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Expansion Of An Empire

Contemporary art dealer David Zwirner and his eponymous gallery are in growth mode on their 25th anniversary.


Dan Flavin, untitled, 1974, pink flourescent light (c) Stephen Flavin, ARS, Courtesy Stephen Flavin and David Zwirner

For the first time this year David Zwirner has ranked not only as the world’s most powerful gallerist, but the number one most powerful man in the art world, according to ArtReview’s benchmark Power 100 list.

Gallerists rarely make the top spot. It’s only happened once before, when his one-time colleagues (and long-time friends), Iwan and Manuela Wirth ranked first in 2015.

Zwirner bats the accolade away with his characteristic Germanic modesty. “I’ll take that with a grain of salt, I’m not sure the selection committee is scientific,” he smiles. “But obviously it is better to be high up than somewhere else.”

Charming, quiet-spoken, warm blue eyes and a silver ‘Julius Caesar’ haircut, Zwirner is, above all, human. Despite representing some of the biggest contemporary artists in the world (such as Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, Luc Tuymans and Neo Rauch and) there’s no pretention. This is a man who plays himself.

His shows at his New York, London and Hong Kong galleries are consistently described as worthy of any museum; he admits he finds it devastating to dismantle them after just a month and a half. He is looking forward to opening a vast five-storey space on New York’s West 21st Street towards the end of 2020. Designed by starchitect Renzo Piano, the US$50 million gallery will become the centre of the New York operations, to allow exhibitions a longer shelf life.

“With the new space, we can stretch the shows a bit longer,” he says, when we meet in his newly-opened Hong Kong gallery – which at 900 square metres is palatial by Hong Kong standards. “We’ve definitely had some shows where I don’t think you could have done a better job, and to see them go after six weeks is painful.”

This year, Zwirner is celebrating the gallery’s 25th anniversary and has much to be proud of. But he hasn’t forgotten his humble beginnings.

The son of an art dealer, in 1993 a 31-year-old Zwirner opened his eponymous gallery in a tiny space in SoHo. The catalogue for the inaugural show, a solo exhibition by Austrian sculptor Franz West, listed Zwirner’s home address at the time of printing as he wasn’t sure where the gallery was going to be located. Nothing sold.

“[The gallery] was, by today’s standards, little more than a coat closet. The front desk was David’s desk back then,” US artist Diana Thater is quoted as saying in the New York Times.

Over the next six years, Zwirner devotedly built up West’s career, until, soon after his most successful sale, West dumped him for rival Gagosian. Zwirner shrugs with a smile. “He felt he needed a larger gallery in 1999, we were small then. Since he passed away, the family thinks we are the right person to represent his legacy. He is still one of my favourites.”

He adds: “It’s been an extraordinary quarter of a century, with over 300 exhibitions behind us. I am proud that the ethos [of showing challenging art without compromise] and our spirit of commitment to the artists remains true today.”

From those “coat-closet” days the gallery now turns over around US$600 million annually. When you consider that the entire art market is valued at US$60 billion, it’s an impressive 1 percent stake. It’s been near-steady upward trajectory, save for 2016 when the Trump election rocked confidence even among bigwig art collectors. No surprise that he has recently invested, twice, in Arta, a New York-based start-up that bills itself as the Expedia of the art-shipping industry.

Artist-wise he has the pick of the bunch, having hoovered up 62 blue-chip artists and estates. This year alone he took on Rose Wylie, Lucas Arruda, Josh Smith, Harold Ancart and the estates of Franz West, Roy DeCarava, Joan Mitchell and Diane Arbus (the latter in collaboration with Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco). His longer-standing artists, such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Kerry James Marshall and Yayoi Kusama continue to push boundaries and set new agendas for the role of art today.

David Zwirner (c) Jason Schmidt

“I try not to toot my own horn too much as it’s not my style,” he laughs. “But we want to be a gallery that blinks very heavily on an artist’s or estate’s radar when they’re thinking about representation.” Some galleries, he points out, take on too many artists and individual attention dwindles.

“You know, having arrived at this 25-year junction, maybe slightly at the top of the heap, I hope it will help to... bring in some incredible talent that’s maybe not happy with where they are right now. We’ve seen quite a bit that people are not paying attention to artists and estates the way they should. Artists need to be supported on many levels. That’s why I got that power-list citation, we look after our artists.”

That’s exactly what the ArtReview judges say. “[It] has depended on Zwirner’s careful attention to keeping the focus on the artists and their work, while assiduously navigating their reputations through the increasingly turbulent and ever-deepening waters of the global art system.”

Along with this family-style attention to detail, Zwirner says he has grown his reputation on an unwavering faith in his own personal aesthetic, rather than that of his clients. “There are many artists I could have shown who are financially very successful, but what drives our work is what we like, not what our clients like.”

It doesn’t mean you have to be predictable, he adds. “If you look on our website and you check Fred Sandback [minimalist sculptor] versus Lisa Yuskavage [sexualised cartoonish female figures], you’ll be like, how can this guy like both of these artists who are so different? But both are totally authentic and influential artists and committed to their work.”

Zwirner’s best-selling artist by volume is German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (“he touches so many different collectors, you can sell 100 in a few days”) and by value, Yayoi Kusama (“who’s had such an incredible, broad career”) but the artists he feels are most undervalued in his stable are American minimalists from the 1960s. These include Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Fred Sandback and John McCracken.

“These artists pushed abstraction to its most radical and logical conclusion. They brought modernism to its final chapter. Every museum collects their work, but the price points are still way behind the prices of the Pop artists who were working at the same time. I think, over time, it will rectify itself,” he adds.

When he’s not travelling, Zwirner, aged 54, spends a lot of time at his home in New York where “there is art everywhere”. But his personal collection is quite different to the masterpieces on the walls of his galleries. “I tend to bump into things where I say, ‘that’s beautiful’, like a late Picasso drawing, a Morandi painting, a piece of antiquity or an Old Master. I leave my realm of contemporary art for historic art. I’m more of a collector there than in the contemporary field, which I’m surrounded by all day long.”

His eyes light up when I mention his 28-year-old son, Lucas, and 25-year-old daughter, Marlene, who both work in the gallery. He considers them instrumental to the gallery’s future, which will include a digital marketplace for art aimed at customers increasingly comfortable buying online, to a virtual-reality tour of exhibitions. There will also be greater emphasis on growth of sales in Asia and young, wealthy, hotspots such as Silicon Valley. For now, Lucas manages the publishing activities, (David Zwirner Books’s recent publications have included Jarrett Earnest’s portrait of the state of art criticism, and Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes’s tribute to ordinary people (The Sweet Flypaper of Life)), while his daughter Marlene has just started as a sales associate. From learning the art gallery business from his own father Rudolph, Zwirner has come full circle. “They’re the next generation. There’s plenty for us to do and they’re part of a longer strategy.”

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Giving Issue, December 2018. To subscribe contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.