Playing to the gallery | Monocle

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David Zwirner is the youthful 50-year-old art dealer whose name sits above the door of three galleries: two in New York and one in London. Zwirner is considered among a supergroup of gallerists with international reach and brand-name recognition, along with Larry Gagosian, Marian Goodman and White Cube’s Jay Jopling. The art world works in mysterious ways: it could be said that rather than simply owning a work by Luc Tuymans or Marlene Dumas, the sign of having entered the upper crust of collectors is having bought it from Zwirner. It is him taking your money that signals the clink of the brass fixture as the velvet rope is removed for entry into a certain esteemed echelon.

Zwirner is a well-respected figure in the contemporary gallery world with a stable of artists that includes Tuymans, Wolfgang Tillmans and Richard Serra. He has also discovered young talent in the form of Oscar Murillo and Jordan Wolfson and handles the estates of giants including Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. At art fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze, Zwirner’s booth will be in a prominent position. In conversation, the Köln-born gallerist sounds as he lives: spending a lot of time in New York. Zwirner is easy, affable, attentive and alert. monocle met him in London during Frieze week in October.

Monocle: How do you pick the artists that you represent – is it an emotional response at first?
David Zwirner: With Kerry James [Marshall, the painter Zwirner was showing at his London gallery at the time of interview, pictured on page 140]it was firstly an emotional response and then I bought some of the work and lived with it and that projects the power of the artist. You’re looking for artists with unique voices; you’ve got to try and pull away from fashions and types and opinions, spend time with the work and let it resonate.

M: How important is it that artists can talk about their work?
DZ: I think great artists come with strong ambitions and I think great artists want to stand next to their work and defend it. I’m interested in the language that surrounds art. You know when you start working with an artist you want to get your narrative straight; there’s a story that we’re trying to project. When you’ve been working with an artist for a particular period of time you home in on nuances.

I think it’s wonderful and important when artists can talk well about their work but it’s not a prerequisite: it’s a bonus. I have some great artists that I work with that have the hardest time explaining what they’re doing and some that don’t want to explain what they’re doing; they want you to be open-minded with the work and not be led into the place where meaning resides. The ability to communicate is something that is given to some artists and not to others but it really doesn’t qualify them one way or the other.

M: Do you have what some might call a collector’s eye for things?
DZ: Thank God I’m not a collector because once you’re a collector you start competing with other collectors. You know, an editor or an impresario would be nice terminology. We are part of culture. We’re running a relatively large ship now with five shows running simultaneously. I think I’d find it gratifying to be described as an impresario – that’s part of what I do.

M: Sean Scully told us earlier that his painting,“This/ That” is a big yellow canvas because when it was a big red canvas it fell on him and he decided to get his own back on it by painting over it. Is there enough of this straight talking in the art world?
DZ: Sean Scully’s story is great – it shows you how hazardous the profession of an artist is! By talking about this you’re going right where it’s interesting: we’re privileged to be working alongside artists and seeing their process. There’s a lot of thinking that should go into it but really there needs to be an immediacy in the process and that is very difficult to write about. That’s why a lot of art writing is laboured. I’ll tell you a nice thing about Kerry James Marshall: a painting of his called “Club Couple” is a happy-looking couple in a booth and the man is holding an engagement ring and he’s looking at us, he’s sharing that secret with us. Kerry said, “You know what? I just added that at the very end.” And I thought, “Wait a second, that’s what the whole painting is about!” You think Kerry’s in the studio and he knows exactly where these paintings will go but it’s not true: the work is leading him on. Being party to that is very wonderful.

M: How do you handle collectors? How close are your relationships with the people that buy work from you?
DZ: Loyalty is really important. We have to juggle, looking after collectors who’ve supported what we’ve been doing for many years. We make sure they have access and that they feel well tended to while opening the gallery to new collectors. Really, we want to work as best we can with connoisseurs. I love the idea that someone is not just buying things but is putting together a collection, trying to have something of a strategy. Then again, you’re walking around and something just hits you and you don’t know why but you really want it. That’s a wonderful thing. But if people are just going shopping – they need a little colour here, something stylish to go there, what’s “hot” – that’s less interesting to us. People that want to learn, that want to start a collection, maybe they don’t have a big budget so they’ve got to start with a drawing? That’s interesting. I’ll be immediately engaged if I have that sort of conversation.

M: Is it these new collectors, maybe with lesser means, that are the most satisfying to deal with?
DZ: Those that collect with limited means are usually the best collectors. I hate to say that and those of endless means reading this should not be mad but you have to make hard choices! Galleries are free. You can go through Paris, London and New York and educate yourself. But really, the more passionate collectors are as people the more we want to engage with them.

M: How similar is what hangs in galleries and what hangs at home?
DZ: Come to my house and you’ll almost exclusively see work by artists we represent. I love living with the work and many artists are now friends. If I had unlimited means I would love to dip into other areas; I think I’d be interested in antiquities and old masters, different periods of the production of culture. But I’m not a collector. I’m just fortunate I can live with a lot of great art in my house that’s passed through the gallery one way or another.

M: What about the future of the art business: what is the importance of the fact that a lot of art is now bought from just glancing at a jpeg?
DZ: It’s the reality. Previews are sent out before an art fair or before an exhibition at the gallery and things are bought remotely. I think if you have an educated group of collectors who know the artists, they can make a decision from a photograph. In fact it drives me a little crazy, people buying things from looking at a phone; I wouldn’t. But if people are happy to do it, so be it. There is no substitute for going and looking at a museum or a gallery to experience a work and educate yourself – this is the problem with China. We’ve done art fairs there and we have an office in Hong Kong but it’s a slow process bringing these collectors in because they don’t have a museum so they don’t know where things are coming from. There are new museums that give a very brief and raggedy history of Chinese art but not the kind of material that we would ever be referring to as the western canon.

M: Does China have a market-driven sense of taste?
DZ: That’s fair to say and so the auction houses are coming in and saying, “We know what you want.” But if you look at auction catalogues from 20 years ago you’ll be shocked at what was extremely expensive and what was extremely cheap, so this is not really where things play out in the long-term. The important thing is really a dialogue between galleries and institutions where things can be vetted properly, you know?

M: Do you look at things differently in a museum where nothing is for sale?
DZ: Yes, it’s not like I walk around and everything has a dollar sign on it. We work in culture, we produce things that are meant to hang around, not things you discard after they are no longer functional. So a museum is very reassuring and it’s also good business if we can get our artists’ work inside them: values will go up and clients will be reassured that they’re part of something.

M: Do you remember the very first thing that you sold?
DZ: I can’t recall, but I remember opening my first gallery in New York with a show by the Austrian artist Franz West in 1993 and we didn’t sell a thing. I couldn’t believe it. There was a big recession in ’91, ’92; maybe half the galleries in New York closed. I guess everyone thought, “What’s this guy doing opening a gallery when everyone else is closing?” But in hindsight it was the absolutely perfect moment: at the bottom of a business cycle. Things started picking up, there was a future there. The next show, by Jason Rhoades, was a sellout.

M: How do you go about putting a price on a piece of work?
DZ: It’s an imprecise science at best. In the secondary market there’s obviously precedent. On the primary market, price is a decision you make with the artist; many artists have no interest in these things and leave it up to us. The team will meet and discuss where we feel an artist’s price should be vis-à-vis his or her stature, their secondary market, their accomplishments, the artist’s future and so on; the type of interest we have, how long is the waiting list. We also want to make sure that we don’t leave too much money on the table but we really don’t want to be known as that gallery that is always up there milking the last bit out of a career. The thing with prices is that they should always really go up with a career but it’s difficult for them to go backwards without doing real damage. So you have to be cautious that you don’t get ahead of yourself when pricing work.

M: What are friendships like within the gallery world?
DZ: The industry is very collegial and that gets overlooked in mini narratives – “This guy versus that guy!” Those are always interesting because they’re gossip. There’s always competition: the best artists want to be with the best galleries and you have to position yourself so that when an artist is looking for representation you start blinking. Sometimes that can seem predatory: “Those guys are just trying to steal artists!” We’re not trying to steal artists but if an artist is ready to move then I want to make sure they feel strong about who we are, what we do, how we show work. That can be threatening to other colleagues and that is sometimes where tension arises. I can see the effort that goes into shows at White Cube, Gagosian; Marian Goodman has just opened in London with a show from Gerhard Richter. I think we all respect the effort that’s been put in; it’s very vibrant and exciting.

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