The Man Who Would Be King

On a morning in 1990, David Zwirner had an epiphany. "One day I woke up and said to my wife, 'I've got to get back to New York. I want to work in the art business.'" At the time he was living in Germany, and working in the record industry. But art dealing was in his blood. Three years later, in the midst of an economic downturn, he set up shop in a downtown Manhattan storefront. It was, he says, about the artists — and it still is.

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"I feel we picked well early on," says Zwirner, exhibiting his trademark self-confidence. "A lot of galleries my size have gone through many incarnations, have artists drop them, started with new ones, dropped those. We’re still working with the ones we did originally, and of course we’ve added." It is lunchtime, and he chats over a homemade Asian-inspired meal in his private office on the second floor of his sprawling, 30,000-square-foot namesake gallery on West 19th Street. A boyish 46, he sports a blue V-neck sweater, checked shirt, and chinos. His manner is surprisingly relaxed and down-to-earth, considering his reputation as a famously competitive and driven businessman.

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It’s fitting that among the artworks on the walls is a large Luc Tuymans picture, "The Globe," 1995 (whose secondary-market price Zwirner puts at more than $1 million); the dealer began showing Tuymans in 1994, when the Belgian painter was virtually unknown in the U.S., and his subsequent rise to superstar status is emblematic of how Zwirner nurtures his artists. "I would say that every single career is on a trajectory to grow, and that’s what I’m interested in," the dealer says. "I’m perceived as somebody who has a really interesting, successful, and eclectic group of artists in the gallery." Zwirner cannily signed up the Leipzig painter Neo Rauch in 2000, and early on showed the American artists Raymond Pettibon and Jason Rhoades (the death of the Los Angeles-based Rhoades, in 2006, was a huge personal loss for Zwirner). He and his staff of more than 60 people now work with an international roster of 38 names, including the painter Marlene Dumas; the photographers James Welling and Christopher Williams; and artists who work in everything from video to installation to sculpture, including Adel Abdessemed, Francis Alÿs, Marcel Dzama, and Diana Thater.

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Zwirner has made them successful by not merely selling their art but selling it to the right buyers. Among his clients are the private collectors Eli Broad, Mick Flick, Susan and Michael Hort, and Lewis and Susan Manilow, plus the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, in New York; the Pompidou, in Paris; and Tate Modern, in London. Over the past few years Zwirner has increased his secondary-market strength by gaining representation of blue-chip estates and foundations like those of Gordon Matta-Clark, Donald Judd, Alice Neel, and Dan Flavin.

It was Zwirner’s father, the contemporary-art dealer Rudolf Zwirner, who gave Flavin his first European gallery show in 1966. The elder Zwirner started in the business in 1959 at age 26, in Essen, Germany, eventually moving to Cologne, where he showed artists like John Chamberlain, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Ed Ruscha. In 1967 he cofounded Kunstmarkt (now called Art Cologne), the first contemporary-art fair. David’s mother, Ursula Reppin, went to art school and worked as an educator.

David literally grew up in Rudolf’s gallery, which was part of the family’s house. Although many in the business speak of the elder and younger Zwirners in the same breath, David resists the idea that he’s part of a dynasty. "My gallery had nothing to do with the one my father ran," he says. "I didn’t inherit anything. I just went and started my own thing. You’ve got to find your own stable of artists and develop your own vision."

Initially he pursued a different path, studying music in the early 1980s at New York University and training to be a jazz drummer. He returned to Germany and for several years worked in Hamburg for a small record label "looking at talent and trying to bring it in and produce records." His aptitude for discovering talent proved valuable when he moved from music to visual art.

In Hamburg Zwirner met artists like Bernd and Hilla Becher, Hanne Darboven, and Dan Graham and began collecting their work. "I realized not only that I had a lot of information [about art] retained from earlier times but that I was also really interested in it."

His first job in the States was with the SoHo dealer Brooke Alexander. "I knew David when he was a kid because I was friendly with his dad," recalls Alexander. "Rudolf called me and asked if it was okay for David to come and see me, and I said sure." Between 1990 and 1991, Zwirner worked in Alexander’s limited-edition-print arm, producing multiples with such artists as Judd, Lucian Freud, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, and Richard Tuttle. Alexander remembers that Zwirner "fit right in, was eager to learn."

Zwirner says his brief time with Alexander was both fun and instructive and that he found the transition from producing records to making limited editions practically seamless. But he got "antsy," he says. This urge to move on was in part inspired by two monumental group exhibitions he had seen in 1992 — Jan Hoet’s Documenta IX, in Kassel, Germany, and Paul Schimmel’s "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s," at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. "Those shows really helped me decide that I wanted to have my own gallery," he says. Both introduced him to an international mix of artists from L.A. to Central Europe and emphasized a layering of historical movements — features of the dealer’s practice today. Future Zwirner artists Dumas, Tuymans, and Stan Douglas were in Documenta, and Pettibon was a star of Schimmel’s show.

Zwirner struck out on his own, opening on Greene Street in 1993 during a recession. "It was funny, because galleries were going out of business at a pace of four a week and into business at a rate of one a month," Zwirner recalls. "A lot of people thought it was total suicide to open in those years." To a certain extent he had help getting through those hard times. For one thing, he had prime access to some of his father’s vaunted inventory. "He had resources, put it that way," says Alexander, "and he knew what to do with them." Moreover, he had the benefit of everything he had learned about art while growing up as the son of a successful gallerist.

Initially Zwirner shared the Greene Street space with fellow dealer Daniel Newburg. "I was surprised when David proposed doing a joint lease on this raw space, which was then divided down the middle," recalls Newburg, now a London-based art dealer, adviser, and publisher. "He struck me as being in a hurry." Already known for his sharp eye and daring program, Newburg was the first American gallerist to exhibit both Rudolf Stingel, in 1991, when his paintings were priced at $10,000, and Maurizio Cattelan, whose short-lived but memorable New York debut show in 1994 featured a live donkey in the gallery.

Zwirner "connected quickly with the emerging scene downtown," Newburg says. "It was a tough time to sell work by emerging artists, but he also started bringing in bigger names, which I’m sure helped the business and attracted important collectors. He’d bring them to my shows. He was enthusiastic and generous in that way."

When Newburg closed up shop, in 1994, Zwirner expanded into his half and later rented office and viewing space above the gallery in John McEnroe’s Annabelle Selldorf-designed loft. "The early years’ growth happened more or less by accident. Danny was out of business, and I was able to double my space, and that was great," he says matter-of-factly. "Then I got lucky and got this space in Chelsea in 2002." Selldorf oversaw the transformation of several auto-body shops on West 19th Street into a gallery. She also designed the five-story East Village town house where Zwirner lives with his wife, Monica — the designer and founding copartner of handbag and accessories company MZ Wallace — and their three children.

Last year Zwirner bought a three-story, 27,000-square-foot commercial building at 537 West 20th Street for $8 million. It is being transformed, again by Selldorf, into the headquarters for his burgeoning resale operation and is set to open by fall 2012. Zwirner’s major ambition, he says, is "to be the art dealer who is the premier guy for the secondary markets of my artists."

In fact, the secondary-market business has been a significant factor in Zwirner’s 18-year climb to the top. His power in that arena was cemented during his 10-year partnership with the Swiss dealer Iwan Wirth. The two first met in the early 1990s when Zwirner sold Wirth a work by Franz West, then one of his artists. "It was clear from the outset that we had some very important things in common," Wirth says. "Both of us have a distinctly European point of view and a similar sensibility. We are both the sons of creative men — my father was an architect; his was an art dealer. We each grew up with art playing central roles in our lives. Both of us are very focused in our approach to the careers of artists that excite us; we’re both inclined to pursue work over the long haul and in tremendous depth."

In 1999, sensing an opportunity to expand their profile and standing in the secondary market, which at the time was controlled by a few established dealers, the pair opened Zwirner & Wirth in a mansion on East 69th Street that in the 1950s and ’60s housed the famed Martha Jackson Gallery. There they held around 60 major selling exhibitions of such artists as Joseph Beuys, Sherrie Levine, Juan Muñoz, Blinky Palermo, and Cy Twombly. They gained a remarkably deep-pocketed client in the Mercedes Benz heir and controversial Berlin-based collector Mick Flick, and scored a coup in 2008 by wresting from Sotheby’s a significant part of the collection of the German couple Helga and Walther Lauffs, who had amassed extraordinary examples of Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Arte Povera in the late 1960s and ’70s. In Zwirner’s estimation, their collection was "second only to that of Ileana Sonnabend." Sotheby’s sold part of the Lauffs holdings in New York and London in 2008 for a total of $134 million, including a record $23.5 million for a 1962 Yves Klein painting.

Zwirner and Wirth gradually released the works they controlled onto the private market, through a series of exhibitions in New York, Zurich, and Basel, and also published a catalogue raisonné. Although both Zwirner and Wirth declined to provide figures, an outside source speculates that their portion was worth somewhere between $60 million and $80 million.

The two dissolved their partnership amicably in 2009, to avoid brand confusion when Wirth decided to launch the New York branch of Hauser & Wirth. They still share a close friendship, as well as the representation of several artists, including Thater and Rhoades.

A lock on so much important material has brought Zwirner in contact with the top tier of art-world dealmakers. "I’ve done a lot of business with David. He’s got a substantial stable of many great artists and now he’s dealing in postwar masterpieces, Minimalism being one of the chief areas," says the New York-based art adviser Allan Schwartzman, who has acquired "great works" by Judd, Polke, and Robert Ryman through him.

Collectors and others who have done business with Zwirner describe him as no-nonsense. "He is an outstanding dealer and very accommodating," says the Miami-based collector Marty Margulies. Margulies bought a Chris Ofili painting from the gallery in 2008, and when he asked Zwirner what his terms of sale were, he recalls the dealer saying, "‘You set your own terms. What good is it if I tell you what they are?’ I thought that was very astute. He knows that I’m not going to take advantage, and he made a joke out of it."

Others are less enthusiastic about their interactions with Zwirner. Some find his manner brusque and imperious. "I’m an impatient kind of guy, and I don’t have endless time for yadda yadda," he concedes. In 2009 the New York art world was buzzing over a flurry of anonymous diatribes that appeared on the popular blog How’s my Dealing? that criticized his taste in art and his temper, and asserted unhappiness among some staff members. Far more serious accusations were leveled in a 2010 suit brought by the Miami collector Craig Robins alleging a "breach of confidentiality" in connection with Robins’s secondary-market sale of a Marlene Dumas work, whose disclosure by Zwirner, Robins claimed, caused Dumas to blacklist him and keep him from acquiring her work. The judge threw out the case citing lack of any written evidence that the gallery ever agreed to keep the transaction confidential.

But despite all this, even the New York dealer Jack Tilton, who testified to the existence of a Dumas blacklist and Zwirner’s knowledge of it and has competed head-to-head with him, still speaks positively about the dealer. "We’ve done a lot of business together recently, and it’s important that [we] do business together because of who I work with and who he works with," says Tilton. "He obviously took one artist from me and shows artists that I have shown, but at this point I get philosophical and move on. It’s not wise to hold a grudge."

Assessing his rival, Tilton adds, "He’s very self-assured of what he’s doing, and he’s ready to take over the world." Indeed, Zwirner is considered one of the few viable challengers to the international art world’s reigning dealer king, Larry Gagosian. (Other contenders for this real or imagined throne include Matthew Marks, in New York; Jay Jopling, of White Cube, in London; and Iwan Wirth). What does Zwirner think of this speculation? "A bunch of artists joined us during a two-year period [between 2005 and 2007], and there was quite a bit of chatter about us," he says. "It was not necessarily me interacting with people, projecting that I had a Gagosian type of attitude, but I think we’re actually quite different."

Remarkably, Zwirner has lost only one major artist to Gagosian, with Franz West going there in 2001. He also failed to hold on to the painter Sue Williams, who in 2006 left her long-time dealer, Lisa Spellman, of 303 Gallery, for Zwirner, where she had only one solo show, in 2008. Williams returned to 303 last year.

Zwirner believes that artists come to him and stay in part because he offers an alternative to the Gagosian model, not an emulation. He stands "shoulder to shoulder" with them, he explains, in contrast to other dealers, "who are ahead of their artists, with big personalities that attract a lot of attention. You don’t try to take the spotlight away but you still have to have the personality that can stand up to what’s out there."

With that he politely redirects the conversation to the topic of a huge charity art auction he is running to benefit education in Haiti. It will be held at Christie’s New York in September, and Zwirner is collaborating with Hollywood star Ben Stiller, as well as with the auction house’s billionaire owner — and Zwirner client — François Pinault. He says Dumas will donate "a major new work" and has commitments from Rauch, Tuymans, Jeff Koons, and Paul McCarthy. "I’ve gotten nothing but support from my colleagues and my competitors," he says. "The Christie’s team is behind it, and Mr. Pinault is behind it. That’s what’s been consuming me lately."

Of course, the auction is not the only thing on Zwirner’s mind. On May 5 the gallery opens its inaugural exhibition of Judd’s work since taking on representation of the foundation last year. And later this month, he travels to Hong Kong, where he will participate for the first time in the Art HK fair and reach a whole new clientele. And what of extending his business and his brand beyond New York? "I think it’s inevitable for me to have something in Europe," Zwirner acknowledges, "but I want to spend a little more time to focus on what we’re doing here." Then, after disregarding previous interruptions, the dealer’s concentration is finally broken by an assistant nervously reminding him that an important client was waiting. And with a firm handshake and a farewell, Zwirner returns to his work.

"The Man Who Would Be King" originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's May 2011 Table of Contents.