David Zwirner Expands His Reach to Paris

A good art dealer finds a way to combine earnestness with polished savvy, and the success of the German-born gallerist David Zwirner demonstrates the potency of such a mixture.

Now representing more than 60 artists and estates, David Zwirner Gallery has grown significantly since its 1993 debut in New York City, where Mr. Zwirner, who attended N.Y.U., has been based ever since.

This month, timed to the yearly FIAC art fair, he opens his first Paris gallery, in a historic Marais district space.

Mr. Zwirner has three galleries in New York — a fourth, in Chelsea and designed by the architect Renzo Piano, is slated to open in two years — and one each in London and Hong Kong.

But Mr. Zwirner, 54, is ambivalent about being described as a mega-dealer, especially when he is lumped in with other large and influential galleries.

Mr. Zwirner held forth about the perils of Brexit, the charms of Paris and how to get an artist to sign on to a gallery, in an interview that has been edited and condensed.

So Paris is next for you — but you don’t have as many branches as some.

We’re not all over the place. That’s going to be it for a while. We get thrown together with some other galleries, and it bothers me. I feel we’ve been extremely focused, not opportunistic, and very logical. I like to be judged on my own merits. There are smaller galleries we have more affinity with: Galerie Buchholz, Sadie Coles, Eva Presenhuber. I have more in common with them.

So why Paris?

The motor of what a gallery does is to enable artists. Giving the artists a space to work and show in Paris, no one will argue with me or question that. Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it’s a cultural hub. I believe in galleries being in cities that are densely populated, have a rich cultural fabric and have a big audience for the visual arts.

And the space used to be the dealer Yvon Lambert’s?

Yes, I love the space, it has a history of great artists. In the ’90s, I was going to Paris on a regular basis, and it was one of the galleries you went to see. I remember a Barbara Kruger show, and an On Kawara show. The light is great, coming from a central skylight.

And why this timing?

People have been asking me, “Are you closing the London gallery?” Of course not. I love the London gallery. But with Brexit, opening a second gallery in Europe felt like a much more logical move. I’m European, and I love Europe. Brexit has been weighing on me.

So you’re not a fan, it sounds like.

What it will do to the business, we don’t know. But Brexit is madness. The fact that as of October, London will not be in Europe, that bothers me. It’s turning the clock backward, not forward. I like to think we’re moving to better times, not worse times.

Does your being German impact that feeling?

Yes. The E.U. is one of the most important peace projects the world has ever known. It’s especially bad for a German of my generation, given our complicated history. I was born in ’64. Our generation has been coming to terms with what previous ones did. It felt like we were moving in the right direction.

Brexit is but one global disruption these days.

We have a gallery in Hong Kong, and there are problems there, too. Though it’s too early to tell how it will play out. There are things that are problematic all over, but the art world has been somewhat shielded from them.

You’re doing FIAC again. Do you feel there are too many fairs?

I suppose it’s a love-to-hate topic, but fairs are important. It’s impossible to imagine the London art scene without Frieze, or Paris without FIAC. And FIAC is a great example, because it’s actually exciting to show at the Grand Palais — it’s one of the world’s great spaces. But I think there will be consolidation of art fairs in the next few years.

Do you strategize about how you use fairs?

The key is to really think about what you’re showing there. For Frieze New York, it’s always two-person shows. We’re trying a similar focus in Paris for FIAC this year, but with three artists: Sherrie Levine, Wolfgang Tillmans and Lucas Arruda. And in the new gallery space in Paris, we have Raymond Pettibon. Raymond has a long history in Paris, and some of his most dedicated collectors are there.

What do artists really want from their dealer?

Nobody wants a big, big gallery. Artists want the reach and strength and power that a gallery can bring, but on a day-to-day basis they want intimacy, and they don’t want change all the time. They want kinship, and contact. So that’s a juggle: How do you keep a gallery small at heart, but with reach?

Does it take a lot of convincing to sign someone new?

You always have to make yourself available to great talent; it’s part of being a gallery. They want to know you’re there not just to be opportunistic. They are used to talking to people whose hearts aren’t in it — all artists know right away when someone is like that. I guarantee it. Certainly great artists know. They pay much more attention than we think.

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