Earlier this week, the veteran New York art dealer Paul Kasmin died at the age of 60, after a long period of illness. Here, three people close to Kasmin—two of them artists who are represented by his gallery—remember the dealer.
Artist represented by Kasmin gallery
Paul and I met in 1996. My then wife and I had just left New York City with our toddler daughter after a 14-year roller-coaster ride to rent a small cottage in the meadows of Hillsdale, New York. I had no gallery representation, and was living on credit cards, carpentry, illustration work, and the occasional sale of a painting. I was 36 years old, and beginning to feel as if there was not so much as a narrow ledge in the art world for me to cling to. One morning the phone rang. “Hello. Paul Kasmin. I’ve been hearing a bit about you and thought I had better ring you up.”
Paul drove his BMW up to my studio, which, at the time, was cluttered with very unfashionable and anachronistic paintings of birds. He wore a snug, wool bespoke suit and was ruddy, plump, and sleek at the same time. I thought he looked just like a bemused little animal from a Beatrix Potter book. He stared at everything carefully, and for an excruciatingly long time. He was silent. I was not encouraged. Finally, he said, “I like everything I’ve seen.” Within moments he offered me a solo show. Soon afterwards, he arranged sales and encouraged me to quit my jobs and spend all of my time in the studio. “We’ll sort it out” was Paul’s standard reply to my episodes of financial and emotional distress. He always did sort it out. When he got behind someone’s career, he functioned as anti-anxiety medicine for the frantic artist. “Here’s what we’ll do; we’ll sort it out.”
When we started together, Paul had his gallery on Grand Street, across from Lucky Strike. The “shop,” as he called it, was about the size of a barber’s. He always referred to himself as a shopkeeper and to his gallery spaces as “the shop.” I panicked before that first show in 1997. “How will the gallery pay rent if no one buys my stuff?” Paul quietly took me into the tiny back room. He showed me a Man Ray photograph and a Hockney drawing. He said, “These old boys will pay the rent.” Then he pointed to one of my paintings. “As long as you keep painting like this, you needn’t worry.” The show sold out during the first few days.
You could count on Paul for a quiet, feline, two-word description of someone you didn’t know at a dinner, or at an opening. “Hideously rich.” “Fantastically stupid.” “Wonderfully boring.” “Delightfully wicked.” He once said to me, “In America, people often say they want to be nice and to have fun. Oh god, what a nightmare.” But, of course, Paul was very nice. And he had a lot of fun.
Around 15 years ago I somehow found myself in Las Vegas with Paul and another artist. We wandered around a bit and found ourselves in front of one of those fountains that leaps along with song lyrics. Frank Sinatra singing “Luck Be a Lady.” “Obviously, this is the most hideous place on earth,” Paul jabbed. We wandered into a casino. Paul put a small bet down at the roulette table and promptly won $800. He gave me and the other artist $400 each to bet with. We both lost right away. I almost vomited. The other artist almost passed out. Paul delayed in calling the house doctor.
Paul was a gourmand. He enjoyed fine restaurant dining, but was a gifted home chef as well. “I’m deeply suspicious of other people’s cooking,” he would say. He started taking pictures of his meals with his Leica M6 long before it was a “thing” on social media. Towards the end, Paul was starting to speak less and eat very little. During one of our last visits, his nurse had prepared a vegetable broth for him. Paul took a spoonful and looked like an offended Persian cat. “Do you like it?” asked the nurse. There was a long pause. “Do you?” Paul drawled.
Former executive manager, Andy Warhol studio
Paul Kasmin was just starting his first gallery located in SoHo on Broadway when I met him through an artist I was publishing, Suzan Etkin, in 1988 or 1989. From the beginning of our friendship, I noticed Paul could break into a mischievous smile, slightly blushing as he chuckled while we were on the topics of art, artists, and art world personalities. He was quiet but full of life and energy, and Paul was the man who loved to have lunch. We had many lunch meetings over the years as Paul grew his gallery, moving to bigger and bigger spaces. We had creative lunches working on the concept of Andy Warhol drawing and painting shows that we did together for his gallery.
Paul was a very astute thinker and thorough in his working process, always jotting down notes in his tiny handwriting into the small leather-bound notepad he kept in his bespoke suit jacket. Another coveted piece of equipment he increasingly kept close to him over the years was a camera. Paul was a very good photographer and documented his many friends, fine food, and other specific subjects, and created small book editions from time to time. Paul was a sophisticated English gentleman, a refined art dealer with a keen eye and sense of humor, loyal to his friends and people who worked closely with him. Anyone who became Paul’s friend will miss him dearly, as I will.
Artist represented by Kasmin gallery
I met Paul for the first time around 1989 or 1990. I had just moved into a studio in the big white building on the corner of Bond Street and the Bowery, which a lot of people passed through at one time or another. I think it was Peter Schuyff who brought Paul to my studio. (He was represented by Paul for a while.)
I was looking for somebody to work with, and we just fit together like a jigsaw puzzle right from the beginning. And I stayed with him forever. Before that, I’d been with a different gallery every year for about five years, but Paul and I were such a good fit. I think Paul and I had an innate understanding of one another that came from growing up in the same kind of culture. We were both English-born and bred people who decided to live in New York and live within the art world. There was a kind of thread of connection there already. We had a way of talking that was almost code.
When he came to the studio, if we both liked something or didn’t like something or felt one way about it or another, it was a kind of familiarity where we just had look at each other and we knew what the other was thinking. It was a real, deep rapport. He might offer a grunt or a “humph” or some classic understatement like “That’s rather good.” That was his way. It was beautiful. His whole life he was understated. He liked things simple and tasteful. Paul was a man of few words. He didn’t offer them up without much thought.
Paul was a master at dealing with artists. He was never full-frontal with his advice. He had a way of leading me to my own conclusions about how to proceed with something. I really enjoyed his visits to the studio. His insights were always helpful. He never pushed me this way or that, but he somehow led me to understand what might be a better way to go. He was incredibly generous with his support of things that I might choose to do. When I chose to make a movie or make some paintings using a road-paint machine. There was a trust there. He supported those ideas from the get-go. He trusted that something interesting would come out of them. I feel really quite lucky to have been that close to him. I’m not sure what I’m going to do now. Except that the gallery will keep going. The people who work there are wonderful, but I’ll miss Paul like crazy.
When I made Street (2011), which got quite a bit of attention, Paul supported that from the beginning. I showed him a sketch-version of the film that I wanted to make that I shot with a handheld high-speed camera and drove around the city with one hand on the wheel and the other hand poking out the window. I had tried to get money from somewhere and had been turned down, possibly because I said I wanted to make a movie to be seen a hundred years from now, which they didn’t get the joke. The success of that film encouraged me to widen my practice a bit.
He was just steeped in art. He had grown up in it. There’s a lovely drawing of him as an 11-year-old in a soldier’s jacket by David Hockney that hangs in the house. He’s looking up at the adult and Hockney is looking up at him, so it’s a foreshortened version of Paul. It’s not difficult to imagine Paul growing up in a whirlwind atmosphere with all kinds of artists and celebrities stopping by the house.
He was very knowledgeable about art in any form and he loved art, which is something I don’t think is necessarily true about all dealers. Paul loved art and somehow you always felt, even though he was a good businessman, that the priority with him was the art itself. I’ll never forget going to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. They have the most beautiful Titians. There was a room full of Bruegels of about 15 of them, some of which you knew, a number of which you’ve never seen before. He was just over the top.
He took beautiful photos. His photos of food are fantastic. We were bringing some old photo books up from the basement the day before yesterday, and his daughter, Charlotte, said, “They’re all of dead animals.” They’re of fish and deer heads. He loved anything that was slightly perverse and really interesting.
He was very funny, too, in a very quiet way. He made humorous asides and observations of people. Maybe this is where we connected too. He would see the humor in things in a way that I grew up seeing. Paul was dead serious, but he had the ability to see the side of something that wasn’t so important.
He wasn’t given to being pompous in any way, although he might have appeared that way to others. He didn’t have any airs. It was just the way he was. He was quite shy now that I think about it. I know a lot of people couldn’t figure him out. “That Paul Kasmin—I just don’t get him.” They thought he was a sphinx or a cypher. His timing was really good, probably why he was so good in business. He wasn’t that good at making small talk and his solution was to not talk. If you didn’t have something important to say, don’t say anything. That was Paul.