PHOTOGRAPHY BY HEATHER STEN
David Zwirner is often cited as one of the most influential and powerful figures in an art business that has never been more influential or more powerful. But for all the sold-out exhibits and global omnipresence—his sixth gallery, designed by Renzo Piano, is under construction in New York—he remains devoted to his artists. The loyalty is reciprocal. Only one artist, Franz West, has ever left Zwirner (in 2000), but he returned in 2017. Zwirner, who grew up above his family’s art dealership in Cologne, Germany, opened his first gallery in New York in 1993. Now, he’s celebrating the 25th anniversary of that opening with shows featuring artists he championed along the way, from Richard Serra to Kerry James Marshall. “The artists are why I do what I do,” Zwirner says. “It’s why we’re all here.”
A lot has changed since 1993. What stands out?
When we started, the art world was not global. There were very few collectors, just a handful of galleries, and no art fairs except for a couple in Europe. Nowadays, you can’t open a magazine without a reference to the art world. This crossover from a specialty small market into really broad cultural acceptance is really the most extraordinary change.
How has that shift felt for you?
The anniversary has been fun because you take stock. It’s been humbling to see how we’ve been able to work with artists, and that’s what it’s all about, right? We had to work so hard the first few years to get any type of attention for these artists. Now the leverage that we have is so extraordinary. We can really launch and position careers correctly, and it’s wonderful to see. We always put the artists first. That’s how we started, and we’ve tried to never lose sight of that.
Your expansion has been so fast and so wide. How do you feel about the word empire?
I like all these terminologies. I’m happy. A gallery, an empire, bring it on. I feel like I’m an industry leader. I hope that doesn’t sound too boastful, but I feel we’ve proved ourselves, we’ve pioneered interesting ideas, we’ve been pushing, investing.
The line to get into your recent Yayoi Kusama show often exceeded four hours. For many people, that might be the only art show they go to all year.
And that’s actually very wonderful. One of the things that’s been so fascinating for me is to see how the audience has changed hand in hand with social media. I love that the gallery is being discovered by a lot of people who normally don’t know much about it and, for example, didn’t realize that it’s for free. All you’ve got to do is open a door, and you’re there; you have an aesthetic experience. That’s a beautiful thing.
You represent some of the world’s most famous minimalists, like Richard Serra and Donald Judd, but you just had an Isa Genzken show, and your first show was with another maximalist: Jason Rhoades. There doesn’t seem to be an identifiable David Zwirner style.
I hope that I can keep my audience guessing because I want to surprise myself, and I want to surprise them. I’m always a little troubled when I see galleries locked into a very clear aesthetic. I want to have a really open heart, and I’m interested in artists, not so much in styles. I’m looking for authentic voices. I’m looking for artists who make work that nobody else could make. It’s their own language, their own vocabulary, and ultimately their own journey.
When a lot of people think about art, they think about commerce. But as galleries are putting on museum-quality shows, they are beginning to serve a different purpose.
There is definitely an interesting change of perspective happening. Museums are slightly more populist than they used to be because they sell tickets too. They really are driving an audience into their spaces, and spectacle is something that’s very much in vogue right now. That’s one of the big changes I’ve witnessed over the last 25 years: The galleries are really stepping up to create historic shows. I always say, “We can’t write the bildungsroman on a career, but we can write the novella.”
In 2013, you said the art industry was in a golden age. Is it even more golden now?
Yes. You know what I was worried about, always? That talent in the visual fields would go off and start working in Hollywood. Imagine a young person, really talented at creating images: “God, forget it. I won’t make paintings, I’m going to make a movie.” But that’s not happening. People are going to art school, they’re engaging, they’re going to galleries, bringing new talent to the light. So I think we’re still very much in the golden age.
After 25 years in the industry, do you still feel that thrill when you come across a new artist?
Totally. However, it’s the work that I can’t categorize, the work that I stumble over because it doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before—that is the work that gets me excited and wanting to look deeper. I think if you shut down and you can’t be excited anymore, you have to leave. You have to retire and do something else. You can’t do this without passion. It’s impossible.