David Zwirner is considering what to bring to Art Basel in Hong Kong from the comfort of his New York office. It’s January, and the art-dealer extraordinaire is also preparing for a trip to his London gallery for an opening of Luc Tuymans (whom Zwirner discovered early) the following week. He already knows he’ll show European figuration such as Tuymans, Neo Rauch, Michaël Borremans and abstract Oscar Murillo in Hong Kong, along with US minimalists such as Dan Flavin (whom his father discovered early) and Donald Judd.
But he’s got big game on his mind this morning. The biggest, in fact—Jeff Koons, the world’s most expensive living artist and a potential logistical contretemps. “I really want to bring some work by Jeff, but we’re not sure if we’ll be getting something in time for shipping. And with Jeff, that’s sometimes touch-and-go because production is very complicated.” Zwirner sold Koons’ sculpture of an inflatable dolphin for US$5 million at Art Basel in Basel last year to a Mainland Chinese collector. “There is such a great appetite for his work in Asia,” he says.
As the man who creates and shapes appetites among the art world’s global collecting cognoscenti, Zwirner has been conspicuously absent from the region, but is increasingly considering taking the plunge. “My next expansive move of sorts, I think, has to be in China and it is my New Year’s resolution to try to spend more time in China. We want to do it after some research on the ground. I think the market will expand very, very rapidly in Asia. If I want to grow my business, it’s difficult not to envisage a real presence in Asia. Just opening in China because everybody else does and because everyone says one should is not the right strategy, though.” He adds, “I feel being a pioneer in terms of location is much less important than being a pioneer in terms of programme, so our focus is more about what we’re showing than where we’re showing it. For me in Asia, the horizon could be anywhere between two to five years. By 2020, I expect to have a presence.”
Zwirner’s business is built on his alternative thinking and his stealthy approach to the art world. Ask the German-born 50-year- old what brand his company would be, and he’s off the mark in a flash: “Pétrus. Château Pétrus, probably 1962. Very rare.” He’s so exalted in New York that collectors who buy from him do so as much because it’s Zwirner as for the work itself. Movie stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Stiller are regular visitors to his galleries, and he canvasses at the highest altitudes. “My wife and I were invited to the White House for a Christmas party last December, so we were with Obama and his beautiful wife.” Is the US president a client? “He hasn’t come to my gallery yet,” says Zwirner, but with an expectant tone suggesting that he wouldn’t be surprised if someday Obama does.
Artists Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami collect from Zwirner—“small things”—as does Indonesian-Chinese billionaire Budi Tek and tennis royalty John McEnroe. “John’s a client and a friend,” says Zwirner, who admits to being a hopeless tennis player. “He’s bought Oscar Murillo, Marlene Dumas, and also likes Luc Tuymans and Raymond Pettibon. We were neighbours on Greene Street in [New York’s] Soho.” Zwirner has seen, and is one of those responsible for, a growth in the appetite for artwork. When he set up on Greene Street in 1993, there existed a small group of sophisticated European and US collectors, which has since evolved into the contemporary “pursuit” of an international group of the world’s wealthy, from Mexico and Indonesia to Mainland China and India. As such, he says that collecting has become a lifestyle. “Lifestyle is such a powerful argument for collecting. It’s not just an exchange of goods— it’s also an education, it’s travel, it’s friendships, it’s parties. It’s all kinds of experiences that can enrich your life, and I think that’s why people increasingly gravitate to it. Come to New York, spend a week, go to gallery dinners, go to a basketball game; it’s a great lifestyle choice to be a collector.”
Tempted by the ease and charm with which Zwirner markets his domain, I want a tip. Who’s the most undervalued artist he knows, the acquisition of which could vault me into a stratospheric lifestyle? “What’s really undervalued is minimalism,” he says. “If you look at the history of art, there was radical abstraction that came about in the ’60s, and it’s really one of the last pioneering, strictly modernist, influential, far-reaching movements. Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, John McCracken, Robert Ryman, those artists.” Compare them to their colleagues from the field of pop art like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, and Zwirner argues they’re “literally trading for 10 cents on the dollar.” Artistically and historically they’re just as important, so he expects prices to reflect their provenance. “That’s an opportunity. Especially someone like Dan Flavin—I feel his work is grossly undervalued. It will rise.” Investors, take note.
How does Zwirner distinguish good art from bad? “Something that you cannot categorise quickly is often a good sign. Be it a film, sculpture, a painting, something that sticks with you. Then you probe deeper. Sometimes it’s love at first sight, sometimes it’s hate.” He values both reactions. “Hating a work of art on first sight is a pretty interesting point of entry. I’ve looked at art I hated, realised it didn’t want to be liked, and that’s what makes it interesting.”
Citing his favourite artwork that day as one by Diego Velásquez, I ask Zwirner if the commercial frenzy for contemporary art has spurred a backlash, an art fair-tigue, a longing for a return to the old. “Yes and no. If you love Jeff Koons or Yayoi Kusama, you would still be concerned to see what Rembrandt was doing when he was working. But contemporary art is transparent, accessible. You can do your own homework, and big issues such as the condition and authenticity of an artwork are not really issues in the contemporary world.” That said, he’s also eyeing the past. “I would like to do a collaboration with a gallery in the Old Master field or an exhibition. I’ll be working on that in future.”
Collectors, go get thee to Art Basel in Hong Kong and visit Mr Zwirner. “Call me David,” he requests.