British art historian John Richardson poses with some of his art, including a Picasso, in New York in 2009. (Photographer: PAUL GOGUEN)

Picasso Biographer and Billionaire Whisperer John Richardson Dies at 95

(Bloomberg) -- No matter what decade he happened to be in, John Richardson was an inspired and irreverent herald of an earlier time—and a font of gossip that was fresh right up to the minute.

Best known for his multivolume biography A Life of Picasso (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, 1996, 2007), he opened Christie’s office in New York in the 1960s and spent the past decade as a curatorial adviser at Gagosian gallery, organizing blockbuster Picasso exhibitions and contributing to its publications. His social circles bridged the avant-garde—he appeared in one of Andy Warhol’s films and hung out with Francis Bacon—and the global jet set, where his friends included socialite-philanthropists Nan Kempner, Mercedes Bass, and Annette de la Renta. He was also a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

Picasso Biographer and Billionaire Whisperer John Richardson Dies at 95

He died in Manhattan on Tuesday of natural causes, according to a Gagosian spokeswoman. He was 95.

Born in London in 1924, Richardson studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and then wrote for British journals such as the New Statesman. His friendship with Picasso, begun in 1949, lasted until the artist’s death in 1973. Richardson was a partner of collector Douglas Cooper, who began buying Cubism around 1932, amassing one of the most significant troves by Picasso, Braque, Gris and Leger. In 1950, Cooper and Richardson moved to a chateau in the south of France near Nimes, where they threw dinners for Picasso and accompanied him to bull fights.

“Often when there was a bullfight, Picasso would drive over,” Richardson said in an 2012 interview. “He would give us lunch at a restaurant beforehand. Afterwards, we would give a dinner for him, the bullfighter, and his entourage.”

Picasso Biographer and Billionaire Whisperer John Richardson Dies at 95

The Spaniard was an inescapable presence in Richardson’s life. At the Fifth Avenue apartment, Picasso’s intense eyes gazed from black-and-white photographs and book covers displayed amid vases of white lilies. Picasso’s visage also appeared at Richardson’s Schinkel Pavilion-inspired house in rural Connecticut.

Picasso had mirada fuerte, a strong gaze, or eyes that want to outstare death, Richardson said during our 2009 interview. “The Andalusians believe that eyes can be a sexual organ, that you can have people with your eyes.”

Picasso Biographer and Billionaire Whisperer John Richardson Dies at 95

That gaze was also present in Richardson’s first exhibition for Gagosian, “Mosqueteros” in 2009. It focused on the artist’s “great late phase”—for years considered inferior and garish—with 53 paintings and 39 prints done between 1962 and 1972. The work depicted lovers locked like wrestlers in a kiss and invented characters that blended musketeers, bullfighters, and Knights of Malta. Many bore the mirada fuerte.

Richardson’s third Gagosian show, “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour Fou,” centered on a creative deluge unleashed by Picasso’s affair Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was 17 when she met the artist in 1927. It included almost 90 paintings, drawings, and sculptures exploring love and desire—a thrilling survey of the artist’s Surrealism, Cubism, and even deft academic drawings. There were bulbous eyes, phallic noses, and stick figures that predate Giacometti. “Some are very tender, some are rough sex,” Richardson said at the time of the show’s scenes of rapture.  

Picasso Biographer and Billionaire Whisperer John Richardson Dies at 95

The first three Picasso exhibits drew a total of 260,000 visitors to Gagosian’s galleries in New York and London (Richardson went on to curate three more). The 2011 opening of “L’amour Fou” attracted News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and his then-wife, Wendi; actress Kim Cattrall; and Leon and Debra Black. The billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen lent a painting that depicted Walter as a cross between a woman and an octopus. (A plaster bust of Walter from that exhibition later landed in the middle of an international dispute that pitted Black against the Qatari royals.)

For his fourth grand Picasso show at Gagosian, Richardson focused on Françoise Gilot, the only woman who ever walked out on the Spaniard.

In June 2012, standing in front of Bather Wringing Her Hair, a painting depicting Gilot as an awkwardly arched nude, Richardson said, “Whenever I see it I think, I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair. And that’s what she was doing at that point. She left him a few months later.”

“In every conversation with John, he taught you something new - he could reveal things about a painting and its history that no one else could know,” said Larry Gagosian, in a statement. “It was magical. The depth of his knowledge was astounding. It’s not just the passing of a friend, but the passing of an era. We won’t see another like him.”

Richardson’s fourth volume in the Picasso biography series was near completion at the time of his death, and his publishers are at work finalizing it.

Picasso Biographer and Billionaire Whisperer John Richardson Dies at 95

As Richardson aged, the subjects of art, sex, and death that so preoccupied Picasso took on more urgency in conversation. One of his anecdotes lingers in my memory. At lunch with Picasso in a room with several birdcages, Richardson heard a little plop: One of the birds had fallen off its perch dead.

“He was deaf and he didn’t hear it,” Richardson said. “So Jacqueline took the birdcage, sneaked it into the kitchen, and sent the driver to get another bird. By the end of lunch it was replaced. And—typical Picasso—he said later, ‘You know, my birds are immortal.’”

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