On February 19th, Paul Kasmin celebrated his 60th birthday at Café Boulud in New York with a few hundred of his thousands of friends, not least Daniel Boulud himself, at a dinner formally entitled “Life” whose menu featured a recent drawing by Walton Ford of his slumbering gallerist.
The first speaker was Kasmin’s father, who recalled how on the day of his son’s birth another boy came into the world at the same hospital, Prince Andrew, and thus Paul’s first appearance in the national media was as a baby bedmate of the Duke of York. And among the laughter and applause down the long tables, more than a few tears were shed as we mourned already the passing of our own art world royalty, our own inimitable prince.
Paul Kasmin, who died earlier this week after two years battling cancer, may have been famous as a highly successful Manhattan gallerist but he was also a longtime professional photographer, world traveler, gourmet, collector and connoisseur, voracious reader and bibliophile, a man of lightly-worn erudition and firmly dictated good taste; as such he might be compared not only to a fellow dealer such as Larry Gagosian but also to the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Paddy Leigh Fermor or even Cecil Beaton.
Kasmin ran a mini-empire of galleries clustered around West 27th Street while seemingly always on the road around the globe or entertaining a dazzling variety of aristocracy and avant-gardistes at his varied properties from Tribeca and Normandy to Millbrook. However much Kasmin made light of it all, with his customary self-deprecation and deadpan discombobulation, it was clearly a very large life, wide and deep and rewarding, which makes its termination just a month after his 60th birthday all the more terrible.
Kasmin was certainly born into it; his parents, still-kicking lively octogenarians, are prime examples of British high bohemia, his mother Jane being a quilt expert whose father was the architect Kit Nicholson (brother of Ben) and mother the designer EQ Nicholson, descended from an American railroad fortune, ensuring that Paul had a Sargent portrait of his own great-grandmother, a key social signifier.
His father, fondly known as just “Kas” was also a famous art dealer, best known as David Hockney’s first crucial champion whose West End gallery was at the centre of “Swingeing” London, not least bringing over such important American artists as Frank Stella, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt; as his true importance is increasingly recognized by art historians, he was even recently granted his own retrospective at Tate. Kasmin Senior was, it goes without saying, the major influence on Paul’s career but with the added irony that though his father is a seminal cultural figure of the sixties he never had anything approximating his son’s vast fiscal success and could only marvel at his offspring’s fortunes.
Kasmin’s childhood milieu was distinctly elegant and definitively English, the quintessence of a certain time and place. Born in 1960, he grew up in a “lifestyle” boom of design, food, fashion, advertising, and contemporary art. Terence Conran, whose Habitat stores defined the era was a family friend and Kasmin remained happily close with the clan, from his son Jasper the couturier to nephew Jasper Morrison the designer. Likewise there were long holidays in South-West France with other amis such as Hockney and his fellow painter Howard Hodgkin, whose son Sam, born a day apart from Kasmin, remained a lifelong best friend. Indeed, Kasmin always stayed strongly linked to his childhood team even as his social circles began to expand vertiginously, galactically.
On leaving the well-known Dorset boarding school Bryanston (alma mater of everyone from Lucian Freud to Nicholas Logsdail, founder of Lisson Gallery) Kasmin attended the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and pondered his options while clearly determined not to become an artist—as his younger brother Aaron did—and definitely not a gallerist. Having loved photography at school, and having become an expert in his school’s state-of-the-art darkroom, Kasmin devoted himself to becoming a photographer with impressive results, creating an ongoing archive documenting his travels, food and friends, which he continued throughout his life, latterly under the nom-d’artiste of Percy Washington, hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. Many of Kasmin’s photographs were published in mainstream magazines and newspapers, not least his striking portrait of his friend the writer Bruce Chatwin in Time, leaving behind a unique record ripe for a posthumous book or exhibition.
Eventually, despite himself, in 1981, at the age of 21, Kasmin found himself opening up his own gallery with Jasper Morrison and another lifelong friend the collector-curator-artist-writer Danny Moynihan. Entitled the Space, it was located in London’s fashionable Kensington Market and rode the new wave of revived figuration. A working photographer himself and nascent collector, Kasmin naturally gravitated to the recently emerged photography market. Having loved New York ever since a memorable visit to Warhol’s Factory with his father in 1970, it was perhaps inevitable Kasmin would migrate there, where he joined again with Moynihan, a fellow vintage photography expert, to open a private office called “Credo” devoted to this niche field.
In 1989, that office morphed into his first commercial gallery, on Broadway and then Grand Street before moving up to Chelsea, a textbook example of how a gallery can prosper and boom, beyond the owner’s own expectations, partly thanks to the opportunities of America and partly that owner’s savvy, imagination, and force of will. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, extreme shyness (he hated public speaking and was sometimes mistaken for stand-offish), artists loved him and collectors equally adored his admixture of whisper-weight authority and sly mischief, a self-created character pitched between Mr. Pickwick and old Toad of Toad Hall.
Kasmin’s favored email and text response was the single French word “Bon,” and his equally monosyllabic grunts and hums were irresistibly imitable, his usual reaction when forced to look at the work of some new artist being an inherently comic “hmmm.” He was also a master at running the show with an obsessive attention to detail while rumly pretending he had not the faintest idea what was going on, “what, are we … um, planning to try and sell these things?”
Like any great gallerist, he was, of course, supremely good at spotting artists, his first important discovery being Jamie Nares, soon followed by the likes of Santi Moix, Caio Fonseca, Elliott Puckette, and Saint Clair Cemin, not to mention perhaps his most commercially important—and conceptually daring—protégé, the painter Walton Ford. But perhaps even more influential was Kasmin’s early willingness to go backwards as well as forwards and revive the careers of earlier artists, working with the estates of Robert Motherwell, Jane Freilicher, and Lee Krasner. He devoted historical exhibitions to his own father’s activities as an art dealer and to those of Alexander Iolas.
Kasmin was highly prescient in realizing that the momentum of the market was not continually charging forward to the eternally younger but poised to look backwards and inwards also. As one of the first contemporary galleries to start mounting serious retrospective exhibitions of relatively overlooked artists, always accompanied by definitive and beautiful publications, Kasmin reaped some spectacular benefits.
It was typical then that an art historical, intellectual interest in the Impasse Ronsin, the Parisian cul-de-sac where sculptor Constantin Brancusi long maintained his studio, led Kasmin to plethora of commercial rewards, not only working with the Brancusi estate to create new, admittedly controversial, authorized editions of the master’s sculptures, but also holding exhibitions of such other Impasse inhabitants as William Copley and Max Ernst. Most notably he was able to introduce to America the work of a couple who had shared the studio next door to Brancusi, François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne, whose sculpture was a perfect fit for Kasmin along with other furniture designers such as Mattia Bonetti and Ron Arad, and who proved to be amongst the most rewarding—in every sense—artists in his stable.
Kasmin is survived by his wife Melanie Courbet, his first wife Alexandra and their two daughters, Olivia and Charlotte Kasmin. A prince among us, he will be sorely missed.