Margo Leavin (1936–2021)
IT IS A FORMIDABLE TASK to write of Margo Leavin in the past tense, as she was always a grand presence when she was still among us. Whether ensconced—along with her partner, Wendy Brandow—at the Margo Leavin Gallery at the end of Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood or moving in art circles around the world, she was always that same Margo we all knew. A rare figure who was feared and loved, courted and consulted, competitive and generous, she was not, whether friend or foe, one to be ignored.
So I find it difficult to believe that I can’t call her to check in on things, as friends do, to make plans for a dinner or a rendezvous somewhere in the world or just to see how our common interests are aligning. Since she closed the gallery in 2013, this had been one of my favorite calls to make—I could no longer visit to sit in the office gossiping and telling stories, going over the endless questions of the art business or having lunch in the kitchen with the salads and cigarettes (Merit was her brand).
For those of us coming up in the early days of the Los Angeles art community, Margo played many roles. She brought the new artists of New York to us—the Oldenburgs, the Warhols, the Lichtensteins, the established and the unfamiliar or newly discovered. She had a personal and firsthand knowledge of art in a way that few others did at the time. The gallery itself was truly beautiful, with its perfect proportions and incredible light. And since nobody knew better than Margo and Wendy how to install a well-chosen work within its walls, there were many memorable, one-of-a-kind exhibitions.
We started working together in the early ’90s. First and foremost, she loved art and artists in ways that were genuine and wholehearted. But if you got on her wrong side due to some misunderstanding—you’d questioned an internal dealing at the gallery or grown too close with other dealers—there could be no coming back, at least in the short term. These initial positions would often soften and change over the years, but you were never sure why, and the comings and goings became part of this extraordinary person you were privileged to know and work with.
Once, I had a thought about a piece of mine in her inventory that I felt could be used in another gallery’s exhibition. One night, shortly after we had a wonderful dinner at her house in the Hollywood Hills, as we had done many times before, I became aware of an additional agenda. We settled onto the outdoor patio for coffee and dessert, and I noticed it was just Margo, Wendy, and myself sitting there. The other guests seemed to have disappeared and were being entertained in the other room. Soon Margo left to join them. At this point, Wendy told me in no uncertain terms that this exchange idea of mine was going nowhere and that this particular work was staying right where it was. There was to be no switching around of works to other dealers as I had done before in other circumstances. There was a major list of reasons: one, two, three, four, etc. Period. No discussion. She left, and I was just sitting there by myself, kind of shell-shocked. This was a side of the gallery I had not experienced before and didn’t soon forget. Nor did I question the decree after thinking it over. I soon joined the others for the rest of the evening.
Long before my time as an artist in the gallery, I knew of Margo’s reputation as a woman of superior business acumen. So I trusted her judgment when it came to issues of money—no question. This was spelled out at one of our first discussions of my financial straits on my joining the gallery. I was in debt, and Margo saw that I had multiple credit cards: ten, to be exact. She immediately said that no one should have that many credit cards and that if I was using them to produce work, that was to stop. We would figure out another way to go about getting things produced. This didn’t take forever to happen, and I knew I was in the right hands—and at the right gallery. And I more than believe that to this day.
I will forever be proud to have been friends with Margo Leavin and to have worked with her for the many fine years that I did.
Allen Ruppersberg is an artist based in Los Angeles and New York.