New king of gallerists brings his act to Hong Kong

David Zwirner ranks No. 5 in ArtReview’s 2017 Power 100 list of gallerists, artists and conceptualists, the highest ranked gallerist on the list and 10 places ahead of Larry Gagosian

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 11:04am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 11:04am

There is a very precise kind of casualness to David Zwirner, the German-born, New York-based art dealer named one of the art world’s most powerful people by ArtReview since 2003, most notably in the manner of his appearance. He is always dressed in an open-necked shirt and blazer, often paired with blue jeans, whether in the company of a Hollywood celebrity, the hottest new artist, a former US president, or all three at once.

To date, Zwirner and his team represent close to 60 artists – including cultural icons like Bauhaus pioneer Josef Albers, avant-garde Japanese multimedia artist Yayoi Kusama, and pop art sculptor Jeff Koons – working across different mediums, and have held around 400 exhibitions.

In 1993, Zwirner opened his first gallery in Manhattan’s SoHo, with a solo exhibition by Austrian sculptor Franz West.

At the time, Larry Gagosian was the titan of the art gallery world. From 2003 to 2013, Gagosian was always in the top five of Art Review’s list. But Zwirner’s father was a well-known gallerist in Cologne, Germany, and he grew up immersed at the intersection between business and art.

In 2002, Zwirner relocated to the thriving art neighbourhood of Chelsea, and a decade later, established his European presence with a space in London’s Mayfair district. This was followed by the opening of two more galleries in Manhattan – a five-storey exhibition space in Chelsea, which opened in 2013, and a gallery in the Upper East Side for historical focused exhibitions and special projects, opened in 2017.

In January this year, David Zwirner Gallery made its Asian debut at H Queen’s, a new development in Hong Kong’s Central district designed to house multiple art galleries in a vertical art and lifestyle complex. Spread across the fifth and sixth floor of H Queen’s, the interior architecture for the 10,000-square-feet space was overseen by Annabelle Selldorf who had worked on Zwirner’s New York and London properties.

The gallery’s four, column-free exhibition rooms can be adapted to display a variety of artworks, thanks in part to the bare spaces and white walls. Zwirner once said that minimalism brought modernism to its “natural conclusion”, and that interest can be seen in the spare interiors, which are used to considerable effect when displaying provocative works, such as the gallery’s inaugural presentation of provocative new oil paintings by renowned Belgium artist Michael Borremans.

Zwirner is known for his love of challenging artists, and he didn’t disappoint with his inaugural exhibition of Michael Borremans for the opening of his Hong Kong gallery. The exhibition, Fire From The Sun, showcased paintings depicting toddlers and infants, some seemingly covered in blood and often with dark or ambiguous expressions on their faces.

Zwirner, who has travelled frequently throughout Asia, said that the idea to open a gallery here came gradually, and really took shape about three years ago.

“I was deciding between Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And while I really cherish the energy in Shanghai, and the spaces in Beijing, in the end what won me over was the sense that Hong Kong belonged to the entire region of Asia. It feels very welcoming whether you visit from mainland China, Korea, Indonesia or Australia. It has a cosmopolitan spirit which reminds me of the other two cities – New York and London – where I have galleries,” said Zwirner who’s been coming to Hong Kong art fairs for the last eight years.

“I realised there is not only an audience for the art that we show here, but that this audience is growing. In the last few years, more people in the region have been paying attention to our artists.”

And while I really cherish the energy in Shanghai, and the spaces in Beijing, in the end what won me over was the sense that Hong Kong belonged to the entire region of Asia
David Zwirner

He hired Leo Xu, founder of Shanghai gallery Leo Xu Projects, and Jennifer Yum, former vice-president and head of morning day sales in post-war and contemporary art department at Christie’s New York, as directors for this gallery, and both Xu and Yum are excited to begin new chapters in their careers in Hong Kong.

“There is a mature art market here, because Hong Kong sees traffic from all over Asia, which contributes to its growth. Asian collectors are developing more sophisticated tastes, and the younger generation who began buying works from regional artists a few years ago are now buying works from international artists too,” said Xu, who attributed the rise in travel, regional art fairs, and social media to have contributed to increasing public interest in the visual arts.

Xu said the gallery was “very much about telling the full story of our artists” and it was also looking for regional artists who are relevant to the social climate and culture, whose works are authentic and not a duplicate of international art.

As an artist-centric gallery, he said David Zwirner won’t be just about showcasing art, but about bringing Zwirner’s artists and their ideas to Hong Kong, so the artist and the city can engage in a cultural dialogue that will generate new ideas.

Yum said the programme in Hong Kong would be on par with Zwirner’s galleries in New York and London, and believed that H Queen’s location – in the heart of the city centre and within walking distance from the galleries of Sheung Wan, and the design-focused retail destination PMQ – would help it gain momentum as a hub for the visual arts.

During her time with Christie’s, Yum, who is Korean-American and had travelled frequently to Asia for auctions, has seen a great appetite and enthusiasm for art in the region.

“Here in Asia, there’s a real willingness to learn and engage with contemporary art, and I found that incredibly exciting,” she said. Yum believed that with a physical presence in Hong Kong, David Zwirner Gallery can provide an inspirational space for its current artists, and attract talent from the countries of Asia.

“When you have a concentration of world class galleries in one area, like they do in Chelsea, you attract a very curious crowd, and a much larger audience than just the art public … ” said Yum who sees Hong Kong as a crucial part of the art world.

When you have a concentration of world class galleries in one area, like they do in Chelsea, you attract a very curious crowd, and a much larger audience than just the art public …
Jennifer Yum, David Zwirner Gallery

“Here in Hong Kong, there is an awareness and willingness to engage in all types of art, whether it’s a video installation or a painting exhibition,” she said.

David Zwirner Gallery’s 2018 line-up includes a photography exhibition from German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, a group exhibition with the works of American minimalists Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Fred Sandback, and a show curated by Xu that will bring together Asian and international artists.

In a 2013 profile by The New York Times described Zwirner’s rise to the top of the art world after 20 years of “commercially ferocious drive”, had put him in “contention for the throne of Gagosian himself”. In that same article, Zwirner decried the idea that having galleries all over the world is a good idea: “I do not plan and do not need to have galleries all over the world,” he said. “It’s silly.”

And yet, ArtReview’s 2017 Power 100 list, which features a mix of gallerists, artists and conceptualists, ranked Zwirner at number five. It’s down from previous years, but he remains the highest ranked gallerist on the list – 10 places above Larry Gagosian. Whether he admits it or not, Zwirner must be enjoying the pride of place now.

(This article appears in the March issue of The Peak magazine, available this week at selected bookstores and by invitation.)