealan Wingate ran the downtown gallery and it was a beautiful space to show paintings. I put my life into that first show of paintings and was a zombie by the time it opened in New York, since I’d spent two years in a studio barely going outside. I really wanted to show in New York – New York was where you cut your cloth as an international painter, and I had a romantic attachment to the city. I’d grown up looking at De Kooning, Rothko, Pollock and Basquiat, and here was this white-haired, tanned Californian guy offering me a New York show at the same gallery at which Richard Serra, Cy Twombly and Warhol were showing. I was all in!


What sort of thing did you show at this first exhibition?

Among the works I made for “Territories” was a large painting called Fulcrum that took around two years to paint. I used to nickname it “the bitch” because it was so hard to get it to work with the level of realism I wanted – the whole thing was so full of despair. It’s a painting of a pile of bodies with different colours of flesh all knitted together. A landscape of flesh was what I wanted.

Jenny Saville, “Red Fates” (2018). Oil on canvas, 240 x 250 cm.

What’s your best memory of Larry?

When I met Larry he only had his LA gallery, and Wooster Street and 980 Madison in New York’s Upper East Side. I was lucky enough to be part of the story of the growth of Gagosian. Larry says, “The sun never sets on my gallery.” But the best moments were probably the more intimate dinners with Cy Twombly, Nicola Del Roscio and Larry himself. I remember with fondness helping to hang Cy’s paint- ings for The Battle of Lepanto cycle for the first time in New York with Larry. I was in the gallery to see Cy’s work before the exhibition opened and was completely blown away with the magnitude of ambition and beauty in Cy’s paintings. Cy wasn’t there for the hang, so I helped Larry, Andy Avini and the technicians get the height of the group right. That was special, we all kept looking at each other knowing that this group of paintings was history in the making in New York: it’s a day that had a big effect on me as an artist. Larry knows the connection I feel with De Kooning’s work, so one Easter when I was at his house in The Hamptons, he organized for me to spend the day in De Kooning’s studio when his daughter Lisa De Kooning was still living there with her kids. De Kooning had died a few years before and Lisa just gave me the keys to the studio, and I spent the day there. I was able to understand his paint techniques, the way he organized his work, his brushes and long palettes. It was profound and insightful. One of my most meaningful recollections with Larry was when I was heavily pregnant with my daughter. I was at the late stage in pregnancy when you rock from side to side when walking, and I was painting with brushes tied onto broom handles. At that time everyone I met was asking me about babies and never about how my paintings were going. I was getting questioned on whether I could still be creative as a mother, how my life had now changed, and could I actually paint with a baby, or have a serious career with two babies, etc.



“Larry shares a type of independence that artists have, a recognition that being solo in life is your destiny for work.”



I met Larry in one of the offices at the gallery and was so heavily pregnant that I literally had to throw the photographs of my paintings over my stomach at him. I kept saying, “I’ve made this one, this is a diptych, and this one with a lot of red,” and so on. Larry very conscientiously looked at the photographs, seemed super excited about how the work was developing, and never once asked me about babies or my pregnancy. We just talked about the art and when I wanted to show. It was a great moment and I knew then that he was definitely the right dealer for me!


You’ve known Larry Gagosian for over two decades now. If you had to explain to a stranger what kind of man he is, what would you say?
If there was one artist for Larry it would have to be Picasso: dynamic images, ground-breaking approaches, sexual, direct, highly prolific, multifaceted and reliably expensive! Larry shares a type of independence that artists have, a recognition that being solo in life is your destiny for work. And of course being like that comes with a certain melancholy, as well as with an energy and a drive.