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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Man of Many Smiles (on the death of Robert Shapazian)

A Man of Many Smiles
by Douglas Messerli
I read in the Los Angeles Times this morning of the death of a friend, Robert Shapazian. According to the obituary, Robert died in his home of lung cancer on Saturday, June 19th.

I had not seen Robert for a very long time, but had spoken of him just a few weeks earlier with his friend, Robert Dean. Dean said of nothing of Robert's illness, so either Robert himself did not know he was ill or had determined to keep it from the public.

For the last ten years Shapazian had worked as the director of the famed Larry Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, who sells to such notables as Douglas Cramer and Eli Broad (both of whom I mention elsewhere in this volume). Not able to purchase such "blue chip" art, I have visited this gallery only once, upon the 1995 opening of the new building designed by Richard Meier. This year the gallery was expanded.

However, I had come to know Robert quite well before he became Gagosian's director, primarily through his position as director of artist Sam Francis's Lapis Press in Venice, which, from 1984 to Francis' 1994 death, published a wide range of literary and art texts including Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard's study of Duchamp and works by Julien Grac, Pasqual Quignard, Harry Mathews, and Georges Bataille. While I am sure Robert served well as an art director, he did not have the temperament to be a happy publisher. He was quickly frustrated with what he saw as interferences and absurd demands of authors, translators, and, particularly in his case, the press' artist-owner. Trying to keep carefully within budgets, Robert was thwarted time and again by Sam and his artists and authors addition of expensive elements of design to each book, which made the Lapis books truly beautiful, but also financial disasters.

Every few weeks Robert would telephone me to ask, in a voice filled with frustration and pique, had I ever encountered this or that problem? Often I had, but it wasn't my situation in which he was particularly interested in discussing, but his own dilemma, his dramatic sufferings. Indeed, it was Robert's sense of grand drama and his slightly agitated feelings of disorder in the world, that made me so enjoy our conversations. Robert was, as some might say, "of the old school"—as a young man, after earning his Bachelor's degree at the University of California Berkeley, he had gone on for his Masters and PhD at Harvard in pastoral poetry and painting of the Renaissance. He had traveled widely, and was particularly fond of Mali and other African sites. The disorderly confines and often boisterous activities of a publisher's office were, I am sure, in opposition to his sense of order and social decorum.

At the same time, Robert had a good sense of humor, and often laughed along with me when I responded to his irritations. Speaking with him in person, I noticed that he often smiled at his own petulant statements, like a slightly naughty boy being quite pleased with himself.

He cared a great deal for younger writers, and helped one writer in particular to come into print. In 1998 we published Christopher Spranger's book of aphoristic writing, The Effort to Fall, after Robert had brought the manuscript to me. "Now I want to help you publish this," he conspiratorially whispered, "but you musn't tell the young writer. You won't sell any copies, but it needs to be published. It's that good!" And it was.

Robert also built a large collection of experimental photography, much of which he left to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The newspaper obituary shows a picture of the smiling Shapazian with four members of an African tribe, giving me a glimpse of another of his personalities, and marking the fact that Robert was a man of many smiles.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2010

1 comment:


I like your post from your heart, very interesting and Informative
Monica Sharma

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