Purple Magazine
— S/S 2010 issue 13

John Richardson

photography by Olivier Zahm

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM and DAPHNE GUINNESS
photographs by OLIVIER ZAHM

JOHN RICHARDSON is a British art historian, writer, and most importantly, Picasso’s intimate biographer. Since the ’70s, Richardson has lived a flamboyant life in a gigantic loft in New York City, which he tends to like a European treasure chest. In June, 2009, he curated “Mosqueteros,” an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery of Picasso’s last works, offering the possibility to reconsider these previously ill-received works from the end of the master’s life. Richardson, a long-time contributor to Vanity Fair, is the living memory of modern art. Yet he still thrives on making friends with younger generations. Daphne Guinness, one of John’s best friends, gave me the chance to meet him, one I couldn’t pass up.

PURPLE — You really have some amazing things here in your apartment.
JOHN RICHARDSON — They’re just things I’ve accumulated in my life, that I’ve ended up with, that have stuck to me. My fetishes. I’m like a witch doctor with all his junk around him — and a witch doctor doesn’t sell his fetishes. A lot of it isn’t really all that precious — in fact, some of it is rubbish. I just like having a nest. I’m like a demented bird bringing back bits and making my little nest — or, rather, my big nest. It’s my territory and I feel safe here. You know, I’m 85 years old. I’m just very, very old. I may need to get wheeled around. I want a nice place to die in. [Laughs]

PURPLE – You arrived in New York in 1959, right?
JOHN RICHARDSON – Yes. I fell in love with the city. It was heaven. I was brought up in London and I’m a real Londoner. My family has lived in London since the 18th Century. But I got bored in London, so I moved to Provence and I lived there for ten or 12 years. Then I went to New York. I still had a flat in London, in the Albany apartments. I thought I would be able to live in London and rent a place in New York and go back and forth. Then Christie’s auction house asked me to head their New York operation and suddenly I had a real job. I didn’t know much about America, but they wanted me because I had lived with Douglas Cooper [the art historian] in the South of France at the Château de Castille, which is near the Pont du Gard.

PURPLE – Did you originally want to become an artist?
JOHN RICHARDSON – I was an art student. I gave up painting because I wasn’t good enough at it. So I started writing about art. I was in the army for a week and I came down with rheumatic fever. It affects your heart. The army won’t keep you and it has to pay you a pension for the rest of your life. So I stayed in London throughout the war, putting out fires and doing air raid prevention. I stopped going to art school and worked as an industrial designer, doing cheap utility stuff, which was fun.

PURPLE – How did you end up living in Provence in the Fifties?
JOHN RICHARDSON – I met Douglas in 1949, in London. He was my lover. Along with a friend of ours, we traveled around Europe in the early Fifties — did the Grand Tour. I was 13 years younger than Douglas. He was marvelous. He’d been to Cambridge and the Sorbonne, and had studied German history. He spoke French and German. We were staying at the Hôtel du Pont du Gard. We were coming out of the vineyards one day and came upon these columns in the Valley du Gard. We saw a notice: Château à vendre. It was made of the same beautiful honey-colored stone as the Pont du Gare. It was like a miniature of the Piazza di San Pietro. Medieval. Un mas fortifié. A tower in each corner. The Baron de Castille added them in 1780, before the Revolution. Inside there were more columns. Even the farm buildings had columns. The family of the Baron de Castille went broke and the local bank sold it to us for $12,000!

PURPLE – What was life with Douglas like?
JOHN RICHARDSON – Douglas had one of the greatest private collections of Cubist paintings in the world. He had Picasso, Braque, Léger’s early Contrast Of Forms, Juan Gris — all done between 1906 and 1914. He bought it all before 1939, when prices were low. He also had quite a lot of Mirós and Paul Klees. It was the most beautiful collection. Many people came to see it. More importantly, Picasso used to visit. We lived near Nîmes. When there was a bullfight at Arles or Nîmes, we would lunch with Picasso, and his last wife, Jacqueline Roque, would come over. We’d all lunch at the Hôtel Jules César and then go to a bullfight. Douglas loved bullfights. Then we’d give a dinner at Castille with Picasso, the bullfighters, Jean Cocteau, and Jean Lafont, who lived in Camargue — he was the lover of Marie Laure de Noailles. The French surrealist writer Michel Leiris would sometimes stay with us. We’d have gypsies come sing and dance. It was marvelous.

photography by Olivier Zahm

PURPLE – So you started a bohemian life in a French village. Why did you choose the South of France?
JOHN RICHARDSON – It just happened. And it was wonderful. It could just as easily have been Normandy. The problem was that there was no water. But we found some, a hundred meters down. Douglas had a man sandblast drawings by Picasso on the wall, using black pebbles and cement. It looked just like lines of black crayon. We saw a lot of Michel Leiris, Picasso and his dealer Zed, and Cocteau. When Picasso left Françoise Gilot, he set up with Jacqueline in the huge villa he bought in Cannes. When a high-rise was built nearby some years later he moved to Mougins. But he kept his studio in Cannes. He even tried to buy the Château de Castille from us. Then I discovered that the Château de Vauvenargues, near Aix-en-Provence, was up for sale, and told him about it. Picasso bought it in 1958. He’s buried there.

PURPLE – You were a very handsome young man.
JOHN RICHARDSON – Yes, I was kind of not bad looking.

PURPLE – As a young man, you were living surrounded by pre-war art legends beyond your generation.
JOHN RICHARDSON – Yes, but then Picasso was already in his ’70s; Braque and Léger were 70; Juan Gris was dead. And Douglas collected Cubism; he felt that Cubism was the summit of art. It was all very Ecole de Paris — pre-war Paris, and Picasso.

PURPLE – You were especially interested in Picasso?
JOHN RICHARDSON – Yes, and I think Picasso sensed that one day I would write about him, because I had such a passion for his work. I knew his work by heart. But he played tricks on me. Maybe the third time I visited his studio in Cannes he showed me some of his drawings and asked me which one I thought was the strongest. I told him. The next time I visited him he had the drawing on the wall and questioned me about why I thought it was so strong. And the next time I visited him he did the same thing. Imagine it: I’m a 25-year-old art student and Picasso is just grilling me. I was reduced to tears. He told me that only one other man had had the same reaction to his scrutiny — Georges Bamberg. I asked him who that was and he said it didn’t matter.

PURPLE – Georges Bamberg?
JOHN RICHARDSON – Yes. The Bamberg family is a big French family, although they’re basically Jewish, from Hamburg. They went to Argentina and made an enormous fortune — they owned all the breweries, the railways, the telephone system.
They were the richest family in Argentina. They came back to Europe around 1914 — to Paris, not to Germany — and married their daughter off. She became the Marquise de Gannet, and lived in a beautiful house near Paris. Kiko Bamberg, the nephew, owned the great house in the seventh arrondissement, where Givenchy lives.

PURPLE – It’s the most beautiful hôtel particulier in Paris.
JOHN RICHARDSON – It’s staggering. Because the Bambergs were Argentine, and kept their nationality, they never paid taxes. But 15 or 20 years ago the government came after them and they had to sell their house. When Picasso mentioned Georges Bamberg, I started checking up on him. I soon found out that the family didn’t want to talk about Georges. Picasso and Georges Bamberg became great friends during the First World War. Georges spoke Spanish and Picasso missed speaking Spanish. There weren’t many Spanish speakers in Paris during World War One. Georges Bamberg was also a painter and he sort of copied Picasso. And at the end of the war Picasso married a Russian woman, and Georges married a Russian woman. Picasso had a house in a small town outside Paris and had a studio in the stables. Georges did the same thing. I think it was a place he could take girls. He was married but didn’t get on well with his wife. Then one day in 1922 Georges Bamberg went mad and burnt down the house and stables. His father put him in a famous place in Switzerland where very rich families put their crazy relations. Georges was locked away with his wife and children and was never heard from, or referred to, again. His sister, the Marquise de Gannet, was told he was dead. Old Mr. Bamberg didn’t want anyone finding out was there was bad blood in the family. A lot of the family members are gay. A lot of them are crazy. It’s not a family you’d want your daughter to marry into. The Gannets, a big family with lots of money, did marry into it. I found a grandson who showed me drawings Georges Bamberg did. Maurice Rheims [1910 – 2003; art historian, notably of Picasso and Bonnard; father of photographer Bettina Rheims] met one of the Bamberg daughters who told him the family had a mass of unsigned Picasso drawings. Maurice Rheims showed the lot to Picasso not long before he, Picasso, died. They all turned out to be by Georges — drawn exactly like Picasso.

PURPLE – Exactly?
JOHN RICHARDSON – Maybe not exactly. But in a way, he did copy Picasso’s life. Picasso said to Maurice Rheims, “Bamberg thought he was me.” The truth is, Picasso wouldn’t let Françoise Gilot give his clothes to the gardener because he thought some of his genius might rub off on him. The thing you have to understand is that Picasso was a shaman, a sort of magician. He thought art was magic, that his work was magic. He could be very loving but also very cruel. He used his work to change people’s feelings towards him, to frighten people, to make love to people. What he wanted was people’s energy — men, women, children, dogs, you name it. If eight people were having lunch, Picasso had to have — and would get — everybody’s energy, though it wasn’t obvious. He was like a vampire in that respect. I loved him and I think he sensed it. It must have been the same way with Georges Bamberg. It wasn’t sexual, but passionate, intellectual, and psychical. That’s what was so fascinating about Picasso. I was very young and Picasso talked to me a lot. I always knew what he was working on.

photography by Olivier Zahm

PURPLE – When did your friendship with him begin?
JOHN RICHARDSON – In 1952, thirty years after Georges Bamberg went mad; he died in 1946 or ’47.

PURPLE – Did he authorize you to write about his life?
JOHN RICHARDSON – Yes. Originally I was going to write a book on Picasso’s portraits. I thought of it as a way to get into his biography.

PURPLE – What’s really fascinating about Picasso is his love life.
JOHN RICHARDSON – Dora Maar [1874 – 1969; née Henriette Theodora Markovitch, artist and photographer; muse of Picasso] had told me that when the women in Picasso’s life changed — women were always muses for Picasso — everything changed: the house, the dog, even his style. When I came into Picasso’s life he was just breaking up with Françoise Gilot and was about to start up with Jacqueline. I met Françoise once or twice and I found her to be cold.

PURPLE – Do you remember when Picasso and Jacqueline started to be together?
JOHN RICHARDSON – One day, Picasso asked Douglas and me to go on a trip with him to Perpignan, where he had a girlfriend, the Comtesse de Lazarne, a very pretty girl. She was married to the Comte de Lazarne, an older man. They didn’t have any children. Maybe he was gay. He came from an old Perpignan family and was interested in local poetry and culture. They lived in a beautiful house, with a great library where he spent all his time. The wife had affairs and she had a big one with Picasso. The Count was very proud and pleased about it. Douglas and I, and a woman friend of ours named Jacqueline Roque — a sort of Spanish gypsy woman who was working at Madoura, Picasso’s ceramist — all went to Perpignan for three or four days. Picasso was also fucking Jacqueline and everyone thought, “He can find somebody better.” Although I thought Jacqueline was perfect. She was the same scale as Picasso — the same height, a big face with big features, and big tits and a big ass, which he liked. They looked like they were made for each other.

PURPLE – So you arrived in his life at the same time as Jacqueline?
JOHN RICHARDSON – Pretty much, yeah. I became very friendly with her. I bought her a big silk wrap at Dior in Paris — a pink-red cerise thing, like bullfighters’ capes were made of. She looked sort of like a bullfighter in it. Nobody gave her presents, not even Picasso. She kept the box. Picasso loved to keep boxes, too — he loved things that contained things. A month or two later Picasso gave me a present, a drawing that I particularly liked. He put it in the same Dior box. He was very generous, and he always gave things that had a sort of magic in them.

PURPLE – It’s interesting that you portray Picasso as a shaman, given that art does connect people in a different dimension, with something invisible, but strong.
JOHN RICHARDSON – Picasso was unlike anyone else.

PURPLE – Besides Picasso, which other artists were particularly interesting to you at the time?
JOHN RICHARDSON – I was also very close to Braque. I wrote two books on him. I became close to him, insofar as you could get close to him. He was always a sort of a mystic — like a saint or a holy man, sitting in his studio, with his gorgeous eyes, mixing paint. He’d have ten canvases up on easels in front of him; he’d stand up, sit back down, and lie back on the settee. It was such a different atmosphere from Picasso’s studio — quiet, monastic. My rapport with Braque was so different from my rapport with Picasso.

PURPLE — Was Douglas jealous of your closeness to Braque?
JOHN RICHARDSON — No, because he was closer to Ferdinand Léger, who was his great friend, and his life’s work was on Juan Gris. And Picasso was always giving Douglas things. There was no competition.

Buste, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 32 inches, 1970, presented in Mosqueteros, Pablo Picasso exhibition, curated by John Richardson Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

PURPLE— It must have been really exciting to be around this great generation of artists. Was it also frustrating at times?
JOHN RICHARDSON — I’d had a wonderful life with Douglas, with the bullfights, and the going to see Picasso, but it was in the depths of the countryside. It was very quiet. And Douglas was rude to everybody. I thought the locals would burn down the house! Douglas liked to fight with them, but I was friendly. Douglas was very difficult, a control freak. He wanted to keep me there with him. I only had the money I got for the articles I wrote here and there. Finally I said to him, “I have to go to America.” He was furious. But the moment I got to New York, I knew I had to say good-bye to the Château de Castille. I met someone new here. After London and Paris, New York was wonderful. In those early days, it really was. Now it’s so depressing.

PURPLE — What was arriving in New York like?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Well, I came by boat in late ’59, which was, of course, the best way. I think it took five days. In those days it was very formal. In first class you could have anything! You had to put on a black tie for dinner on the Queen Elizabeth and the food was extremely good. There was all the caviar in the world and champagne cost nothing. Everything was duty free so you could drink for nothing. Everybody was drunk out of their minds. But it was unbelievably boring, unless you had access to the crew. There was a bar just for the crew. That’s where the action was… I used to hang out there because it was much more fun than hanging out with the drunken sixty-year-old ladies. I’d slip away into the bowels of the ship. If you were British in New York it was like you were a child let loose in a department store. I mean, Americans all seem to stay within their group — if you’re a bohemian artist, you see only other bohemian artists. But I ran the gamut of New York life. Exploring it was fun!

PURPLE — It’s hard to imagine New York in the Sixties. It must have been a revelation for you, coming, as you did, from such a traditional British family.
JOHN RICHARDSON — Yes, it was. And I loved it. I was lucky because everybody in the art world — all the American collectors, museum directors, dealers, and critics — had been to the Château de Castille, because they wanted to see the collection. So I knew Alfred Barr, the creator of the Museum of Modern Art, and Phillip Johnson, the architect. I arrived just before Christmas, 1959, and I spent Christmas in the house next to Johnson’s Glass House. The whole Museum of Modern Art crowd was there. In 1962 I organized a big Picasso show in New York, at nine different commercial galleries.

PURPLE — Uptown or downtown?
JOHN RICHARDSON — There was no downtown in those days. Everything was uptown, on 57th Street. It was the center of the art world. I showed Picasso’s Blue Period work at Knoedler Gallery, and his classical period at the Duveen-Graham Gallery. Oh God, I can’t remember it all. It was during the summer. In the evening people went from one gallery to another — they all stayed open fairly late. The galleries all hated one another. They all fought. But thanks to my show the dealers formed an association called The Art Dealers Association of America, which still exists.

PURPLE — You really had a brilliant start in New York.
JOHN RICHARDSON — Well, I was lucky because I represented Picasso, Braque, and Léger.

PURPLE — Did Picasso attend the show?
JOHN RICHARDSON — No, he hated to travel. He only went to England twice. He only liked to go to Spain. But he couldn’t, because of Franco.

PURPLE — Were you interested in Modern American art and the Avant-garde?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Not really. I was working on Picasso — always on Picasso and Cubism. That’s what interested me. I never met Pollock. He was dead before I came to America. But I did meet Rothko. I didn’t really get the young New York school. I liked what they did, but… Picasso hated abstract art. He thought art should be figurative — people, landscape, and things. I felt the same way. I wasn’t exactly resistant, but I just didn’t get involved in conceptual art about ideas or themes or what have you. I remained very much Ecole de Paris. I also liked Miró and Klee a lot. I used to go to Switzerland and I owned one or two Klees. To earn a living, I became an auctioneer at Christie’s. I’d known all their people in France. I actually hated commerce and all those horrible dealers.

photography by Olivier Zahm

PURPLE — Besides art, was it the sexual freedom and gay liberation that made you love New York?
JOHN RICHARDSON — It was wonderful. Where I grew up in London, gay life was impossible. The bars closed at ten or ten-thirty and then there was nowhere to go, except maybe to a park. There were a few gay bars and clubs, but they were horrible — white wall-to-wall carpet and a white piano, old queens singing and waiting for drinks, and a lot of good-looking young men with cigarette holders, looking nervous. So unattractive. I just wanted to get the hell out. I was young, very shy, and nervous with people. I was scared of everything. On my second night in New York I went to a gay bar that had sawdust on the floor, a lot of leather jackets, blue jeans, and torn t-shirts, and it was paradise! Everybody was so easy-going and friendly and sexy. I’d never really smoked joints. It was marvelous. Life opened up. In no time at all I had a boyfriend. There was a sort of a communal feeling. It was heaven! My favorite bar was on 34th Street and Third Avenue. Much later there was The Anvil and a place called The Mineshaft — that was in the Eighties and Nineties. Then, of course, when the AIDS crisis hit in the mid-Eighties, that sort of put a damper on everything. A lot of creative people died. It changed New York terribly.

PURPLE — Where did you live in New York?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Within a year of arriving, I found an apartment on 75th Street, just off Lexington Avenue. Two friends — sisters — said to me one day, “Look, a building is up for sale. Why don’t we buy it together and divide it up?” So we found an agent and bought the house. My two floors cost me $12,500. And I had a garden in the back! Because it was near Third Avenue, no one wanted to live there — they thought it was too noisy. I lived there for 25 years. But, speaking of my stuff, I eventually didn’t have enough room for it all. So I started looking at lofts. I wanted a bowling alley with a separate studio. An agent called me about this one and I bought it immediately. It’s 5000 square-feet, which is a lot. That was 12 years ago. I got it for under a million dollars, which was nothing. It had belonged to a choreographer and a sculptor who both died of AIDS.

PURPLE — How did you become friends with Andy Warhol?
JOHN RICHARDSON — I met him early on. He was an Anglophile. He always had girls from good English families around him. I usually knew them, or they were friends of friends. Catherine Guinness was one of the main ones, and she was one of my best friends. So I was always part of the Warhol crowd. The original Factory was way uptown. Union Square came much later. I came in when Andy’s right-hand man was Fred Hughes. He ran the business and completely changed Andy’s life. Fred cleaned up the whole thing and got Andy away from all those suicidal sorts who shut themselves away in the darkrooms taking drugs. I was very close to Andy, and then he got shot. A friend of mine, Mario Amaya, a curator of the Huntington Hartford Museum, in Connecticut, and a wild character, was with Andy at The Factory when he was shot. Mario had a big, rather cute ass and he hit the floor just as a bullet went through his buttocks. Mario was a great friend of mine, so I gave him a shooting party. I invited all his friends. But we didn’t realize how ill Andy really was. Then Bobby Kennedy was killed and everything was cancelled.

PURPLE — What was the art world like in those days?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Different. More fun. It was Andy’s cuckoo world. Then there was a sort of café society, with a lot of gay people. One of its stars was Babe Paley [former Vogue editor, wife of William Paley, the founder of CBS]. Babe loved modern painting, gave very good parties, and was just fun to be around. Women these days are so boring and uptight — and so bourgeois! In the old days parties were fun. Two weeks ago I went to a very rich person’s beautiful apartment. It looked like a VIP lounge in Las Vegas trying to look modern, with huge white sofas and great big, very bad modernistic paintings. Before, the café society was more chic and everybody wanted to give flashy parties. Money was something you had but never talked about. Then at the end of the Eighties, everybody had to have money — café society people had a lot of it and they spent it all on dresses, art, etc.. Then, after all of those years, everything became boring and stuffy and bourgeois — maybe it was the Republicans who caused it.

PURPLE — Was this boredom a product of the blatant capitalism of the Eighties, when art became an investment, like buying an apartment?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Yes. People got very greedy — and competitive. Someone buys a de Kooning and someone else has to buy a bigger one. Someone discovers a young painter and everyone buys him. I hate all that.

PURPLE — Why did you start writing for Vanity Fair?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Well, I’m fascinated by people. And I’ve got a good memory — or at least I used to have one. For anything other than some facts and the people who’ve interested me, my memory’s gone. I’m so old and I’ve known so many people from so many walks of life. I’m very curious about people. I’m a real biographer and see life in terms of biography. There are so many people I want to write about, not just Picasso. For instance, when I was working on Picasso I discovered a Chilean woman who was a kind of second mother to Picasso. She was hugely important in Picasso’s life and she’s been totally forgotten. She was the first minimalist. Baldini, Sargent — they all painted her. She was a great collector. She had some of the most important Cubist paintings. And she had all these Louis 15th and Louis 16th chairs that cost nothing back then. Then she decided to hell with it all. She got all her friends together and threw it all out. Incredible chairs and fantastic Cubist paintings! She said, “The man who makes a woman’s housses, the covers for her furniture, is as important as her couturier. She only went to Monsieur Cheparquille, who made the most wonderful, soft furniture covers. The French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank spotted her and he was very influenced by her. Even Cecil Beaton knew her. They were influenced by her minimalism. She belonged to a kind of Catholic nuns group — very religious. They went around wearing a kind of Patou-design religious outfit.

PURPLE — You like to investigate, don’t you? You like to tell a story. You’re interested in people.
JOHN RICHARDSON — Well, biography is important. Theory is so boring — especially theory of modern art. I like facts. The more you find out about people, the more you understand their work. Everything about Picasso is fascinating. The huge energy he put into everything he painted. The energy he put into his affairs. That interested me. I saw him in action in the Fifties and early Sixties — how he used those mirror de fuerte eyes, the strong gaze of the Andalusians. He always said to Françoise Gilot, “I wish you would cover yourself in black, because in Andalusia men can fuck you with their eyes.” [Laughs] It was as if he could almost eat the fruit in a still-life with his eyes. He had amazing abilities.

photography by Olivier Zahm

PURPLE — You’ve studied art for most of your life. It’s obviously profoundly important for you.
JOHN RICHARDSON — Art is like sex, in a way, especially if you have a passion for it. I mean, you must indulge your passion for it.

PURPLE — When you say that art is like sex, do you mean in a physical sense, the way one lives with art?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Art is sensuous. It’s part of life. It can be whatever you want it to be, but it should always stimulate you.

PURPLE — Does art make us more human?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Yes. Art triggers things in your mind. It reminds you of something else. It makes your eye sharper and helps you to see things in a new way. That’s a faculty one should encourage. Often things look awful until you realize there’s a more interesting thing involved — the circulation between art and people and things. Art lies at the center of a greater appreciation of everything. Art is a key to it all. Art has also become a currency. And, these days, when other currency is worthless… I mean, last night there was a sale at Sotheby’s and everything went fantastically well. Things went for huge, huge sums. And, thanks to the exhibition I arranged in the summer, late Picassos, which until a year ago didn’t do well on the market, sold for enormous prices.

PURPLE — Are young artists rediscovering Picasso?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Well, I think they think he was just an old fuddy-duddy because they had heard so much about him. He is so much a part of what they’re taught at art school. But they never really look at his work. We showed Picasso in a contemporary gallery, as if he were a new, young artist. Suddenly people saw him in a new light — as one of them! This was in June. It’s all been a huge success.

PURPLE — But, it’s better to look at any of Picasso’s paintings than to look at a Damien Hirst painting.
JOHN RICHARDSON — Having made hundreds and hundreds of millions, Damien decides he wants to be a painter… He hides away for a bit and then he goes to the Wallace Collection in London, a great museum, and shows some of his paintings. Total disaster. They were just bad Francis Bacon spoofs. And they were panned — every single paper in England came out with an indictment. Maybe they just wanted to revenge the bad boy of English art, but, unfortunately, they were right! They were terrible! They were the same size as big Bacons and they were mounted in the same kind of gold frames. But, instead of being painted on a black background, they were done on a kind of very dark midnight blue, and the paint looked like chalk outlines of shark skulls: all of Damien’s clichés. They looked derivative and incompetent. But then, he always did want to shock, didn’t he?

PURPLE — Beyond modern art, which contemporary artist were you closest to?
JOHN RICHARDSON — I might say Francis Bacon, whom I knew well in his early days. I was one of the few people he knew in New York the first time he visited in ’68. I’ll never forget that visit. At a lunch his dealer arranged, Francis was sitting next to a very good-looking young dealer. And Francis, who never uses the masculine pronoun, asked, “Who’s the gorgeous girl they put me to next to, darling?” I said, “That’s Jason McCoy. He’s the nephew of the painter of Blue Poles, America’s most famous abstract painter. Francis shrieked, “He’s Jackson Pollock’s nephew? You mean, he’s the niece of the old lace maker?” [Laughs] Shocks go off all around. The following night we went to a bar. Francis liked low-level bars, but not the New York kind. That wasn’t his sort of thing. So, at three in the morning we go to this bar. He was with George Dyer, his boyfriend in those days. George was a pathetic character who had to be polite to everybody. He wanted to buy everyone a drink. Francis said, “She’s absolutely penniless. Don’t listen to her. She hasn’t got a penny. Let’s have a magnum of champagne.” The barman had never heard of a magnum and told us to go somewhere else.

PURPLE — What was your connection with fashion? Were you friendly with fashion designers? Or was fashion a separate world back then? The fashion and art worlds are more interconnected now, for better or for worse.
JOHN RICHARDSON — I was always interested in fashion. I became very friendly with fashion designers because nearly all of them collected paintings. Yves Saint Laurent had a great collection. So did Bill Blass; I used to advise him on his collection. And I was a great friend of that wonderful monster, Helena Rubenstein, who had a fantastic collection. I was also a great friend of Diana Vreeland. She was brilliant, fascinating, and wise — and funny. I mean, compared to the fashion editors of today, she towered as a human being!

PURPLE — Are you still able to work in New York?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Yes. There are great libraries and fantastic museums, and there are more private collectors of every kind than anywhere else. I know all the collectors and the museum directors and I have an enormous amount of friends among them. And, as I said earlier, I keep tabs on the younger painters and quite a few of them are friends.

PURPLE — What’s your next project?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Volume Four of my Picasso biography, covering 1933 to 1973: 40 years of his life in one volume. I’m starting it with a collaborator in ten days time. Bernard Picasso, the one legitimate son of Picasso’s one legitimate son, has been an enormous help. He’s adorable. And I’m doing another big Picasso show, with the Picasso family, which will be shown in London next summer. We have all sorts of things that have never been shown, and others that are shown only rarely.

PURPLE — Will Larry Gagosian be working with you on this show?
JOHN RICHARDSON — Yes. He’s such a dream to work with. He’s very generous — if you have to get a picture and it’ll cost a huge amount of money, he’ll get it. He’s magical. The atmosphere of his gallery is quite extraordinary. He’s surrounded by good people. There’s no rivalry or bitchery. It’s heaven.

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S/S 2010 issue 13

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