David Zwirner has an infallible instinct – and it makes him one of the world’s foremost gallerists. A conversation about good deals, bad beer, being raised with great art and what he learned from his father.
Neo Rauch, Jeff Koons, Isa Genzken – gallerist David Zwirner represents artists whose works are coveted by collectors of contemporary art. The 53-year-old German is one of the most important players on the global art market; He has come a long way since opening his first tiny gallery in New York’s bohemian SoHo and now has impressive exhibition spaces in New York, Hong Kong and London. He could be taciturn and secretive, but that’s not his style. The great man steps into the room – firm handshake, good posture, clear voice and clear pronouncements from the “megadealer” – that’s what the New York Times calls him, he smiles apologetically; it is not his word.
Mr. Zwirner, Your gallery is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The art market has exploded in the past 25 years. Can an artist at the start of his career today expect to earn a living from it?
No. Of 100 young artists starting out, one might be lucky enough to make a career of it even though there’s a far wider audience for art than there was 25 years ago. The market is also larger, but I cannot judge how many artists it can support.
The art trade has a reputation for being discreet. Would it be vulgar to talk figures?
I think that’s a really dumb cliché. We sell very expensive art, and if you are interested in a work, you have to come to terms with the price. I cannot pretend to be ashamed of the prices. That would be profoundly dishonest.
With your artists, people like Jeff Koons, Neo Rauch and Luc Tuymans, sums in the six to seven figures can be the final word when you sell their works. Does this amaze even you?
Well, it’s not what I imagined 25 years ago. It’s something that has developed steadily. Such careers are accompanied by exhibitions in the main museums, so the numbers don’t worry me, either, because I know it’s not all just a question of facades, but of a healthy demand that has developed over time.
Your father, Cologne art dealer Rudolf Zwirner, once advised you never to haggle for a good artwork. Have you always followed that advice?
You never fret about maybe having spent a little bit too much after the fact. But it really irks you when you’ve let a work slip through your fingers. And that’s happened to me a few times.
Fortunately, you have also acquired a few…
I am not a collector. That would bring me into conflict with my clients. But our apartment in New York is full of art. I love On Kawara, the Japanese concert artist, who became famous in the 1960s for his date paintings. I have two gray ones. If we had a fire, I would grab them and run out into the street.
Does David Zwirner get a discount at his gallery?
Of course not.
Do you like negotiating?
It’s the only thing I don’t enjoy, but unfortunately, it’s a part of our business.
A native of Cologne, Zwirner lives in New York with his wife and three children. She is a successful designer of bags, his son, the eldest child, runs the gallery’s publishing company, and a daughter has just joined the sales department. It was not really Zwirner’s plan to set up a family business with 170 employees.
What do you find exciting about your work?
Bringing art to people. Before I opened my gallery in 1993, I spent several months working for a publisher in New York. The company produced beautiful John Baldessari, Lucian Freud and Bruce Nauman prints. But no one wanted this world-class art because the market had collapsed completely. I said to myself that there had to be people out there who would buy it: museums. So I had a large suitcase made, filled it with prints and set out like a tour roadie in a minivan to pay a visit to America’s museums. There I would stand, 26 years old, big white portfolios under my arm, explaining art to the pros. I made a terrible fool of myself the first few times, but after a while, I sold a few works. After that, I knew I wanted to open my own place.
You started out in SoHo shop premises with nothing but a folding table and heating that didn’t work …
Our landlord was a tough bird and he would turn off the heating when he was away on the weekend – then we would freeze.
You kept yourself warm with canned beer.
That’s a bit of a fairy tale. We actually drank Rolling Rock out of the bottle, the cheapest beer we could enjoy. At some point I realized that the local alcoholics would come stand outside the gallery just before six o’clock and swig three beers in a row. We haven’t served alcohol at our previews since then.
There’s nothing to drink at your gallery. How else does your business model differ from that of your father?
One thing that really doesn’t work anymore is not explicitly supporting the artists. My father did not directly represent artists; he would stage an exhibition with them. He never managed careers. When we work with artists these days, we act internationally and want to be their global representative.
Zwirner leans forward a little and speaks with just the trace of a Cologne lilt. He inspires such confidence, you feel you want to buy a picture from him straight away. Did he learn that from his father, perhaps, who not only ran his own gallery but also cofounded the Art Cologne trade fair?
How did you grow into your father’s world?
Quite naturally. The gallery was downstairs, on the first floor, and the kitchen was on the second floor. That’s where we had lunch and were occasionally joined by clients. We had some really great art on the wall: Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter. Beuys regularly visited us at home and he always wore the hat and his funny fishing vest with all the pockets. When I was six years old, I saw a performance by the British artist duo Gilbert & George, who had painted themselves silver and gold. I sat on my father’s shoulders watched these two robot figures over everyone’s heads. They barely moved. It felt a bit creepy to me.
The gallerist Johann König, son of the museum director Kasper König, hated growing up in an art environment because even their vacations were chosen to fit in with gallery visits. Was it like that for you?
We often went to the island of Ponza, south of Rome, because Paul Thek lived there. He was a wonderful artist and a good friend of my father’s. I learned to swim with him. My father did combine business with pleasure, but I never felt I missed out because of it.
What else did the father teach the son?
To take a really close look, not to just stand in front of a picture and say, “Oh, Adam and Eve, a love scene,” but to try and decipher it. Artists don’t make our job easy, they weave different levels into their works. This is true especially of the Old Masters. Or take Beuys, for instance. A Beuys installation isn’t just material in a room, it conveys a story. The more you know, the better you get it.
The art auctioneer Simon de Pury says, “It’s the person standing naively in front of a work who has the keenest eye.”
I would not agree with that. It’s the best-informed person looking at the work who has the keenest eye.
Jeff Koons, on the other hand, maintains that “There’s no right or wrong aesthetic.” So why visit museums and galleries that curate art?
That’s Jeff’s central theme: acceptance. He wants people to have a completely open mind when they contemplate a work. But that’s difficult because we are full of neuroses and march through life with cultural cramps. We have simply piled up too much ballast. I think Jeff tries to create art from a child’s perspective. Maybe that’s what Simon de Pury means, that if we approach art without preconceptions, it gets interesting.
With annual sales totaling an estimated 500 million U.S. dollars, Zwirner is one of the world’s top gallerists and second only to his eternal rival, the U.S. American Larry Gagosian. Jeff Koons used to exhibit with Gagosian, hence the art world’s amused and shocked whispers when the pop-art legend suddenly turned up at Zwirner’s in 2012.
The word was that you were challenging Gagosian, the mightiest art dealer in the world …
People love to talk about it because they like rivalries. But I don’t even know Larry Gagosian.
You have never spoken with him on the phone?
No. We say a polite hello when we see each other at a fair. Of course, it will have been an unpleasant situation for Larry when Jeff switched to me. Artists of a certain level can make that kind of decision for themselves. It’s just that most artists don’t want to. Gerhard Richter has been working closely with the gallerist Marian Goodman for decades now.
Would you like to have him?
That’s not why I said it. I see their relationship as an example of loyal and intense collaboration – the kind I would also like to have with my artists.
This is the first time things have got a bit weird. No one knows anything about a feud or a dispute; in the art world, David Zwirner has a reputation for being a gentleman. His colleague Robert Mnuchin once said that Zwirner ran his business with quality and style, but was nevertheless aggressive, had a look that would briefly flash in his eyes with an unmistakable warning: Don’t pull a fast one on me!
How do you decide who buys a coveted work?
We like to know our clients. You won’t get very far if you simply call us up and ask for a Neo Rauch picture. There’s a long list of people waiting for a picture and when it arrives, we give a lot of thought to whose collection it would suit best.
Do you care whether a picture ultimately ends up on a wall or disappears into a warehouse in Singapore?
We would avoid the warehouse in Singapore or Switzerland if possible, but good clients often already have huge collections and have long since stopped making purchases for their walls. It gives me satisfaction to be able to look an artist in the eye after a successful exhibition and say that two of the pictures have ended up in a museum and another is hanging in a collector’s living room.
The German sculptor Thomas Schütte says, “Collectors only get something of mine if they come to my studio. I want to see who buys my works. It’s a kind of face check.”
That sounds pretty cool, of course. It’s just that most artists don’t want to meet the collectors. And I can understand that because worlds collide that maybe aren’t so compatible when they do. It’s my job to protect artists from that.
Music was your first love. You were a drummer and worked as a product manager for the Hamburg label ACT Music and Vision in the late 1980s. Why didn’t you form your own band back then?
The music industry put me off. The relationship between record company and artist can be very contentious, lawyers are often brought in, and nothing is done without a contract. If an artist is successful, he will want more from the label, if he’s a flop, the label will want to throw him out. It’s all different in the art world. We don’t have contracts with the artists, only with estates. Most agreements are sealed with a handshake.
You don’t keep a written record when you sell a work worth millions?
We conclude ninety-nine percent of all sales with a handshake or over the phone.
Where do you feel you now belong?
I have never given up my German passport. I don’t feel like I’m American. If there were a passport for New Yorkers, I would definitely apply for one.
Is New York set to remain the navel of the art world?
For the foreseeable future, sure. I could imagine the Asian market getting bigger and a center coming up in Shanghai or Beijing.
Only Berlin failed live up to your expectations:
I don’t want to pick on Berlin because it is a vibrant city of gallerists, a city where discoveries are made. Careers get started there. What doesn’t happen there is the art trade. It’s not so easy to sell a big Mondrian picture for 15 million dollars in Berlin.