Derek Blasberg is a writer, editor, and New York Times best-selling author. In addition to being the executive editor of Gagosian Quarterly, he is the head of fashion and beauty for YouTube. He has been with Gagosian since 2014.
DEREK BLASBERGI know you’re a man of many hats, but I want to focus for now on your role as an art collector. Let’s start at the beginning. What are your first art memories? Did you grow up having an affection for art?
JEAN PIGOZZiMy parents had a modest collection of Impressionists in their apartment in Paris. Renoirs, Sisleys, that kind of stuff. And I found it completely boring. I remember when I was very young, I went to an auction with my mother and told her that I loved a Paul Klee work. She looked at me like I was insane. They had some friends who had Warhols and Lichtensteins. I immediately loved them, and I couldn’t understand why my parents didn’t. And then when I went to Harvard in the early ’70s, I used to make trips down to New York and go to a few galleries, like Leo Castelli, and I’d buy little things. I bought a little Ed Ruscha of LACMA on fire, some small Sol LeWitts, all of which were only a few thousand dollars. I met Andy [Warhol] then too. He asked me for $25,000 to do my portrait, but I didn’t have that kind of money for art at the time, so I didn’t get any of his stuff. At the time, one of his paintings would have sold for $15,000.
DBWould you consider that a lesson that you learned at the time?
JPNo, that’s another story. The most embarrassing thing I did was not buy a Basquiat painting. I had met him, and we were friends, and he told me he wanted to buy a Comme de Garçons suit. I went to his studio, and he showed me a giant painting made with color Xeroxes. He wanted $1,000 for it, but I said I didn’t want some color Xeroxes, so I didn’t get it. That was the biggest mistake.
DBBut I’ve seen a Basquiat at your house, haven’t I?
JPYes, I did buy one from him another time for $2,500, and I love it, and it’s glued to my wall now.
DBYou have an impressively large collection of African art. How did you develop that collection?
JPThat started later, about twenty-five years ago. I went to see a show in Paris at the Pompidou called Magiciens de la terre (1989). It was the day the show was closing, and I was the last person in there. The guards were pushing me out because I wanted to stay and see more—the show was blowing my mind! I had always thought African art was wooden masks or bowls, the sort of stuff you see at the Met. But not this show: there were paintings and drawings and models of crazy houses. I called the museum the next day and said I wanted to buy everything, which of course they said they couldn’t sell me and I was insane. But they told me the name of the curator, André Magnin, and we began to work together. He went to Africa and, together, we created an incredibly powerful collection of African art.
DBHow many works are in the collection?
DBAre you still collecting?
DBBut not just African art, because I see you’ve started collecting Japanese pictures too.
JPI had gone to Japan many times, and when I met Murakami, he told me about this large art fair he creates there in the same venue where they have the car show. People rent one hundred square feet and show whatever they want. I went with him, and it was amazing. Immediately I became interested in buying it. The Japanese are so tortured, they have such tradition, and there is a sexual culture mixed with technical skill in painting and photography. I find the quality of their work absolutely mesmerizing. I enjoy the collection very much, and it’s completely different than the African art.
DBHow do you display? I know you have houses in many parts of the world: Do you break up the collections by location?
JPThe collection is so vast. At my house in Antibes, I only have African art on display, and the same for my house in Panama. At my homes in New York, Paris, and London, I mainly have Japanese pieces. And the rest is in a warehouse in Switzerland when it’s not being loaned for exhibitions. I’m very excited about a big show that opens in March 2016, one I lend to all the time. It’s a show that opens on March 29, 2016, on Seydou Keïta at the Grand Palais in Paris.
DBDo you regularly go to the art fairs?
JPYes, I go to all the fairs. The one thing I learned is to wear sneakers to walk faster and visit all the stands that have art you are interested in buying; if you go slowly the stuff you want will be sold. And pay attention to the map, and whatever you do don’t stop and kiss and say hello to everyone. Stay focused for the first two hours and then you can look at the pretty girls and whatever else you want. The first two hours you have to be professional.
DBDo you consider yourself a member of the art world?
JPMy position is very different because I don’t get hassled by the normal art dealers. The Japanese gallerists are much too polite and there are only two or three African galleries. My life in the art world is very simple. I’m very focused. I enjoy it. I have a lot of friends and artist friends. It’s an industry that I enjoy, and I think we can agree that it’s much more interesting than, for example, the roofing business. Not to mention, the girls are cuter and the parties more fun.
My life in the art world is very simple. I’m very focused. I enjoy it. I have a lot of friends and artist friends. It’s an industry that I enjoy, and I think we can agree that it’s much more interesting than, for example, the roofing business.Jean Pigozzi
DBI know you’re a photographer too. Let’s talk about that. When did you start taking pictures?
JPI started taking pictures when I was very young. My father gave me a little camera when I was ten years old. I took pictures of everything. I’m dyslexic, my handwriting is terrible. In fact, I can’t read my own writing. Taking pictures was, in a way, a more organized way for me to keep a diary: what is around me, what I eat, the dogs in front of me, the pretty girls, and my friends. That’s what I want to take pictures of. I would never want to go to Australia to take a picture of a sunset, for example. And I hate posed pictures.
DBYou once told me you were the inventor of the selfie. Do you still believe that?
JPYes, of course. The group selfie, for sure. Of course, the autoportrait existed for years, because painters would do that back in the beginning of time. But the group selfie was a bit more of a novel idea. The first I found was of me and Faye Dunaway when she came to Harvard for her Hasty Pudding award in the early 1970s, so I think I can claim to be the first group selfie. Of course, the iPhone has made it much, much easier, but the trick with me is that I have long arms. Better that way.
DBAnd you still take pictures, right?
JPYes. Next year, I have a new book coming that celebrates the sixty years of my pool in the south of France. From Liz Taylor to Michael Douglas to my parents, all of my friends. That’ll be my fourth book.
DBNow, let’s talk about the fashion industry. What is Limoland?
JPLimoland happened about four years ago. I was always frustrated because I couldn’t find fun clothes. I always wondered why, if you wanted to have fun clothes, you’d have to shop in the fifteen year-olds’ section of a store. There’s no fun clothes for men of a certain age—and by that, I mean after thirty. If you’re very rich, you can do Loro Piana; less rich, maybe Ralph Lauren. But it’s a lot of beige, white, and blue. At Ralph, you look like an English lord. I don’t want to make tweed jackets. I want to make fun T-shirts and bathing suits and polo shirts. That’s how it started. And to my utter amazement, it’s been carried by Barneys, Mr Porter, and Colette. It’s not a huge business. Ralph shouldn’t be worried. It’s quite creative and unique.
DBWhat are your favorite shops? Or do you prefer the supermarket?
JPMy favorite shop in New York is B+H, the camera store on 34th Street. And then there’s a shop in Paris which is similar, it’s called Fnac. They sell electronics and DVDs. My favorite shop for clothes is in Harlem on 125th Street. If I don’t wear Limoland, I got it on 125th Street. They know me up there.
DBTalk to me about Panama. How did you end up there?
JPI was always interested in buying land next to the sea in a warm climate for the winter. I used to have a house on Harbour Island, but I got bored there. I have a boat, and I took it to look at New Zealand and Australia, but I didn’t find a spot there. Then, a friend brought me to Nicaragua. One night, there was very rough sea, and we had to pull into a bay for protection. We woke up in this beautiful bay, and I told the captain, “Wow, Nicaragua is beautiful.” He told me we were in Panama, and so I decided that Panama it would be. I’m very proud of a research center I have developed there called the Liquid Jungle Lab. The goal is to work with high-tech ecological research organizations to discuss environmental issues. I’ve partnered with Harvard, Columbia, and Yale’s research teams, as well the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Royal Botanical Society in Madrid. My dream is now to create a university of the jungle and the sea. That’s my next task in life.
DBAnd finally, the tech world. You’re very interested in this: Is it where the future is?
JPI’ve always been very interested in tech. My biggest mistake in life was to go to Harvard, not Stanford. But then again, I didn’t know that Stanford existed. I met Steve Jobs back when Macintosh was still a private company, so this was a long time ago. We traveled together, we went to Jamaica—he was not married, and we did what single guys do together. He introduced me to David Kelley, a professor at Stanford, and through him I got to Silicon Valley. I’m fascinated by the future.
DBWhat has been your most successful tech investment?
JPFacebook, by far.
DBWhat else are you doing in that space?
JPNow I’m doing other tech start-ups, including one that’s making man-made diamonds. We want to be as disruptive to the diamond industry as Uber has been to the taxi business. They’re not blood diamonds, they’re made in Silicon Valley by Diamond Foundry. I get quite involved in some of my tech investments, but sometimes they do things that I simply don’t understand but I think will eventually be successful. One of my last investments was in Hampton Creek that makes the wonderful eggless mayonnaise, so that one was easy to understand.
DBYou work your whole life in art and photography—and it turns out that you’re a successful businessman, like your father. Do you find that to be ironic?
JPMy father was an industrialist, and he started the car company Simca. I think he thought one day I would be running that company. Sadly, my father passed away when I was twelve, and I didn’t inherit the business. But if I think about it, I would have been terrible running a company with unions and workers and being nice to clients. I think I’m a better investor than a manager.
DBLast question—why does everyone ask you if you’re getting married?
JPI’m sixty-three, and it’s not something that I completely exclude from my life. Maybe my wife is hiding somewhere. Maybe she’s on Tinder?
DBDid you invest in Tinder?
JPNo, I didn’t. Maybe after the Basquiat, that’s my second biggest embarrassment.