The occasion for my conversation with Lucas Zwirner was the 25th anniversary of David Zwirner, and the commemorative volume that will come out in the fall, but I really decided to contact Lucas after hearing him speak on several panels in his capacity as the editorial director of David Zwirner Books. I was impressed by the sharp, serious scholar lurking inside the tall, polite young man one might stereotype, even dismiss, because of his youth and privilege. Instead, I came away thinking of a mutual friend’s comment, “Lucas gives me hope.” What follows is a conversation that took place in the loft he shares with his sister. It begins with the father, and explores the path of the son who has initiated the innovative ekphrasis series with titles like Pissing Figures 1280 – 2014 by Jean-Claude Lebensztejn and Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter by Paul Gaugin, discussed below. It is about art and writing, literature and ideas. In these fraught times, there is something to be said for the lucid, considered conscience of a mega-gallery choosing to wander through the margins of eccentric art book publishing. (This interview is an expanded version of the April 4, 2018 print issue.)
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (Rail): The occasion that prompted me to speak with you is the 25th anniversary of David Zwirner.
Lucas Zwirner: Well, the thing about the 25th anniversary is, it’s really David’s moment. I’ve been working at David Zwirner Books for only two and a half years, but I’ve been involved with the 25th anniversary book we are putting together and I’m amazed looking at this incredible history, which reaches back to 1993 with the gallery’s first exhibition, of Franz West sculptures, and stretches to the present with the opening of a brand new space in Hong Kong’s Central district. Because David is so artist-centric, he very rarely makes the story about himself, so it’s actually very nice to have a moment when the story can and needs to be about what he has accomplished.
Rail: What is in the 25th anniversary book? Who has written for it? The gallery represents so many artists.
Zwirner: We have been working with a team to digitize everything in the archive that hasn’t yet been converted—that means faxes David sent to Jason Rhoades, hand-written birthday letters from the gallery to Luc Tuymans, and so many other things. At first, David wanted the book to be more traditional—with installation images from shows throughout the years. The gallery has had over 390 exhibitions total, so it wouldn’t have all the shows, of course, but every artist would be in there. Then, actually, David saw a copy of the recent Laura Owens catalogue for her Whitney show, and it had all this amazing archival printed matter in it, so we started to scan everything—and of course there is some really incredible stuff there. Two great heroes of David’s, Rob Storr and Richard Shiff, among others, will be contributing texts.
Rail: The 25th anniversary show is rich and luxurious, and by that I mean in terms of the space allotted to the work. So often with gargantuan Chelsea spaces, small art gets lost, and I just loved that alcove room on the second floor of 19th street where one walks to the left off the stairs (after stopping at the Gordon Matta-Clark piece) and there’s only three small works in it.
Zwirner: The one with Lucas Arruda, Giorgio Morandi, and Franics Alÿs. Yes, it’s important to have those small spaces. There’s a lot of thought put into dividing up the space and making room for the smaller works. And Morandi is a case in point—it’s so powerful and so intimate. It blows me away whenever I see his work. We did a really beautiful book on his late paintings. The famous “yellow cloth” paintings are my favorite series, and Siri Hustvedt, among others, has written so well about them. I worked on our Morandi book with my colleague David Leiber, a partner at the gallery, and he invited all these artists to respond to Morandi—from John Baldessari to Zeng Fanzhi. The way artists respond to the intensity and intimacy of that work is amazing to see.
Rail: Intimacy is a better word than just saying “the smaller works,” since it is the way the intimacy of a work is underscored or brought out by where it is placed. It’s the same with the Matta-Clark, where it is right in your face as you reach the top of the stairs, so you are in the middle of transitioning from one floor to the next and then asked to stop and consider work that is all about making us aware of the constructed and deconstructed aspects of everyday architecture. So, back to you, you were two years old when this all started?
Zwirner: Exactly, I just turned twenty-seven, so I was two. I have vivid memories of when it was, as David puts it, a real mom-and-pop shop. When I was a kid we lived with this [he knocks on the table we are sitting at in his kitchen]—this Franz West table and chairs. I asked to have this in my apartment in Chinatown when I moved here. The chairs have had to be repaired over the years, but the table is in good shape; it just needs to be repainted white from time to time when it gets dirty. That’s how Franz wanted it. Raymond Pettibon also painted a massive wave on the wall in the dining room where we sat and had meals together. I remember being eleven or twelve and sitting transfixed next to him while he painted, I still remember the words: A world in which the poet’s politick will rule in a surfer’s world . . . Then underneath: . . . will create the perfect wave. Of course he’s joking with the idea of politick as in realpolitik. Anyway, artists would sleep in the living room. They would sleep on mattresses on the floor. It was all very makeshift and open-ended. Super fun for a child.
Rail: It is so different now.
Zwirner: Yes, it’s different, but in a way a lot of it has remained the same. My parents have a guest apartment in their house and a lot of artists prefer to stay there rather than in hotels when they come in for shows. There still is this feeling of closeness; of being close to a center of gravity or a family center. The trappings may have changed, but the core values feel very consistent. It’s still about artists first and foremost.
Rail: Which is amazing since one often hears how alienated artists can feel. There was a period when I was doing a lot of work with Matthew Barney so I was connected to the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, and I remember having coffee with Vito Acconci and him asking—“Could you get me a show?” And I was like, “Vito—what are you talking about?” And obviously, things changed, but this would have been in the late 90s and he felt that she wasn’t really communicating with him anymore.
Zwirner: Interesting—well another thing that speaks to that and which David should be equally proud of after 25 years is how incredible everyone at the gallery is.
Rail: He said you have a staff of 130 – 60 now?
Zwirner: 170, I believe, including Hong Kong, and everyone at the gallery is amazing—from research to sales, to books to marketing and photography. About twenty people have been here for over a decade, but there is a core group of senior people, the partners and longtime directors. They are so talented. I’ve learned more from working with them than from anything else. The senior partners alone make up over one hundred years of shared time at the gallery, and they’ve developed very close relationships with the artists. If you’ve been working at the gallery for twenety-three years, you have a lot of experience—you can be an amazing mentor for a young artist and a steady hand for a more experienced one. You know how to nurture and build careers, which is something David does so well.
Rail: Is this what you have learned from observing your father work? Because it took you a few years to come to art—right? Your background is . . .
Zwirner: Literature and philosophy. I did a double major at Yale, comparative literature—French and German—and philosophy. I started off doing a special program at Yale called Directed Studies, which was offered to a specific group of freshman. Sort of a humanities immersion course. Going in I thought I wanted to be a professor of philosophy. But I soon got over that because the philosophy department was so narrow in its focus. There were some great teachers, but in the higher-level classes the approach was very fixed. The faculty in literature was much more open. I ended up mostly studying with the German professors because I loved Kleist, Goethe, Fichte, the Schlegel brothers, Elias Canetti, Hermann Broch, and many others, but I was also able to do independent studies in French and classics—from Rimbaud to Lucretius, or the other way around really. But in philosophy you had to ask questions and formulate answers in such a regimented way that I lost track of why I was interested in these problems in the first place.
Rail: The philosophy department was analytic?
Zwirner: Yes, in America, and England for that matter, you pretty much have to study analytic philosophy at a certain point. Really analytic philosophy begins as an extension of the philosophy of language and draws heavily on logic, set theory, and other abstract mathematical fields like Category Theory, which was developed largely by a guy named Steve Awodey who at the time was at the Institute for Advanced Study. The idea behind this sort of philosophy is always to try to model language, to model certain kinds of statements in a logical language and find out the conditions under which they are true or false. So in a sense, you begin by reading Plato and Aristotle and trying to understand the meaning of life—trying to become wise—and by the end you’re in a lecture hall arguing over modals and quantifiers and the logic of possible worlds. Bummer.
Rail: So, you have that kind of a brain? [Laughs]
Zwirner: You know the truth is—I mean I was competent, I did well in those classes. But I didn’t stand out. It was not my real forte. I started in philosophy and realized my real strength lay in literature, so I added that as a major half way through. I ended up doing French and German literature, got involved in English literature through Harold Bloom, with whom I was lucky enough to study in the last two years. He and I became quite close, I would sometimes go to visit him on weekends and listen to Wallace Stevens reciting poems from Ideas of Order, stuff like that. He introduced me to Stevens and Crane. But I also got interested in classics. In the end I just finished off the philosophy degree because I was already too far in, but as things became more mathematically abstract I became both less interested and less capable.
Rail: Yeesh, I can think of nothing more antithetical to what we civilians think of as philosophy. I come from the Avital Ronell version of philosophy, literature, and poetics. It sounds like Yale kind of overreacted to its past when Paul de Man, Derrida, Peter Brooks were there.
Zwirner: Yes, but I got to do all sorts of amazing stuff there, too, and I ended up finding a wonderful philosopher and theorist named Karsten Harries who had me reading everything from early Heidegger, to Hölderlin, Nicholas of Cusa, Diderot, the less-studied bits of Descartes, Stanley Cavell, Quine, really interesting stuff across the board. I wrote my thesis with him on Kant’s Third Critique, The Critique of the Power of Judgment. So I ended up going down a path with a more aesthetic bent. There was a guy at the time named Paul Guyer who had taken a really analytic approach to the Third Critique, parts of which I hated. I’m sure he’s still teaching now—I mean it was only five years ago. He’s at Brown I believe. Anyway, he’s very smart but I didn’t agree with his approach. So I wrote a thesis in philosophy where I tried to revisit how the Critique of the Power of Judgment was being read, and tie it back to Kant’s ethics, make a case of the parts of that book that are usually overlooked. In the process, I got into Greenberg, whose Bennington lectures on Kant are amazing. Also Benedetto Croce, Robert Vischer, Theodor Lipps, lots of aesthetic theorists who were overlooked. And then in literature I ended up writing a thesis about Elias Canetti, who remains one of the most important writers for me. He wrote Crowds and Power (1960) and a novel, Auto-da-Fé (1935), among many other things.
Rail: Why or how did Canetti become so important to you?
Zwirner: During my freshman year, I read a piece by Canetti in a German Studies class. I had the benefit of learning German at home, so when I got to college I was able to go right into graduate classes in German. I had by that point done some translating, so I took a class with a guy named Rüdiger Campe who’d come from Hopkins and was a friend of Michael Fried and also knew Derrida. He taught a class called “Advocates and Representatives.” It was an extremely important and interesting class for me where we talked about the triadic structure of a lawyer representing a client to a judge and what that tripartite relationship looks like in the abstract. It turns out it exists everywhere. If you have an actor, the actor is acting out a text for the audience—advocating for the text or author, to an audience. So we were looking at that structure again and again as it appeared in different places—political, creative, etc. At some point in that course, we read a paper by Canetti called “The Poet’s Profession” in which Canetti talks about the role of poets as advocates for poetry to the larger world. Canetti says poets have two responsibilities: to preserve the great history of poetry and to become masters of metamorphosis, which, to him, means the act of becoming other people, of radical empathy. I thought that was amazing. Radical empathy, or transformation, as a key to aesthetics. I ended up translating a portion of that essay during my freshman year as part of my final paper for that class and then in my senior year I decided to come back to it and translated it in its entirety. It had been translated before but very poorly. I actually just found out FSG is going to use my translation in its new edition of Canetti’s works.
Rail: I’d like to read that. How should we think of Canetti today?
Zwirner: Well Canetti understood the power of myths. He understood uncannily well how power, even in contemporary society, needs a mythical under-pinning. He understood how myths were constructed and used to manipulate people. In Crowds and Power he talks at length about masks in ancient societies and how they allowed a ruler to distance himself from his subjects while remaining physically present. And with the mythical dimension can come massive abuses of power—as in the case of the Nazis, which Canetti examined very carefully. But he also understood the intensely positive effects of myth—the fact that a society’s entire conception of self, of language, of history is organized around self-mythologizing, the stories we tell ourselves. In “The Profession of the Poet” the poet’s final responsibility—after advocating for the great history of poetry and preserving the power of metamorphosis, which is the power to inhabit other people imaginatively—the poet’s final responsibility is for language itself. The poet needs to take language seriously, needs to make sure language actually works. That words aren’t just empty blather but actually carry weight, are tied to the world and to us, and allow us to communicate with each other. In a way the poet needs to correct for all kinds of propaganda, which wants to use language to sell products or promote ideologies. Anyway, that idea of taking responsibility for language, of preserving radical empathy, and of taking care of the history of thought, making sure things aren’t overlooked—that was very important to me. That moved me deeply.
Rail: It sounds like it was very influential in your conceptualization of the ekphrasis book series. Let’s turn to that.
Zwirner: Yes, I would never have been able to do this particular series without my particular academic background. It’s about finding things that have been overlooked and bringing them back into focus. The idea was to put together a philosophically oriented series that touches on visual art and is packaged in such a way that it is attractive and interesting. [He picks up Pissing Figures 1280 – 2014 by Jean-Claude Lebensztejn.] Thats a book by a great but under-recognized French academic, at least under-recognized in America. It’s about exactly what it says. He wrote the first real history of the pissing figure in art. [He hands me another.]
Rail: Ah, Chardin and Rembrandt by Marcel Proust.
Zwirner: Yes, that’s a very early essay which Proust wrote when he was twenty-four. It’s one of the first major pieces that he ever wrote.
Rail: I mean you really are a scholar. [He hands me another: Summoning Pearl Harbor by Alexander Nemerov.]
Zwirner: He’s at Stanford now, but he was at Yale when I was there, though we only got to know each other after I graduated. He wrote a brilliant essay on Eggleston and I invited him to come up with a project for the series. He found this photo album of a former kamikaze pilot who was never deployed and wrote a sort of alternative history of Pearl Harbor full of his own reflections and personal experiences around reconstructing the past and engaging with history. Totally unique. Alex is one of the great art historians working today. Totally free in his approach, not encumbered by any academic bullshit. [He hands me Letters to a Young Painter by Rainer Maria Rilke.] These are actually letters Rilke wrote to Balthus. They have never been translated before and he wrote them to Balthus at the very end of his life. Balthus was ages fourteen to eighteen. They are mostly birthday letters. That was a major find. That’s our bestselling book from the series, that and Pissing Figures.
Rail: And then Paul Gaugin . . .
Zwirner: Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter. It’s the last essay Gaugin ever wrote. It’s a crazy rambling screed, insane but powerful. Translated by this great French scholar, Donatien Grau, who is a close friend of mine. He is now working as a curator at the Musée D’Orsay, coming up with really inventive projects that allow contemporary artists to engage with the collection. And then we have Degas and His Model by Alice Michel which has caused a bit of a stir in England. Julian Barnes wrote about it recently as part of an overall Degas review timed to the National Gallery show, and he basically said that the narrator was not to be taken seriously. The translator Jeff Nagy, who is a very gifted scholar and translator based in Berkeley, wrote an open letter to The London Review of Books, which they published in February.
Rail: What is the controversy?
Zwirner: So Degas and his Model was published in Mercure de France in 1919 in two installments six months apart. Alice Michel, the supposed author, is a pseudonym—no one knows who she (or he) was. Of course, people thought it was one of Degas’s models, writing an exposé of what it was like to work for him. He certainly was a difficult person, maybe at times an unforgivable person: an anti-Semite, for one. Physically imposing and psychologically abusive. A great artist but a tough and brutal man. At the time this was written it was taken as a record of fact. Our translator Jeff Nagy wrote this groundbreaking, investigative introduction, and he argues it was most likely an account, not written by a real model but by someone who knew what it was like to be with Degas and knew some of his models. But either way, as a piece of fact or fiction, it’s a fascinating coming-of-age document and it is close enough to the moment that we have to take it somewhat seriously. Degas died exactly 100 years ago in 1918, so this came out a year later. Anyway, Barnes is saying that we should ignore what was said about Degas and instead just look at his work. He thinks the work reveals that Degas cared deeply about women, since according to Barnes, Degas is primarily interested in female interiority. Sort of a hard claim to make, even just judging from the art.
Rail: Oh my. At this moment, he is making such an argument?
Zwirner: Yeah—it’s kind of a classic old guard argument. I get it. He doesn’t want us to think about any of the unseemly stuff said about Degas. He wants us to consider him only as a great artist. But as the brilliant painter Lisa Yuskavage said to me the other day—she’s one of the most widely read people I know—anyway she said something like: “Can’t we just agree that artists are both gifts and devils?” I think that’s probably the best way I’ve heard it put.
Rail: Well it’s not like Degas hasn’t been given his due.
Zwirner: Yes, and we should take him extremely seriously as an artist, but that doesn’t mean we need to ignore this story by people who clearly had some experience of what it was like to be around him, to work for him, even if it isn’t actually by an ex-model of his. In his open letter to Barnes, Nagy wrote: The pictures ‘speak’, but Barnes seems to think that women like Pauline, Degas’s model, can only gossip and chatter. Could he not at least lend them an ear, in the interests of what he calls ‘expanding and continuing the argument’? I think that’s exactly right. All of it needs to enter the conversation, in all sorts of different ways.
Zwirner: But separating those things is difficult.
Rail: It’s just so ironic at this #MeToo moment to be making that argument. I recently saw Emma Sulkowicz give a talk—the woman who carried a mattress around Columbia for nine months during her senior year to protest how Columbia dealt with her sexual assault by a friend—and it was interesting; she’s so young and clearly has been catapulted into a fame which at this point surpasses her maturity and complexity as an artist or activist. Anyway, she made a very silly and problematic work out of anger that museum directors weren’t deaccessioning all their Chuck Close’s. It’s sort of the extreme opposite of Barnes but the same oversimplification.
Zwirner: Yes. Last thought on this: to say that because Degas is good at painting and sculpting women in isolation and in solitude—their interiority, as Barnes puts it—to say that because of those things, he must have had great respect for women is just silly. He could have been a totally unrepentant misogynist—in fact, he most likely was from what we know—and still made great paintings of women, paintings that celebrate interiority. Unfortunately, things are just not that simple.
Rail: So how do you discover the works you publish? How did you discover this about Degas?
Zwirner: How did I discover it? Like with all these books I think the truth of the matter is, I just sort of bumble along. I read widely, I see what sticks out, then I start to pursue something. The Degas came through the art critic Barry Schwabsky, I think. He told me about it. I’ve learned that as an editor the biggest and best part of my job is to listen to people’s great ideas. Academics, writers, artists come to me with amazing projects and often I end up doing those. In a way I am just the person facilitating these ideas. That’s what happened with the Brooklyn Rail interview book. [Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews fromThe Brooklyn Rail (2017), edited by Jarrett Earnest and Lucas Zwirner.]
Rail: And you are publishing Jarrett Earnest’s next collection of interviews with art critics and writers in the fall from The Brooklyn Rail “Close Encounters” series, which should be quite amazing because he has such a deep but maverick view of art and writing and people. Talking to you about art reminds me of talking to Jarrett. You share an understanding, or better, a view of art and writing that is learned and rigorous, is rooted in the historical, but of the overlooked or lesser-known history, the history that hasn’t been written yet.
Zwirner: Exactly—I love the untold histories of things. When Jarrett came to me with an interview project that would tell the story of art criticism through major figures that most people have never heard interviewed before, I thought it was genius. But Jarrett is also just a real intellectual partner for me. But another example about untold histories happened this past fall: I knew what the current six titles in the ekphrasis series were going to be but, I didn’t know what the next two would be, the two coming out now. I knew I wanted more female writers represented in the series, which was hard in this case because I was looking at a period that was dominated by male voices—aesthetics of the 19th and early 20th century—but I also knew I wasn’t looking hard enough. I was playing to my strengths, to what I already knew about aesthetic writing. And I probably wasn’t reaching out as broadly as I needed to. So I started talking to people and I said I would like to find not just a contemporary female writer—there are lots of them who will be in the series—but I wanted to find a historical voice that had been overlooked, one that we could reintroduce. And then one of my closest friends at Yale, a guy named Dylan Kenny, now studying classics, sent me this incredible writer. I mean I can’t believe I didn’t know her work. Her name was Vernon Lee, which was a pseudonym. Her real name was Violet Paget. She lived all over Europe, but spent most of her time in England, and she was a follower of Walter Pater’s, a contemporary of Ruskin’s. She was famous for her supernatural fiction—ghost stories and such. But she also wrote a very important essay in French called “Psychology of an Art Writer” which we translated. And then she wrote another important collection of writings over a period of years called “Gallery Diaries.” She was a lesbian and her girlfriend’s name was Clementina “Kit” Anstruther-Thomson. She and Kit would go to museums and galleries and she would watch Kit, who was very responsive to art, respond and engage with different artworks. Then she would describe the experience of her own responses and of Kit’s. A shockingly contemporary approach, totally devoid of the theory that dominated a lot of aesthetics then. Anyway, all that came from my friend Dylan. I started reading Lee and I thought “this is amazing, this is a story that needs to be told.” I went back to him and asked if he would write the introduction. The book has just come out and it’s gotten the most advance press of any title we’ve seen. By pushing myself beyond what I already knew, I ended up finding something totally fascinating and amazing—maybe my favorite book in the series so far. That’s a crucial thing for me—it’s easy to get trapped in my own experience, what I’ve read and what I know. I’m really trying to find things that shake me out of what I know, trying to be open to what comes along, no matter where it comes from. Look at the Anni Albers: Notebook 1970 – 1980. I saw the original by chance at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut and I knew right away we had to make a facsimile, we had to bring this to a larger audience. I had no plan to do it. I just saw it and it was so beautiful I had a feeling people would love it. And it’s been a very popular book for us.
[He picks up the thick Luc Tuymans catalogue raisonné.]
Here’s the most massive project we’ve done, in collaboration with Yale University Press—Luc Tuymans Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Volume One. So that’s been a major feat and we’re all very proud of it. The research department was working on this long before I joined the publishing house.
Rail: The detail of such a project. I once worked for the Louise Bourgeois studio while she was still alive and I kept thinking—wow, the catalogue raisonné of her work—what a project. Clearly, they started doing it long ago and it is ongoing, but can you imagine?
Zwirner: The difference here is usually a catalogue raisonné is done when the artist is dead. In this case, Luc had made so much important work that we had to start on it now, working with the artist. It added a level of intensity for me because I really wanted to do a good job for Luc. That meant more to me than anything else—making sure he was happy with this record of his truly groundbreaking career to date.
Rail: So, you’ll have to do a Volume Two?
Zwirner: Actually, as of now we have through Volume Three planned. 183 paintings in this volume and we need to cover nearly 600 paintings all told. Why I brought it up is we are co-publishing it with Yale, who will distribute it. All of our other books are distributed by D.A.P. and Thames & Hudson, but we picked Yale for this because they are such a great producer of catalogues raisonné and they have the relationships to sell a book like this and get it to the right museums and the institutions. That was really the brilliance of my colleague, Doro Globus, our managing director.
Rail: I love your job.
Zwirner: It can be very intense. Mainly because I feel—we all feel—a responsibility to the artists to do the best job possible, to be as committed to making an amazing book for them as they are to making their incredible work. I don’t know if we ever get there, but the intention makes it intense.
Rail: Indeed. But what I like, or maybe identify with, is the way you have created a job for yourself where you can use the skills of scholarship and academia but with complete freedom from the strictures of that narrow world you described at Yale and what I found so deadening (I have a PhD). I came to art through writing, not art history as a discipline or even the subject matter of art. I just love the way art piques my curiosity and then out comes the nerd engine, of wanting to learn more and know—like now I want to read all the ekphrasis books you’ve produced and go look at Crowds and Power again. I have great sympathy and respect for how you’ve carved out a way to use what so excited you at Yale, and created a platform that is eccentric, scholarly, and—here’s what’s interesting—is related to art but in a completely different way than your father or grandfather. I mean, there’s no other gallery that has such a robust book series.
Zwirner: No, not the way we are doing it. To give you a sense of numbers I think David Zwirner books started four years ago, a year before I joined. And I think we have published in that time around seventy books. Since 1995 the gallery has published 130 books or so all together, so we’ve done a huge number of books in the last couple of years—more than half of the total number. That comes from the series and the books that fall outside of the program, but it’s also from our increased focus on artist monographs. It’s important to remember that the bulk of what we do and what we try to do at the highest possible level, is our artist catalogues. Like the Ruth Asawa catalogue that just came out, which is the most comprehensive book on her work. Period. We are trying to do more books like that, not just exhibition catalogues but true monographs with chronologies, extended plates sections, multiple essays, and so on. [He hands me Concrete Cuba: Cuban Geometric Abstraction from the 1950s, text by Abigail McEwen (2016).] This is a show of Cuban artists, but instead of making a straight exhibition catalogue, we actually produced the definitive book on this period. And this is what we’re doing for Ruth Asawa. That means raising the bar, envisioning oneself as a force for cultural good that needs to preserve and protect a history, a narrative, and contribute something meaningful.
Rail: Exactly. With the ekphrasis series you are actively discovering and renewing interest in people and ideas that are obscure, may have been overlooked, even controversial. This is not the usual role of a commercial gallery. But you get it, the field of contemporary art is a broad and deep and varied field of historical, intellectual, and cultural forces, not just—and here is the irony in speaking with you—market, or even art historical forces. Who is the staff for this kind of work?
Zwirner: Our staff in the books department is so strong. Doro, whom I mentioned earlier, is based in London and works with all our distributors and accounts, and finalizes all our contracts with writers and designers. She ran a publishing house called Ridinghouse for many years in the UK and is super experienced in this world. A total pro, and super beloved in the industry in London. Our production manager is a color genius—literally. A savant. In New York, we have a super talented editorial team that works on all aspects of what we do. And we often rely on our very experienced research team, since they are the true experts on our artists. In the case of Concrete Cuba, there’s really only one woman familiar with this specific period and her name is Abigail McEwen. She’s at the University of Maryland and she wrote the essay and also oversaw this chronology, which was very important to her and to all of us. I mean this is a book a museum would produce. It’s a complete approach to this period in a country’s visual development.
Rail: And you want to do more like this?
Zwirner: Yes. Absolutely.
Rail: This is what I find so exciting and why I wanted to speak with you. You are preserving and creating things that are not usually as valued by the commercial art world. I don’t want to sound naïve here—of course all of what you do adds to the value of David Zwirner and the works of your father’s gallery, but that is not the point, or it is but for you art is about the ideas and cultural resonances, not just the market value. That’s huge as far as I’m concerned for a gallery to be behind this. I mean, clearly you are interested in what David Ross calls art as a conversation. And in producing enduring physical books that aren’t just a prop to an exhibition. As a writer, I’ve long been frustrated by how galleries, and even museums, see the catalogue as an after-thought, a supplement, rather than an important, indeed essential, feature of the exhibition as a total historical work.
Zwirner: The books are what stay and they can really move the needle for an artist. They are a sign of how seriously the work is being taken. It’s so important to do them well. Artists also just like books. I’ve never met a visual artist who was not enthusiastic about books—whether art books, poetry, politics, etc. Books are this amazing place where intellectual pursuits intersect with aesthetic choices, design, color, production. They are totally unique in that way—they are physical things, carefully designed and produced to be beautiful, but they carry all this other information that extends well beyond their presence as objects.
Rail: In a sense, we circle back to your father and the legacy of being so artist-centric. Here you are doing the same mentoring and nurturing of the artist’s work but you take it out of the gallery and into the book. How beautiful. Art for you is about the total work of art, which includes the writing about it, the community of dialogue.
Zwirner: Exactly, it’s about creating that community around dialogue, starting and maintaining a global conversation about the work. Exhibitions are the most important thing in terms of getting a conversation started—people need to see the work. But in order to deepen things, to really get people invested and engaged in what a brilliant artist is doing, you need great books.
Rail: But you’re a writer too?
Rail: You wrote a novel?
Zwirner: Yeah, I wrote a novel—the first I wrote actually when I was a sophomore at Yale. It was kind of all over the place.
Rail: You just wrote it in your spare time? [Laughs]
Zwirner: The summer after my sophomore year, I worked for two months and then I had one month free and in that one month I basically hunkered down and wrote this thing. It was total chaos and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted so I was also happy to let it go. And then after I graduated I wrote another book which was better but still flawed in many ways. More recently, 6 months ago, I revisited something I had written when I was in LA and expanded it into a sort of novella and that’s done. It’s funny I felt so powerfully about writing and finishing it and I feel strongly about parts of it, but it doesn’t feel that important to me to publish. I don’t know what that means, I just know if I felt really passionate about publishing it I would pursue that more aggressively and I don’t find myself doing that. It’s a pretty strange story.
Rail: What is it?
Zwirner: It’s about an academic. It’s called The Last Lazlo. He’s a disgruntled academic who finds himself in the Getty Research Institute.
Rail: How odd.
Zwirner: When I was in LA I spent a lot of time there. He’s an older man who ends up getting lost in the Getty and is then abducted by this Los Angeles rapper who takes him on a crazy adventure. In the end something very unexpected happens to him. The rapper is named Nipsey Hussle, who in fact is a rapper in real life. I put him in the book and made up the encounters with him.
Rail: And where did the ideas come from? From the character?
Zwirner: Yes, I think if you come up with a really good character it unfolds from there. I mean Laszlo became this larger than life figure for me. He’s a bit insane. He sees things in his kind of arch scholarly way and of course the world isn’t like that. So, he stumbles into situations where he encounters one thing happening and he thinks it’s something totally different.
Rail: He’s a scholar of what? Art history I presume but what exactly?
Zwirner: Actually of medieval inks and recipes. I don’t think that exists as a discipline but I liked the idea. It made for good humor. Like he thinks he’s having a conversation about medieval grains with some wizened specialist and really he’s having a conversation with a drug dealer about different strains of pot. There’s a total miscommunication. I had a lot of fun doing it and I like that tension between the real world and the totally imagined world, the moments when they come up against and interfere with each other.
Rail: In your self-presentation you don’t say you are a writer.
Zwirner: When I was in college labels were really important to me, like saying I’m a writer and wanting to write a book.
Rail: Well there’s nothing like college to get one labeling oneself.
Zwirner: I also think the more you actually do stuff—edit, write, engage with the world—the less important the labels become. So in a way, if there are ten people I really care about reading and giving me their thoughts on my book, then that’s extremely rewarding. And the truth is I don’t know if sitting around writing books is really what makes me happy. I like the fact that this publishing house is embedded in a larger organization where a lot is happening globally because I get so many ideas from other people. And there’s so much contact with talented artists, writers, and thinkers. I also think the literary world is in a very strange place—very closed off. I think the art world, on the other hand, is in a very exciting place. You can criticize it. You can say its commercial. You can say all these things, but at the end of the day it feels like smart, ambitious, and really creative people are at work in the art world.
Rail: There are so many people who are writing things under the radar or who have written things under the radar and somebody like you is willing to bring that out. I agree—it’s odd, but I’d say there’s really an eccentricity of voice that’s still possible. Again, nurtured and brought out by people like you and Jarrett who are driven by curiosity and reading everything rather than by party lines. But the fact that you use the great weight of this huge commercial enterprise that your father built to do this work that’s almost a community, it’s a . . .
Zwirner: . . . cultural service. I explicitly thought of it that way when I started and now, as we do more projects and sell more books, I feel that even more strongly. It’s a service that, if done well, can become a real cultural force.
Rail: It seems from the little I know you that you really want to help people.
Zwirner: I want to facilitate talented people being seen and heard. I want to facilitate good ideas. I want the most creative people to find space to explore what they’re working on.
Rail: And here’s the gift of success, of privilege, of the commercial market. Money allows you the freedom to take risks others can’t.
Zwirner: Yes, it does. That said, I also want to make it a good business. Selling books is a tough business but the leap from year to year already in terms of how many books we sell is super exciting. And I think we have some really smart ideas about distribution going forward. Not mine, but our marketing team and other people who have thoughts about how to position these books and get them into the hands of people who are visually minded but open to discovering other kinds of content. And the truth of the matter is, I don’t mean this in a bad way, but the role of books and reading has changed. Most people don’t sit down and read whole books, even older people that I know. I certainly don’t read as much as I did in college. We are in an increasingly visual world and the question is: what role do books occupy? How do you make them compelling as objects while maintaining the high level of writing and research? Because it’s a combination of bad design and bad writing that makes any book bad, but especially makes an art book bad.
Rail: Tell me about it!
Zwirner: And for literary writers there is so much potential to do things in the art world.
Rail: Certainly my favorite writers are often people who come out of fields other than art only because they come with a strong voice and a perspective that has not been diluted by art world truisms. But perhaps that’s because I came out of elsewhere.
Zwirner: Even in the past two years I’ve seen a change. More of the writing I encounter is about clarity and intimacy and bringing the reader into the artwork in question. I almost always encourage writers to use the first person. It’s a matter of knowing how much to do it and when to scale back. But certainly, the writing that gets submitted now is more often written with an “I” than when I started here. I’m thinking of celebrated writers like Hilton Als, who has a masterful voice that moves in and out of his personal reflections and in and out of the characters he’s describing. People are really moved by that kind of writing. I think he has had a big influence on how people are approaching art writing now.
Rail: Okay, so, looking ahead . . .
Zwirner: Where will it all go? Here’s what I think—I mean obviously I can’t see the future, but I can tell you we are in the process of expanding in many different directions. More books of course, but David also decided he wants to launch a series of podcasts. Podcasts are sort of a natural extension of publishing, but like our exhibitions, they are totally free for the public! No one has to pay to listen to them, just like no one has to pay to walk into one of our galleries. The wonderful thing about books is they can expand the audience for an artist. We can send them out into the world and hope people buy and engage with them. The podcasts have the potential to make that even broader because they are free. A podcast can literally go to millions of people, and can tap into a new, younger audience, one that is excited to learn more about the artists we are lucky enough to work with. Our shows are a vehicle for that; books are a vehicle for that; our new website is a vehicle for that; and now podcasts will be a vehicle. I think publishing in all forms will continue to be super important to the artists and their work, which means we will need to keep engaging the best writers and thinkers, coming up with creative ideas for all aspects of publishing.
Rail: There really is nothing out there like this.
Zwirner: There are plenty of galleries producing great books. But we are very serious about going beyond straightforward exhibition catalogues when we make books with our artists. Not just flashy books, but going beyond in the sense of content—really doing the research, really adding something to the conversation. And we are super committed to the potential of books that are not related to the gallery at all, like the ekphrasis series. Those books add incredible richness to everything we do.
Rail: You take ideas seriously. Again, it’s not just the exchange value of art for financial gain—while of course being in the belly of that beast—
Zwirner: I really feel like we are on the cusp of a moment when the audience for visual art could become comparable to the audiences for more mainstream creative industries—film, music, fashion. That doesn’t mean everyone will collect or buy art, but more and more people could become invested in the careers and exhibitions of artists worldwide. It just feels like more people are aware of what artists are doing, want to collaborate with them, want to be part of the conversation. Certainly everything would indicate that the art world is continuing on its global trajectory. That means the audience for art books should also be expanding. Hopefully it does. Because there really is a special magic to books.