There's a gaggle of French art students staring forlornly at the door when I arrive at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York's Chelsea district. “Closed for hanging”, a sign reads. Undeterred but flustered, the teacher quickly gathers the students around her and launches into an off-the-cuff spiel.
“David Zwirner Gallery represents Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama and Alice Neel,” she explains, gathering momentum as a few students' ears perk up. “Last week David Zwirner was voted the second most powerful person in the art world by ArtReview magazine. That's ahead of Larry Gagosian, Marian Goodman and Jay Jopling. He's behind only the director of the Tate.” By the time she's finished speaking, even the most petulant of students is paying attention.
Unbeknown to the teenagers outside, Zwirner himself is standing at the reception just beyond the main entrance. I hadn't expected him to greet me personally, but this is the kind of touch that has helped him acquire his hard-won reputation as the affable face of the cut-throat art world. While other gallerists appear happy to be thought of as larger-than-life or aloof, Zwirner seems to want to be seen as friendly and approachable.
Fittingly for someone who has spent his career cultivating his image as an everyman, Zwirner is decked out in dark jeans, an open-necked shirt and a blazer. He looks smart without looking corporate, relaxed but not informal. There's nothing about his appearance that suggests his gallery has annual revenues in excess of US$200 million.
We're meeting in the second of Zwirner's two New York galleries, which sit only a block apart in the visual-arts hub of Chelsea. The gallery on West 19th Street was Zwirner's first site in the neighbourhood, but it's this specially designed five-storey building on West 20th Street that's now the hub of his operations. On top of these two New York spaces, Zwirner opened a London outpost in October 2012.
“Our business has been growing steadily over the past 20 years and I realised we needed a European headquarters,” Zwirner explains. “We analysed the situation and there's really no choice in my opinion – it's London that's the most important art town. It's an easy place for Americans to visit but also for people from the Middle East and from the Far East.”
Despite the British capital's prime position for travelling buyers, Zwirner is quick to point out that he still considers New York the art capital of the world. “There is no comparison between London and New York, I have to say. London has fantastic museums and great artists, but it doesn't have the density of collectors that New York has.”
Although buyers in both cities (and many others) are practically beating down Zwirner's door, he has a reputation for being particularly fussy about which collectors he sells to. “You have no idea how many sales we turn down,” Zwirner candidly admits. “We do not do that across the spectrum of the gallery but it's our responsibility when we work with an artist – especially when they're young.
“I'll give you an example: in 2013 we took on a very talented young British artist called Oscar Murillo. Oscar's work sells at auction for a multiple of what we charge, so we have a lot of people who look at his art not as art but as an asset. They say, ‘I can buy this for one price and sell it next week for another price.' That's not so interesting for us.
“Then you might ask why are we not raising prices if we can. The problem is that we don't want to do this either, because we want to move prices up slowly so that museums can purchase the work, so that you can build a solid career [for the artist]. If a career's built just on price escalation you're probably not going to be in a good place in the long run.
“You want to support an artist, you don't want to control what they're doing. There were these two polls five years apart where artists picked their favourite gallery and we came on top twice. That's my proudest moment. To do that once and then do it again five years later is a testimony that we're really catering to artists' needs. And that's important.”
When he talks, Zwirner is eloquent and friendly but succinct. Yet as he starts discussing the artists on his roster, his enthusiasm begins to bubble to the surface. He represents a total of 48 artists, including sculptor Richard Serra, painters Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas and Neo Rauch and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. But it's the gallery's exhibitions of work by Koons and Kusama that attract the biggest crowds. “A couple of months ago I was with Kusama in Tokyo,” he says, “and it's an incredible privilege to visit her and see her studio and her work.
“She somehow is able to create a universal language in her art that's just picked up by a very, very broad audience. You open an exhibition and you have children – children of eight years old – who show up and they're dressed like Kusama. They're already fans. And you have the most important curators of the most important institutions walk in and try to acquire work, so you have the broadest of all audiences. I always say that she's one of the few artists that has one foot in minimalism and the other one in pop art and there's no other artist like that.”
Zwirner is similarly passionate about Jeff Koons (“the one artist that crosses across all borders”), Jordan Wolfson (“wonderfully talented”) and, I would guess, every other artist that he represents. But his desire to keep these artists from wheeler-dealing buyers makes the frenzied world of art fairs something of a challenge for Zwirner, so much so that he once called the fairs “almost perverse” in an interview with The New Yorker.
“The perverse element is that you're not necessarily presenting work in the very best interest of the artist,” he concedes. “In a gallery you create spaces where you mostly present one artist and you give each work room and let it breathe. In the art fair, you usually have an overload of work and you create a very aggressive environment.
“But what's not perverse about art fairs – actually, what's very beautiful about them – is that they're a point of entry. It's very democratic: you can walk right up to the gallery owner, ask questions, it's not forbidding, sometimes the galleries can be a little forbidding. I think the art fairs are important.”
Zwirner has exhibited at every Art Basel in Hong Kong since 2011 (back when the fair was still Art HK), and this continued participation has long had industry observers wondering if he's planning on opening a gallery in the city.
“In the next five to 10 years I would imagine that we'd have a presence in Asia,” he confirms. “If I had a crystal ball, I'd say that presence would be in Hong Kong. Is it going to be a big gallery or a smart office space where we can show things? I'm not totally sure. But it's on my list.”