Serra Swings His Hammer (Again)
Yesterday, Charlotte Burns of The Art Newspaper reported that Richard Serra, the contemporary alchemist who has spent much of his career transforming lead and weathered steel into towering stacks of US dollars, has agreed to create a new large-scale sculpture for David Zwirner’s West 20th St space. It will be the renowned artist’s third solo project with the gallery since last spring.
Why is this news? Because Serra has been repped by Gagosian, whom Josh Niland of artnet rightly identifies in his reporting of the story as “Zwirner’s chief competitor," since 1991. During that stretch, Serra’s work has been included in 43 exhibitions organized under the Gagosian masthead: 17 group offerings and 26 solo affairs, with the two most recent one-man shows now running simultaneously in Larry's Brittania Street and Davies Street locations overseas.
Technically speaking, Serra isn’t violating any contract terms by jumping in Zwirner’s convertible like this. Gallery representation, even at the blue chip level, is non-exclusive by default. The willingness to share talent is one of the main reasons that so many elite sellers can co-exist in the marketplace.
Still, one of the pillars of the industry is the tacit understanding that artists and gallerists alike will divide territory along clear lines. Usually, those lines are drawn geographically. It’s common for a superstar artist to have a New York dealer, a Los Angeles dealer, a London dealer, a Berlin dealer, a Zurich dealer, etc.
The line of commerce doesn’t always proceed single file. Sometimes one gallery will be given multiple territories–say, New York and London together, or multiple metropolises in East Asia. But for the most part, the streams tend not to cross by design. James Turrell's list of reps provides a great example of this delineation in action.
Serra is mooning that convention. Though Gagosian maintains 14 permanent locations to Zwirner’s 3, the nodes of the Zwirner triangle land in two cities–New York and London–where Gagosian operates multiple spaces. That makes Serra’s dalliance with David an almost unmistakable "fuck you” to his primary dealer of the past 13 years.
Still, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the relationship. Serra is too valuable a brand in his own right for Gagosian to just jettison from the roster–and both men know it. In that sense, the Zwirner projects look like the business equivalent of a married man conspicuously flirting with a dashing stranger just to remind his other half not to take him for granted.
Interestingly, Burns notes in her story that “it had been assumed that [Gagosian] was the only gallery with the space and structural capacity to show [Serra]’s large Minimalist sculptures, which can weigh hundreds of tons." I may be squinting too hard between the lines, but that morsel certainly sounds like it could be the basis for Gagosian to have been leveraging a "Where else are you gonna go?” stance in response to some major behind-the-scenes ask on Serra’s part–to which Serra has now basically responded, “Zwirner. How you like them apples?”
Maybe the issue is some upcoming exhibition Serra wants to do at one of Gagosian’s spaces that will cost an even more exorbitant amount than usual. Maybe Serra has been pressing Gagosian to raise his prices, and Gagosian has resisted. Maybe this is all just payback on Serra’s part for something he disliked about the way his two current Gagosian shows came together.
The possibilities are as serpentine as Serra’s own Band. But having had plenty of firsthand experience with the in-house cold wars and mind games that can play out between blue chip sellers and artists, I wouldn’t be stymied if the Zwirner trifecta was all a tactic on Serra’s part to get Gagosian to cave or heel in some negotiation only they know about.
The key point is that, for Serra, there’s no downside to the strategy. Zwirner is now just as respected in the market as Gagosian, so even if this three-night stand does lead to the end of his longest-running gallery relationship, Serra can just throw a sarcastic peace sign behind him and vault overboard onto the deck of another equally well-appointed yacht–without leaving any money or prestige below deck.
If Gagosian blinks first, though, then Serra manages to reset the power dynamic in their relationship–while at the same time getting another mega-rich gallerist to fund, publicize, and sell out a trio of shows Serra probably wanted to do anyway. Zwirner will have no hard feelings because he’ll get to pocket those juicy Richard Serra profits three times over. And everything else goes back to the way it was. Serra can’t lose.
It’s rare for an artist to flex in public like this, partially because there are so few in the marketplace punching at Serra’s weight. But even that über-minority is normally content to stay in their respective corners when issues arise with their gallerists. I applaud Serra for not only recognizing his own power, but being willing to use it to his advantage in a harder-hitting way.
Too often in the industry, the gallerists and dealers run the show uncontested while the talent–their 50/50 partners–either pouts in private or shrugs their shoulders. It’s refreshing to see an artist who helped elevate his representation to the top of the field checkmate that representative at his own game. And it’s a strong, all-too-seldom-seen reminder that both an artist and the actual work he produces can still be integral to the art world order.