The Bumpy Adolescence of Zach Feuer: A Story of the Art Market

The Bumpy Adolescence of Zach Feuer: A Story of the Art Market

Zach Feuers gait can only be described, somewhat oxymoronically, as a determined shuffle. Low to the ground — he’s around 5’4” — he takes such narrow steps that he seems to glide rather than walk, somewhat in the manner of a human Segway. On a sweltering afternoon this summer, dressed in his standard uniform of loose jeans, tee shirt, and sneakers (one shoe with laces untied and dragging), the art dealer was walking down 11th Avenue in New York’s Chelsea art district to what will open this fall as his new gallery space. It was only when he steps inside the doors of his destination — the neighborhood’s most iconic building and longtime anchor, which from 1987 to 2004 was home to the Dia Foundation — that the dealer, who just three years ago was pegged as the “art world wonder boy” in Heeb magazine's "Kids" issue, stooped to tie his shoe.

This year, Feuer is, it might be said with a degree of understatement, at an interesting juncture in his career. At 32, an age at which most would-be dealers are nervously contemplating whether market conditions are right for opening that first gallery, Feuer has been exhibiting and selling contemporary art for over a decade, has made masterstrokes and missteps through both a boom and bust cycle, and has run two gallery spaces in which he has mounted over 100 exhibitions by the 12 artists he has represented. While the other kids are fixing training wheels to their BMXs, he’s cruising down the art highway in a rumpled Buick. (It’s a weird image, but, given the way his grave demeanor rubs against his almost willfully shlubby comportment, it works.) In other works, Feuer — who just seven years ago was the youngest co-founder of the New Art Dealers Association (NADA) — is past the stage when beginning gallerists have the whole art world in their corner (and few enemies), and he is transitioning into the next phase, the grey area known to artists and dealers alike as midcareer.

And he’s doing it with a bang — not a surprise, given his penchant for attracting attention. Back in December 2005, when Feuer was still the poster child for young dealerhood, Art+Auctionmagazine devoted an entire page to an photograph of his face in its annual "Power" issue. At the NADA art fair in Miami that month, Feuer’s artist Justin Lieberman made a snarky artwork out of the photo by appending a speech bubble emerging from Feuer’s mouth that read, "A dealer of my stature should be staying at the Ritz." In keeping with the piece’s neo-Dadaist spirit, the price was a night at the South Beach Ritz for Feuer, and a collector bought it, giving the dealer a few hours in the lap of luxury. The piece was a joke — a young artist poking fun at the pretensions that success and exposure can bring — but like a lot of jokes it contained a shred of truth, an odd prescience: Feuer is now moving into the Ritz of gallery spaces. As impressive as the historical imprimatur conferred by being in the universally dubbed "Dia building" is, it's the sheer square footage of the space that stands to catapult him into the big leagues. At 4,500 square feet, it more than doubles the size of his previous gallery two blocks north, and its main area rivals those of his former neighbors on 24th Street, Luhring Augustine and Andrea Rosen, who have been in business over twice as long as he has. And he still has room left over for a 330-square-foot project space.

After admiring the clean, elegant designs Los Angeles architect Peter Zellner did for New York galleries Wallspace and Harris Lieberman, Feuer hired him for renovations, and this summer Zellner’s crew were beginning the laborious process of covering up the permanent floor-to-ceiling tilework installation that artist Jorge Pardo made long ago for what was once Dia’s lobby. History was making way for the new, and that doesn’t come cheap. Feuer declines to attach a number to his build-out and new overhead, but by all accounts his investment is significant, and sources close to negotiations on the building peg the rent on his ten year lease at about $20,000 a month. It’s a jump up for Feuer, who says things being a bit strained financially at first doesn’t matter "if you have a 30-year plan." He briefly considered bringing on a backer, but at the last minute decided not to. "If you have to work with someone, it’s not going to be exactly the way you want it," he explains. "A dealer has to be a bit of a control freak, or the gallery doesn’t work."

Taking on a partner would have been an odd move for Feuer, since his very identity rests on having freed himself of them. By now, the broad outlines of his meteoric rise are well-known: the modest Bernardsville, New Jersey, upbringing with an artist father; the stint as a frustrated art student at Boston’s Museum School; the discovery of his curatorial and promotional talents with the wacky-as-it-was-ambitious "Apartment Show" in 1999 of work by artist pals in his $650-a-month Boston pad, where artworks included a dresser drawer full of Jello and an ice cube turned into a sound piece; and the local media attention — TV spots! Newspaper articles! — that caught the eyes of Cape Cold dealer Nick Lawrence and PR agent Russell Lamontagne, who, in 2000, gave the precocious 20-year-old a minuscule budget to open a New York gallery,LFL, on an upper floor of a walk-up building on West 26th Street (an effort for which Feuer, improbably, managed to get college credit). In 2002, he moved LFL to a ground floor space on 24th Street, Chelsea’s power block, where his new neighbors included heavy hitters like Mary Boone and Gagosian. Two years later he bought out Lawrence and Lamontagne and put his own name on the door.

It was the beginning of a wild ride for Feuer, who got noticed by selling work by artists like Holly Coulis and Kevin Zucker who, like him, were just out of school during a historic boom in the market. That frothy and speculative environment was an odd one for someone known by most as a no-nonsense kind of guy.

"In the beginning, I was a little intimidated by him," says Phoebe Washburn, the 36-year-old installation artist who was completing her MFA at New York’s School of Visual Arts when Feuer first visited her studio in 2002. "I realized that’s just how he is: matter-of-fact. There’s no bullshit. It’s a wonderful trait. He just is who he is and is always up front about things. When you’re consistently like that, there’s a certain power in it."

His shows started selling out, particularly those of his star artist Dana Shutz, whose early success had allowed him to expand his program in the first place, and Feuer started exerting control. As Shutz’s popularity and prices rose — by 2007, a 2002 painting made $288,000 at Christie’s — Feuer protected her market by requiring collectors to promise they would donate a piece of hers to a museum if they wanted to buy one to keep as well. (The move was greeted with the same acquiescent collector-grumbling as another relic of the boom, resale agreements.) Feuer also stopped disclosing her primary-market prices to journalists. "It’s hard when this thing that is beyond an artist’s control becomes a major part of the story," he says now. "No artist in their studio thinks about the market. When people talk about numbers, you get distraction."

But back then the art world was all about distraction. By the time vulturous speculation in young talent began giving a bad name to the trawlers of MFA studios, Feuer had begun distancing himself from what he called “youth chasing,” insisting — accurately — that all he had ever really done was show his peers. He began taking on slightly older artists, like the German painter Anton Henning.

Meanwhile, New York’s young dealer spotlight shifted, in part to a group of mostly NADA member galleries, like John Connelly and Clementine, who had banded together to take space in a former cold storage warehouse on far West 27th Street, and also to a new cluster of scrappy youngsters staking their claims on the Lower East Side. Feuer went in a different direction altogether, telling the press about his ideas for "franchises in other cities," a sort of "farm league and then New York." He briefly provided financial support and shared artists with a now-defunct London gallery run by his onetime New York director Kimberly Brown, and opened a Los Angeles gallery, Kantor/Feuer, in collaboration with Niels Kantor. But his focus remained New York, and after two years, the L.A. venture had run its course. "I don’t have the capacity to do 28 shows a year," he says now.

In late 2007, he was itching to expand in New York. His plot of land on that power block was relatively small. He couldn’t find the right situation, and when the market crashed the following fall, he put his plans on hold. As the first signs of a recession appeared, and then as it deepened, Feuer watched some of his original NADA colleagues, like Bellwether, Clementine, and Oliver Kamm close their galleries. The most recent to depart, NADA co-founder John Connelly,shuttered his space in August. "Zach remains a leader," says NADA co-founder Sheri Pasquarella. "If you go down the original roster of NADA members, there are few of our peers to have gotten to where he is." Simultaneously, he was made to listen as older dealers went into I-told-you-so mode with the young punks who had only known sunny times. During the boom, "they were always saying, 'This isn’t going to last forever,' and giving lectures about how easy it was," Feuer recalls, gloomily. But he was determined to see the bright side as business plummeted: with the go-go market receding, he could take the focus off schmoozing collectors and make more studio visits. "I had time to focus on art," he says. "There comes a point where you don’t know what an artist is working on, and that’s weird."

Privately, he was having sleepless nights. "Everyone has doubts," he admits. "But I can’t do anything other than this, so survival was crucial. Doubts make you work harder, because you’re a little bit afraid. You start to hustle." It was at the bleakest moment of the recession, in January 2009, when newspapers were filled with factory layoffs and bank bailouts, that Feuer made his most controversial move to date, parting ways with eight of his artists, some of whom he’d worked with since his first days as a dealer. Breakups are catnip to journalists, and many dealers would have gone out of their way to keep the matter hush-hush, but Feuer, straightforward to a fault, took his story to the press. "I didn’t want to be big in this economy," he told Katya Kazakina of Bloomberg. "Now is the time to have a lower overhead and be small and lean."Danica Phelps, who’d been with Feuer since 2001, told Kazakina she "felt a little dissed."

These days, Feuer no longer talks about that decision on the record. "Even though it may have been best for him and the artists he still represents, I think a part of him regrets how he handled it," says one of his collectors, who insisted on anonymity, but remains a loyal customer. "It was perceived by a lot of artists as a business decision, and that’s not how they want to be treated. Then again, there’s a philosophy in business that sometimes letting employees go is the best thing, because they realize the job wasn’t for them."

Although many of his artists, like Phelps and Tom McGrath, have found new homes, the potential downside of such a move for collectors — many of whom buy across the program of a dealer they trust — is that it can signal a loss of market confidence in the work. A prominent collector of emerging artists, who would also only comment on condition of anonymity, was harsher in his assessment. "He’s a nice guy, but I’ve never bought from him,” he says. “He goes through the schools, takes young artists, and jacks up their prices. Then when it doesn’t work, he throws them out." (Ironically, that collector’s reason for requesting anonymity speaks to Feuer’s abilities as a talent scout — as well as to the cupidity of the art world. Immediately after disparaging the dealer, the collector added, “I like a couple of the artists he shows, and next week I might decide to buy something from him.”)

Meanwhile, a dealer peer remarked that what could haunt Feuer isn’t the artists he split with, but rather the question of who their friends might be: he may now find himself fighting to win back credibility among the very crowd he once chose to distance himself from.

But Feuer’s final arbiters are the artists he works with, and none that this writer spoke with had a bad word for his decision. If anything, they hoped that if he chose to break up with them, it would be on the same clear terms. "If you want to condense what you are doing to high quality, you sometimes have to make radical decisions," says Henning. "It’s like destroying certain works in the studio." Artist Johannes van der Beek, whose own gallery, Guild & Greyshkul, fell victim to the recession, says, “I understood what he was doing — those tough decisions are ones I couldn’t make.”

"He’s incredible at managing careers, he’s serious and reliable, and he’s straightforward from a business standpoint," says collector Carlo Bronzini Vender. "That’s important. Artists wantto be paid on time, and collectors want fair treatment."

Words like trust, stability, and honesty come up a lot in conversations with Feuer’s artists. Also, persistence. When he wants to take someone on, there is tenacity to his wooing. "He didn’t stop approaching me until I agreed," says Henning. "It wasn’t just a fling." In 2008, he cold emailed one of his most recent additions, the 53-year-old Houston-based artist Mark Flood, who hadn’t shown in New York since 2004, but who had started exhibiting successfully with Berlin and then-L.A. dealer Javier Peres. "He said he’d come down by the end of the month, and boom, he was here," says Flood. "He asked if I wanted to do a show and I would sleep on it. When I picked him up from his hotel the next morning I said we could either go the museums or drive out and look at the 'Bladerunner'-like landscape of 60 miles of oil refineries. He was like, 'Let’s do the refineries.' That was the right answer."

That Feuer was once an artist himself may account for his laissez-faire attitude towards the projects pursued by his artists once he takes them on. "He’s not afraid," says Flood. "I’ve worked with people who were clearly afraid of stuff I wanted to do." Washburn appreciates his lack of critiquing during their monthly studio visit: "He trusts my whole enterprise and lets me make mistakes. He realizes artists need to do that sometimes."

As for his most recent move, Feuer insists that the new space, with its soaring 19-foot ceilings — think big installations and sculptures — will make him attractive to additional talent (he's just added artist Joe Bradley, in collaboration with Canada gallery). Several in the art world, however, insist that his main motivation must be to retain his prize pony, Schutz, as competition for talent is heating up again. It’s telling of Feuer’s ambitions to compete with the big guns — those likely to try to poach — that he hasn’t decamped for areas like the Lower East Side where galleries sprouted up in reaction to Chelsea’s mall-like atmosphere. He says he flirted with a space in the West Village, near Michele Maccarone and Gavin Brown, but pulled out after getting "a bad feeling." Foot traffic won out over street cred. "I want as many people as possible to see every show I do," he says.

"I didn’t feel any pressure to do this," Feuer insists of his expansion. "I wanted to." Miami-based collector Dennis Scholl, who began buying challenging videos by the Israeli artist Tamy Ben-Torfrom Feuer six years ago, says the move makes sense. "If you have an excellent group of artists and they’ve shown two or three times in your space, you have an obligation to give them a new opportunity."

But mostly Feuer, who recently parted ways with old school friend Justin Lieberman, as well as painter Jules de Balincourt (who went the now-disbanded Deitch Projects), doesn’t care what people think of him. Three years ago, he told Ken Johnson of the Boston Globe that "galleries can get uncool.... I hope to be able to handle it when we’re not so cool." He smiles hearing the quote again. "I think we’ve had our uncool moments," he reflects. "The difference between then and now is that I’m less concerned about it. If I’m seen as uncool, that’s a strength. If the entire world isn’t like, 'How is Zach doing?' that’s freedom. Now I just pay the rent and help my artists. I don’t have to be the young art dealer. I don’t have to be the NADA gallery. I just do shows."

His down-to-earth quality is what gives his artists a sense of stability. Where some dealers of his generation thrive on glamor, Feuer is a homebody. Six years ago, he married artist Alison Fox; they have a two-year-old daughter, and this summer Fox gave birth to a son. "He’s solid in his personal life," says Henning. "People who change everything all the time — it’s like zapping through TV channels. I don’t think it works."

"He’s thoughtful," says Flood. "He’s not a nut. You can only go so far as a nut. God knows, the world is full of nutty art dealers."

Since he bought a country house in upstate New York a few years ago, Feuer has been cultivating a green thumb. "We talk about growing asparagus and other kinds of vegetables," says Henning. "To me that shows he’s grounded. He likes to dig his hands in the ground." Feuer gives in to bravado when asked about his goals — "I want to make my artists the most important ones," he says. "I don’t want to be mediocre. I want to be the best, and hopefully in three or four years I will be." But the mundane activity of gardening isn’t a bad metaphor for what a dealer does: grows and nurtures talent, and remains persistent despite missteps. Over the summer, Feuer even fabricated an element for one of Washburn's installations. "I was trying to grow cucumbers in glass jars in my studio, but wasn’t successful," she says. "So Zach has my jarred cucumbers in his garden. He sends me pictures. He said, 'I messed up the first one, but I’m on it.'"

A condensed version of this story appears in the October issue of Modern Painters.