‘We wanted something that screamed Europe’

“It’s really beautiful,” says New York gallerist David Zwirner about art dealing. “We have a serious business but we are not playing by the corporate machine. Real money changes hands but the market is one of mom-and-pop shops. It’s uniquely unregulated – that’s one of its great charms.”

Zwirner’s new London gallery, an exquisite five-storey Mayfair townhouse, hardly resembles a mom-and-pop shop. With its ornamental staircase and original façades, it is quite unlike the featureless white trophy spaces of Zwirner’s rival global dealers in the capital – Jay Jopling in Bermondsey, Larry Gagosian in Britannia Street, Iwan Wirth in Savile Row.

“There are plenty of white cubes in New York. Other people want to bring the atmosphere of New York to London. We wanted something that screams, ‘We are in Europe.’”

The gallery opens on Friday with a show of Luc Tuymans, pre-eminent European painter of his generation. It is something of a homecoming. Zwirner, born in Germany in 1964, is the son of dealer Rudolph Zwirner. “It was wonderful, growing up I saw a huge range of art – Dubuffet, Richter, Beuys, Warhol. But there was this Oedipal thing that I was against working in the art world. I became a drummer, drifted into the music industry, made decent money – then started collecting. I realised: there’s something here that I’m denying myself just because I don’t want to be in my dad’s footsteps, so I went to New York. You can’t take over your dad’s gallery. You have to have one vision, the look and feel of a gallery you have to build from scratch.”

Zwirner “wandered the wide world” exploring artists he liked, hitting on three then little-known figures at Documenta in 1992: Franz West, Stan Douglas and Tuymans. He launched in SoHo in 1993 with West, followed by a Jason Rhoades exhibition that made the names of both artist and dealer. By 2006 Zwirner had three Chelsea spaces; a huge fourth gallery will open in November, also with a Tuymans show. With an annual turnover of $225m, and a stable ranging from “super-exciting” young Algerian conceptualist Adel Abdessemed to US heavyweights Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Diana Thater and senior artists On Kawara and Raoul de Keyser, in May he was ranked second – to Gagosian – in Forbes’ list of “America’s Most Powerful Art Dealers”.

David Zwirner, whose new London gallery opens on Friday

It is not unusual for European dealers to lead New York taste – Pierre Matisse did so in the 1940s, Leo Castelli from the 1960s. A trim, tanned figure with a broad, friendly face and a concentrated expression Zwirner, like them, has a European gravitas and an understanding of artists absorbed from childhood (“You get it by osmosis, it’s in the blood”), combined with American decisiveness, even ruthlessness. In 2010 he snagged Donald Judd’s estate from Pace Gallery, as well as winning Dan Flavin’s. From a first impetus to work with living artists, he now moves as ambitiously within the secondary market, “planting our flag in the area of minimalism, which I always thought was the last really interesting “-ism” before we entered postmodernism”.

What determines success? “The most important quality as a dealer has to be your taste. If you’re insecure, that would be difficult. Social skills matter but not as much as being decisive in your vision. An obsessed collector will buy the right painting from the devil. I’ve never been interested in a unifying style, I’m interested in looking for singular voices. Luc is a great example: a singular and now a very influential voice. You can’t categorise. You grapple with the work. Sometimes you don’t like it at first, then you come back, work your way into it. If you don’t love the work, you have to respect it, understand why an artist makes decisions. We go from the extremely abstract, for example Judd, to the extremely figurative, such as Lisa Yuskavage. All are authentic figures.”

Half of these artists, including Tuymans and serious mid-career painters Michael Borremans and Neo Rauch, have no representation in London, and Zwirner will undoubtedly bring a European as well as an American inflection to the Mayfair gallery.

Artists are excited to create work for London. As in New York, no one gives you a bad show – it’s too visible. For Americans, London is their gateway to Europe. But there’s also an emerging group of newer collectors who use London as a point of entry and source of information: eastern Europeans, collectors from the Middle East, China, the Far East. London is a hub for rich people and rich people buy art.”

Is this sort of milieu good for artists? “I had the luxury in the early 1990s to see artists’ careers grow slowly so we could assess what the market was doing to us. That’s very different from speculative interest. I remember talking to Peter Doig when a painting of his made $10m – he had mixed feelings. He went on to make fantastic work but the empty canvas looks a little more empty when you have a price like that behind you. Right now, there’s a lot of art being produced and sold, not all will be around in 50 years. When you have economic expansion in the 1 per cent – the art market audience – you also have froth.”

“Huge distortions” in prices are not new – “the neo-expressionists in the mid-1980s, Schnabel, Chia, were pre-sold at a time when Richter’s candle paintings flopped” – but “the biggest surprise is that there’s been growth in good times and also in bad. The art market was a small part of social life, now it’s a big part. If you want to be part of a globetrotting cultured set you will be part of the art world, partying in Venice with Pinault. When I started, every collector coming through our doors was schooled in institutions, museums, they had educated themselves.

“Then the moment came when I mentioned that Stan Douglas was in Documenta and the client said, ‘What’s Documenta?’ Connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down on.”

Yet these very collectors create the environment of global expansion that brings Zwirner to London, along with other international galleries opening here this autumn, such as Pace and Michael Werner. Zwirner stands squarely in the glamorously restored Georgian interior of 24 Grafton Street, lined with a series of new paintings in which Tuymans muses on art and death.

“We might be old-fashioned but I’ve got this far pushing this angle – we’ll stick with it. Of the 75 Tuymans works we have sold since we started, 25 have gone to museums – that’s the objective, a career that can stand on two legs. We bring new clients to the gallery but we also want to educate them. The new clients have much less time, they want wall power, name recognisability. We’ve got our work cut out.”

‘Luc Tuymans, Allo!’ David Zwirner Gallery, London October 5-November 17

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