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The Spider-Man of art dealers

John Kasmin was at the centre of London's art scene web in the 1960s. Now his frank memories provide the thread for a fascinating installation at Tate Britain

‘If I’m talking strangely,’ says John Kasmin in the doorway of his west London home, ‘it’s because two of my teeth snapped off in a bread roll while I was looking at Vesuvius during a hiking trip in Italy last week.’ The dental trauma is, luckily, only temporary — he has an appointment for two gleaming implants — but the remark hangs in the air as characteristic of the celebrated art dealer: precise, confiding, energetic, self-dramatising. Even the detail about the famous volcano is an assurance that you’d never catch him looking at anything ordinary, banal or suburban.

Now in his 82nd year, Kasmin has been doing a lot of talking lately. ‘Not a week goes by when I’m not being interviewed,’ he says. ‘Stephen Bayley is in touch about his biography of Terence Conran. And a lady doing the official biography of [the New Zealand novelist] Maurice Shadbolt, whom I knew. I’m being given a free dinner at the Gagosian Gallery because they’re doing an Yves Klein show, and I’m probably the only living person who knew Yves Klein.’ He sighs. ‘It’s what happens when you’re a survivor with a reasonable memory and enough willingness to answer questions.’

Kasmin’s most epic feat of recall, however, is about to make him the subject of a display at Tate Britain. It celebrates 25 years of Artists’ Lives, an offshoot of the British Library’s National Life Stories oral history project, in association with the Tate. For a quarter-century, 370 of the nation’s most eminent painters, sculptors and ‘art professionals’ (curators, dealers, even critics) have been interviewed about their influences and aesthetic vision, their relationship with money, their exhibitions and retrospectives, their hard times and failures.

Kasmin’s interview clocks in at more than 100 hours — a rolling, Ciceronian stream of reminiscence beside which Marcel Proust is like a befuddled valetudinarian

‘We give each person the same opportunity to talk about their lives, from their ancestors to the present day,’ says Cathy Courtney, project director and chief interviewer. ‘Nothing is off-limits. We don’t mind digressions and jumps in time. And we don’t want them to talk only about work in the studio. We ask where they buy their Brussels sprouts, whether they believe in God, whether they’ve made money in property. We’re not trying to get sound bites.’

I’ll say. Some of the interviews are astoundingly long. Short ones range from 12 to 20 hours. Some go on for 40. And then there’s Kasmin, who clocks in at more than 100 hours — a rolling, Ciceronian stream of reminiscence beside which Marcel Proust is like a befuddled valetudinarian striving to recall what he did last Tuesday.

Kasmin with his collection of sporting postcards by Belgian illustrator Fernand Fernel, dating from 1900-02. Photograph by Christoffer Rudquist

Kasmin with his collection of sporting postcards by Belgian illustrator Fernand Fernel, dating from 1900-02. Photograph by Christoffer Rudquist

Why did it take him so long? ‘First, I gave up drinking in 1992,’ says Kasmin proudly. ‘And if you have been a heavy drinker like I was, your memory is much clearer after giving up. Second, I enjoyed the task, so I was willing to excavate the past. I could look at a card from an exhibition and remember installing the show and who was around. I kept diaries of events and people I had lunch with. And I always took lots of pictures and kept photo albums.’

Had he been taken aback by any questions, or body-swerved any replies? ‘There were lots of questions about sex, and whether I was screwing people or not,’ says Kasmin happily. ‘I didn’t avoid any subjects. They were amazed by what I was willing to talk about.’

All the work that will feature at the Tate will have a Kasmin connection: pieces by Anthony Caro, Robyn Denny, David Hockney, Richard Smith, John Latham, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella. Either they were shown in his gallery at 118 New Bond Street between 1963 and 1972, or they were bought from him by the Tate, or acquired from him after the gallery closed. Visitors can look at the paintings — as well as evocative photographs from the era — while listening to 200 extracts from the recorded interviews. The main themes are the relationships between dealers, artists and national museums, and their networks of contacts.

At the centre of these professional webs stands Kasmin, the Spider-Man of dealers for more than 40 years. The story of his early days is remarkable. He was born John Kaye in London’s Whitechapel in 1934; his forebears were Jewish schmatta traders. He grew up in Oxford and went to Magdalen College School, but his classical education (‘I liked writing Greek hexameters and translating Homer’) was interrupted when his father — who ‘resented and disliked me from the word go’ — sent him to work in the pressed steel factory in Cowley, ‘paying off these sweating guys pressing out Bentley bodies, and studying cost accountancy at night school’.

He had to get out. So, at the age of 17, with £80 saved for his bar mitzvah and the help of his aunts, he legged it to New Zealand, worked in a hospital and wrote beatnik poetry. Four years later, he was back in England, in Soho at the time of coffee bars, skiffle and Look Back in Anger. He met artists such as the two gay Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, ‘but only as fellow drinkers. There were far more literary people around — I used to drink with Elizabeth Smart and George Barker.’

Then he met Victor Musgrave, poet and art dealer, who owned Gallery One in Soho’s D’Arblay Street. He was handsome, charismatic, bohemian and occasionally transvestite, and his gallery drew Kasmin like a moth to a chandelier. ‘Victor lived above the gallery, and people would drop in for tea. There’d be a mixture of odd painters who also wrote, like Francis Newton Souza and Alexander Weatherson. It was a milieu where talented people met and had tea, while prostitutes wandered about outside. I told Victor I’d love to work there. He said, “No, I can hardly make a living myself.”’

Victor’s wife Ida Kar intervened. An Armenian portrait photographer of international repute, she took Kasmin upstairs for tea, ‘and I stayed the night. Next day, Victor said, “If you can keep her quiet and stop her smashing my door down” — because he was then having an affair with a young artist — “you can have a job helping out here.”’

He became the gallery’s cook and Ida’s manager. But his education in art history had to wait until he joined the Kaplan gallery under Ewan Phillips. ‘Not a lot happened in galleries in those days. I read my way through both volumes of John Rewald’s History of Impressionism. And after a show at the Tate, I became involved with American painters.’

In 1960, he discovered David Hockney, a name linked immovably to his for half a century, although he now says, ‘He was the most minor of all my artists. I would never have created a gallery to show Hockney. My passion was American colour field abstract painting.’ So why had Kasmin championed him? ‘I liked his spirit and cheekiness. He looked like he’d got something sensible from Dubuffet, and he’d picked up a trick or two from Larry Rivers. The main thing was, Hockney was terribly shy and needy, and I knew I could help him.’

‘I didn’t avoid any subjects. They were amazed by what I was willing to talk about’

Kasmin’s next professional home was the Marlborough gallery, of Piccadilly. His relationship with the Austrian émigré owners, Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer, could best be described as scratchy. ‘They were very disliked,’ he drily recalls, ‘spoken about as big shots pinching artists from other galleries across London. They brought in business practices that were highly unusual in the art world — like paying your artists before you paid your bookie. They were tough and businesslike and wanted to make money. They weren’t rich people to start with, unlike most London art dealers.’

Although they signed up Kasmin as curator of the offshoot Marlborough New London, to exhibit all that was lively in post-war British art, they didn’t much care for his protégés. ‘They thought Hockney was the silliest chap in the world, painting daft pictures on irregularly shaped bits of canvas.’

A rare photo postcard from Kasmin’s collection. Photograph by Christoffer Rudquist
A rare photo postcard from Kasmin’s collection. Photograph by Christoffer Rudquist

Kasmin regarded Anthony Caro’s big metal sculptures as ‘exciting, brave and truly inspired’, but Lloyd and Fischer told him they’d never sell. When he introduced them to the Zambian-born conceptual artist John Latham and his collages of torn, sawn-up and burnt books, they recoiled with horror. Kasmin needed a gallery of his own. He found a perfect backer in Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the 5th Marquess of Duferin and Ava, then a student at Oxford.

‘A debutante gallery assistant said one day, “There’s a chap I’ve met, a rather well-off young lord, who’s started buying paintings.” I met him at a party at the Hurlingham Club to present him to the world. I liked this shy young fellow, three years younger than me, and visited him in Oxford. He had the most enormous sitting room overlooking the main quad in Christ Church, and had wall-to-wall carpets, very unusual in student quarters.’

‘[The Marquess] liked the adventure of the art world, being on the inside track, seeing things from the dealer’s point of view… And he was very interested in people with great wealth’

Duferin was keen to learn about art. He trusted Kasmin, ‘and quite rapidly I was telling him what to buy’. Did the Marquess have taste? ‘He came from a family with no taste at all except for hunting prints and portraits,’ says Kasmin acidly. ‘But he liked the adventure of the art world, being on the inside track, seeing things from the dealer’s point of view, whether it was furniture or Old Masters. And he was very interested in people with great wealth.’

So Kasmin and Lord Duferin decided to use the former’s taste and the latter’s money to start a gallery and enjoy themselves. ‘It wasn’t just to make money. I wanted to make the best gallery, have the best art, the best reputation and the best setting — and if it made money, good.’ Kasmin left the Marlborough in the summer of 1961, and their new company was incorporated in November, although they dealt for a time from Kasmin’s home in Fulham (where he lived with his wife Jane Nicholson, niece of the artist Ben). 

John Kasmin examining a postcard from his collection. Photograph by Christoffer Rudquist
John Kasmin examining a postcard from his collection. Photograph by Christoffer Rudquist

‘I wouldn’t open a gallery until I’d secured the rights to represent people I admired, like Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Because we had the cash, I could make contractual arrangements with artists like Robyn Denny and Richard Smith, even if they had no selling record. I could guarantee them money every year. As the Marlborough gallery showed, artists like to know they have a steady flow of money and don’t have to teach all the time.’

The New Bond Street gallery opened in April 1963 with an exhibition of Noland’s work. It revealed, unprecedentedly at the time, an enormous, white central space for exhibiting artworks that wouldn’t fit a conventional drawing-room wall. Was Kasmin making a statement about modern culture? ‘Yeah. I didn’t see myself supplying decorative pictures for domestic spaces. I knew most painters were doing bigger works and we needed a gallery where a six-foot-by-six-foot picture was standard. I saw myself promoting artists that painted in a certain way; I had no idea where people were going to put them. I was trying to create a space in which the art would look its best. That meant big, clear walls, and tiers of different lighting — more lighting than any other gallery had.’

Kasmin’s groundbreaking design became part of the landscape of modern London, the early 1960s explosion of rock music, movies, cars, shops, fashion and everything cool and swinging. For artists, it was the time to be seen, and the Kasmin Gallery was the place to be shown. But Kasmin himself stayed oddly aloof from the pop-rock-art triangle characterised by the dealer Robert Fraser and his friendship with the Rolling Stones (which led to his being imprisoned after the Redlands drug bust): ‘I didn’t like pop art at all.’ Did he have rockstar clients? ‘No. I know Jagger as a person, but I’ve never been to any of his concerts.’ What, never? ‘I’ve never worn jeans,’ he says proudly. ‘I’ve never chewed gum and I’ve never tasted Coca-Cola. I hated all that American bullying.’

Why did Kasmin and Duferin go their separate ways? ‘Sheridan’s taste wandered away a bit,’ he says. ‘We had never made much money, and he wasn’t enjoying being part of a place that wasn’t a big business. The lease was coming to an end, we were approaching an energy crisis, and I was becoming tired of trying to be a businessman. Added to which, Sheridan’s wife Lindy thought that most of what I had in the gallery was rubbish, except Hockney.’

The final straw was when Duferin bought some pop art works in New York, brought them back to London and said he wanted to exhibit them. ‘And I just didn’t want them around.’ Did they have a row? ‘No, we went to stay with Larry Rubin at his gallery in the south of France. There are pictures of us around the pool, working out how to wind down the company.’ Duferin remained a shareholder until his death, aged 49, in 1988.

Kasmin’s story is an extraordinary chronicle of a key decade in 20th-century art history, which is brought yelpingly to life by the Artists’ Lives show. You can see the paintings, look at period photos and listen to the memories: the Tate’s Richard Morphet on an evening at the ICA with Richard Smith and Richard Hamilton; Anthony Caro on his friendship with Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski; Gillian Ayres on the ‘baked beans and bacon and eggs’ at Gallery One. And Kasmin himself, recalling how he stayed at the Chelsea Hotel on his first trip to New York, describing his love for Sheridan Duferin, speaking rapturously about the setting up of a gallery that brought a cool breeze of the future to post-war London. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive; but to be an art dealer was very heaven.

Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery is at Tate Britain until Autumn 2017. The British Library’s Open Artists’ Lives recordings are available online by the end of 2016. For John Kasmin’s postcard collections see triviapress.co.uk