AS LATE WINTER gave way to spring, which melted into summer, gallerist David Zwirner, accustomed to jetting to international fairs, biennials and exhibition openings, waited out the pandemic at his getaway house in Montauk, on the far tip of Long Island. For David, who commands an art empire that brought in nearly US$800 million last year, with spaces in London, Paris and Hong Kong as well as three in New York, the tiny hamlet of Montauk is usually his happy place. He comes here to disconnect from the 24/7 demands of the global art world and surf some of the biggest swells on the East Coast. “I’m one of those guys who likes to separate work from home,” he says.
But David hasn’t caught too many waves this summer. “Now I work eight, nine hours,” he says over a lengthy video chat, wearing a navy-blue polo shirt at his desk. The brilliant light, which has drawn generations of painters to the area, pouring in through the large windows behind him. “I see the waves. I’m not going out. I’m on Zoom, on this, on that. In the beginning, it was clear we had to be extremely focused because the business model itself was under assault. I mean, when you have physical galleries on three continents and they’re all down, you’ve got a problem. You have to step up.”
Luckily for David, who had shrewdly targeted digital efforts for growth last year, he could take that step without losing his balance. As cities shut down and the world migrated online, most galleries flailed. Pace and Gagosian, two of David’s biggest rivals, announced furloughs. Everyone had a website, sure, but purely digital exhibitions were a rarity. Art is meant to be experienced in person, and the contemporary art community is an inherently social one, with a non-stop calendar of packed openings followed by collegial dinners. In short order, David pivoted online, forging new ways of presenting and selling. Still, with economic recovery unsettlingly uncertain, he and his competitors are confronting existential questions about the future of the art world.
The silver-haired 55-year-old is a rare example of a second-generation gallerist who forged his own distinct path. His father, Rudolf Zwirner, operated a prominent gallery in Cologne, Germany, on the ground floor of the family home. “I could not go into the house without seeing what was in the gallery. His viewing room was essentially the first floor, which was live/work,” David recalls in a light German accent. “I would come home and see a Cy Twombly Bolsena painting and be like, ‘Wow.’ Then we would talk about it. He never pushed. We had conversations.” A steady stream of 20thcentury greats visited. Meeting the likes of Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter became second nature for David, even if he did take it all for granted. “When I was a teenager, I had no interest in it. I wanted to be a musician.”
In 1979, Rudolf brought the family to New York for a year. They lived in SoHo, then still gritty and full of artists’ lofts, and David attended the progressive, now-defunct Walden School uptown. He describes it as a “very liberal, wonderful, crazy school”, with Kyra Sedgwick and Matthew Broderick among the artsy alumni of his era. He also met Monica, his wife of 31 years, there. “It was funny because I would say 90 per cent of the student body was Jewish, and then there were the two German kids, my sister and I. I had to navigate that.”
He recalls his 10th-grade history teacher announcing to the class they’d be studying the Third Reich. “Everybody turned around and looked at me,” he says with a smile. “Good news is, growing up in Germany, we were conditioned to feel implicated, complicit, even though if you were born in 1964 you cannot be a perpetrator. But you feel like one. That’s exactly what’s missing in the United States about slavery. Nobody feels like they have any responsibility for that. Meanwhile, this original sin is catching up with society and creating havoc. In Germany, while nothing could be made undone, at least there was a concerted effort to keep it front and centre. Monica’s Jewish, so we’re living that life, and it’s been very fascinating.”
David returned to the city to study composition and the drums at New York University, and again when he decided to try art dealing after a brief stint in the music business. (His love of music hasn’t faded, but his unpredictable schedule stands in the way of joining a band, so he now contents himself with listening, especially to live jazz.) His dad had retired, but David feared being overshadowed by Rudolf’s outsized reputation if he stayed in Germany. “Also, it’s funny how one doesn’t think things through in one’s 20s, but intuitively I knew that if you do something in New York, it’s so much easier to get the word out,” he says. “I use the analogy of throwing a stone into water. In New York it goes like this,” he explains, extending his arms in progressively larger concentric circles. “The repercussions move in all directions.”
Another choice was equally consequential. Rather than following Rudolf’s business model of mounting one-off shows with blue-chip artists – but not representing them – David intended to assemble his own roster of artists and build their careers over time, in the manner of influential gallerists Konrad Fischer, Marian Goodman and Paula Cooper. That strategy would mean catering to his artists’ every need – and their many eccentricities.
In the early days, David scouted talent the way he had briefly searched out musicians at gigs. At Documenta 9, the 1992 edition of the quinquennial exhibition in Kassel, Germany, he found three of the first artists he would show after opening his gallery on Greene Street in SoHo the following year: Franz West, an Austrian known for his irreverent sculpture and hard living; Stan Douglas, a Canadian filmmaker; and cerebral Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. All three are still with him, though West, who died in 2012, took what David calls “a little detour” at Gagosian before his estate recently returned to the fold. (In subsequent years he added even more artists from Documenta 9, including Marlene Dumas, Raoul De Keyser and James Welling.)
Drawn also to the California scene, David met the influential artist Paul McCarthy, who already had representation but introduced him to a favourite student, Jason Rhoades. When Rhoades later visited New York with photos of his work, “I offered him a show on the spot”, David recalls. “I think he also had appointments at Gladstone and others. I was just lucky that he came to me first.”
David was proving he had a good eye – and ear – for talent. Also on his side: timing. The art-market collapse of 1990 dragged on for several years. His prospects may have looked bleak, but David says the industry had only one way to go: up. Moreover, the slump may have worked in his favour for recruiting artists. “Because the art market was in such bad shape, these artists gave me the time of day,” he notes. “Luc had offers from other New York galleries, but I was very persistent. I went there three times. You have to be persuasive.”
A loan of about US$60,000 from his father covered one employee and building out a gallery – or rather half a gallery. “I couldn’t afford the whole space, so I went all over town asking for a partner in the lease,” he says. That dealer folded after a year, by which point David could afford to take the rest of the space.
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