The Art Industrial Complex

Zwirner at home, with a painting by Raymond Pettibon. “Nobody’s selling expensive stuff like we do with the frequency we do,” Zwirner said. “This is an industry in its golden age.” Photograph by Pari Dukovic.

Zwirner at home, with a painting by Raymond Pettibon. “Nobody’s selling expensive stuff like we do with the frequency we do,” Zwirner said. “This is an industry in its golden age.” Photograph by Pari Dukovic.

Art as industry? Say it ain’t so! But if it is, then better to say so clearly, unambiguously:

Very important people line up differently from you and me. They don’t want to stand behind anyone else, or to acknowledge wanting something that can’t immediately be had. If there’s a door they’re eager to pass through, and hundreds of equally or even more important people are there, too, they get as close to the door as they can, claim a patch of available space as though it had been reserved for them, and maintain enough distance to pretend that they are not in a line.

Prior to the official opening of Art Basel, the annual fair in Switzerland, there is a two-day V.I.P. preview. In many respects, the preview is the fair. It’s when the collectors who can afford the good stuff are allowed in to buy it. After those two days, there isn’t much left for sale, and it becomes less a fair than a kind of pop-up museum, as the V.I.P.s, many of whom have come to Basel from the Biennale in Venice, continue on, perhaps to London for the auctions there. The international art circuit can be gruelling, which is why pretty much everyone who participates in it takes off the month of August, to recuperate.

The Basel preview began at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in June. The meat of the fair was in a gigantic convention center on the east side of the Rhine. The dealers’ booths were arrayed along two vast rectangular grids, which enclosed a circular courtyard that resembled a panopticon. The fair occupied two floors. The bottom one featured blue-chip art, offered by the powerhouse dealers; Picassos and Warhols could be seen among more contemporary work. Upstairs, for the most part, was younger work, exhibited by smaller galleries.

On the morning of the preview, after a champagne breakfast in the panopticon, the V.I.P.s gathered at the doors, under the watchful eye of guards in berets and dark crewneck sweaters. Through a window in the door, you could see, down the hall, the dealer David Zwirner, with his sales staff huddled around him, as though for a pep talk. The Zwirner booth was just past the Fondation Beyeler’s. (The Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler, who died in 2010, was one of Art Basel’s founders and its presiding spirit.) Zwirner comes in force: he had about a dozen salespeople with him, a mixture of partners, directors, and associates, as well as a platoon of assistants and art handlers. A few minutes before the doors opened, they took up positions in a sales-floor spread defense. Bellatrix Hubert, a Zwirner partner, pantomimed a gesture of being slammed by an incoming flood. The doors parted, and the buyers poured in.

Within moments, most of the Zwirner directors had paired off with collectors, as at an officers’-club dance. Some strolled over to this or that work of art. The Zwirner booth was about the size of a couple of shipping containers, with work mounted on both sides of various walls. There were paintings by Elizabeth Peyton, Neo Rauch, Martin Kippenberger, On Kawara, Yayoi Kusama, Luc Tuymans, and Lisa Yuskavage, among others, and sculpture by John McCracken and Donald Judd.

A trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago was interested in a Twombly drawing, and a curator from the museum was there to advise her (the museum could not afford to buy it), so Zwirner led them into a side room to view it. The directors were expecting visits from clients with whom they had previously discussed specific works, sharing high-resolution images and market intelligence. Many pieces were already on reserve, meaning that clients had indicated an intention to buy them, without having seen them in person.

Zwirner tended to collectors and checked in with his staff at a corner table, where an assistant collated sales and inventory information, which directors could track on their iPads. One director, a dapper Spaniard named Ales Ortuzar, sidled up to the table. “The second Kusama is sold,” he said. The price was four hundred and twenty thousand dollars. Zwirner dropped by and reported the sale, to an undisclosed buyer at an undisclosed price, of a Blinky Palermo painting, a last-minute addition to the fair, after a Georg Baselitz picture had got delayed in French customs. Important people stopped by the booth: the commodities trader Marc Rich, looking frail in a wheelchair (he died soon afterward); the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and his girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova; Leonardo DiCaprio, whom Zwirner greeted with the exclamation “Movie star!,” as though saying aloud what he’d meant only to think.

Zwirner is forty-nine, tall and fit, with a Caesar haircut and a brisk, forthright manner. He wore, as he usually does, unfaded bluejeans, a blue button-down shirt, and a navy sports coat. He has a slight German accent—he was born in Cologne—and a particular way of not pronouncing his “r”s and “l”s. The word “gallery,” which he uses a lot, has traces of Elmer Fudd and Colonel Klink. His cheeks and neck tend to flush when he is angry or stressed, but he generally cultivates an affable, regular-guy air, and listens with a tilted head, genuinely curious. When he has decided that a conversation has reached its logical end, he punctuates it with a quick sideways nod. He has what seems to be a guileless way of asserting art-world pedigree while acting as though he stood outside it all—he’s of it and yet not.

Zwirner, the son of a famous German dealer, opened his first gallery in 1993, in SoHo. Since then, he has risen to be one of the most prominent dealers in the world. He is not really a pioneer, in terms of the art he has championed, or the style in which he has presented it, or the people he has sold it to. He is, in many respects, one more boat on a rising tide. Still, the brightwork gleams. People often say that he’s angling to be his generation’s Larry Gagosian—every era has its dealer-king—but his approach is really nothing like Gagosian’s, or anyone else’s. He brings the calculating eye of an efficiency expert to the historically improvised hustle of buying and selling art objects. “He’s the new dynasty,” Gavin Brown, the New York gallerist, told me. “It’s the Norman conquest.”…

Read the whole article here.

2 thoughts on “The Art Industrial Complex

  1. Pingback: Indian Art, The Business Side Of The Story |

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