“David Zwirner: 25 Years” at David Zwirner, New York, installation view, including Ruth Asawa hanging sculpture and Anni Albers textiles (all images courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong)

With five New York spaces, outposts in London and Hong Kong, 165 employees, more than a half-billion dollars in sales last year alone, and a Renzo Piano-designed flagship slated to open on 20th Street in 2020, it’s no wonder that David Zwirner Gallery is routinely, and sometimes derisively, called a mega-gallery, and Zwirner himself a mega-dealer and art czar bent on conquering the art world.

It’s my guess that many younger art enthusiasts know this gallery only as mega, with a roster full of art stars, some homegrown and others who, to put it politely, have migrated from previous galleries, but this wasn’t always the case.

Some of those stars were little-known in New York when they began showing in the gallery’s original location on Greene Street in Soho in 1993 and 1994. These include Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, videomaker Diana Thater, painter Toba Khedoori, Canadian polymath genius Stan Douglas, sculptor Jason Rhoades, and Austrian sculptor Franz West, who had the inaugural exhibition.

“Diana Thater: the sky is unfolding under you” (2001) at David Zwirner Gallery, 43 Greene Street, New York, installation view; photo: Fredrik Nilsen

All are still with the gallery; West and Rhoades are deceased, and the gallery represents their estates. West, who died in 2012, was with the gallery until 2000, when he moved to Gagosian. His estate has recently returned to Zwirner, which may well suggest a changing of the guard — the very top guard.

I remember what David Zwirner Gallery was like way back when, in the 90s, before Chelsea, before mega, at a time when the New York art world was much smaller and more manageable. Quite diminutive at first, before expanding into a bigger but hardly voluminous space, it was a destination, not for the scene or hype, but for the art.

Exhibitions were focused and eventful; they mattered. I was always interested, often enthralled, and rarely missed a show. That’s still the case in these mega days. I recall being mesmerized by Stan Douglas’s “Overture” (1986), in his 1995 exhibition, featuring a grainy, archival, black-and-white 16mm film of a locomotive (from the locomotive’s perspective) as it wends its way through steep slopes and tunnels in the Rocky Mountains, accompanied by a male voice reciting the opening of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-Plicit Art by Women (1993), curated by the late (and excellent) artist Ellen Cantor, was downright visionary. Appearing in Luc Tuymans’s first one-person US exhibition in 1994 was a modest (22 1/8 by 17 7/8 inches) painting of a beige lamp streaked with soft gray tones, set in front of a wall consisting of three vertical, alternately light and dark greenish bands (“Lamp,” 1994). For me, this mundane, yet oddly mysterious, domestic scene was riveting.

All of this is why David Zwirner: 25 Years, an anniversary exhibition spanning the gallery’s three 19th Street spaces and two floors of its building on 20th Street, is so compelling. Featuring works by gallery artists, now numbering a whopping 46 plus 12 estates, it is not a retrospective, celebrating past achievements. Many works are new, and some were made specifically for this exhibition; others are historical. They articulate not merely the gallery’s program, but its artist-centric mission; they also reveal how the gallery has evolved through the years.

“David Zwirner: 25 Years” at David Zwirner, New York, installation view, including sculpture by Isa Gengken

In one room are single works by several of the original, Soho-era artists, including Franz West’s “Pleonasme (Pleonasm)” (1999), a predominantly reddish-orange, mixed media (papier-mâché, plastic, plaster, glue, and paint) sculpture atop a wood-and-MDF pedestal made by the artist. This rocklike sculpture is lumpy and ungainly but also elegant and enticing, and like many of West’s sculptures it loosely hints at a figure, in this case a bust.

Nearby is a large oil painting by Toba Khedoori of leaves and branches; you feel enveloped by this gorgeous foliage (“Untitled,” 2017). Diana Thater’s nine-monitor video wall in a grid of different hues (including blue, green, yellow, and pink) shows an elephant and giraffes—which are severely threatened by poaching— visiting a watering hole in Kenya against a wooded landscape and speeded-up clouds (“Time Compressed,” 2017). Shot over the course of one day, and then manipulated by the artist, this video of majestic yet vulnerable animals is at once sublime and unnerving. Across the room is a colorful suspended sculpture by Jason Rhoades featuring neon words in Spanish, among them “Chimba,” “el Aguero,” “pucha,” and “El timbre,” along with a wild assortment of objects including fabric lamps, doll money boxes, a gun belt, and two rattles (“Chandelier 37,” 2006). It’s a succinct version of the teeming installations for which Rhoades is most known.

It is tough to imagine an idea-spouting, theoretically inclined curator situating such diverse works in the same show, but they fit together wonderfully, and confluences develop. The illuminated words and variety of colors in Rhoades’s piece correspond to the hues in Thater’s video and West’s sculpture; the foliage and sky in Khedoori’s painting respond to Thater’s watering hole landscape.

Doug Wheeler “Untitled” (2016), vacuum-formed acrylic and polycarbonate, electronic transformers, blue LED, and aluminum frame, 91 x 91 x 9 1/2 inches, © 2018 Doug Wheeler

In an adjacent room is one of the exhibition’s showstoppers, by acclaimed “Light and Space” artist Doug Wheeler: a blueish, room-filling light installation involving—and I’ll quote from the gallery’s checklist as I still don’t entirely understand it—“vacuum-formed acrylic and polycarbonate, electronic transformers, blue LED, and aluminum frame” (“Untitled,” 2016). It is engrossing and quietly cathartic. Put booties on, wait, and simply be: shut your mind down and become all eyes and feeling, and don’t take photographs, which are strictly prohibited according to the artist’s longstanding instructions.

Painting is exceptionally strong. Neo Rauch is now a household name in art circles, but he wasn’t in 2000 when he had his first exhibition at Zwirner, which was also his first solo show in the US. In Rauch’s “Der Türmer” (2017), a woman in a pink and blue dress, and with angel’s wings of the same colors, hovers next to a bizarre brown structure with spiky protrusions. Beneath and around her are three male musicians in olden clothes, one slumped in a chair; a silvery tower with a weird, bulbous top rises in the distance.

This village scene is at once realistic and wacky, and like many of Rauch’s masterly paintings it seems mobile in time, mixing references that span centuries. Nearby is Lisa Yuskavage’s lurid, red “Self Portrait” (2017). One of the artist’s signature female nudes, with a gigantic costume jewelry necklace, a green stocking and blue one, and a confident half-smile, stands in front of and partially obscures a nude man. What could easily be a scene at a garish bordello or a cheesy honeymoon suite in some suspicious hotel, is instead Old Masterish and exquisite, and the woman, looking straight out at viewers, is a calm and powerful force.

Marlene Dumas, “Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger” (2017), oil on canvas
, diptych, each: 23 3/4 x 19 7/8 inches, overall: 23 3/4 x 50 1/8 inches
, © Marlene Dumas, courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong

A searing Marlene Dumas diptych featuring portraits of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger (“Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger,” 2017) hangs in the next room. You see just the faces (and the intense, haunted eyes) of these extraordinary thinkers whose relationship (which involved a torrid, secret affair) was about as complex as things get: brilliant pupil (Arendt) and esteemed teacher (Heidegger), German Jew and Aryan German, strident Nazi opponent and Nazi Party member.

Dumas, Rauch, and Yuskavage are all much-lauded (and collected) figurative painters, and there are several others in the exhibition of this ilk. With that in mind, it’s refreshing to discover a total anomaly: a single austere, white-on-black date painting by On Kawara (“JULY 21, 1966,” 1966), The checklist notes that, on this date, NASA’s Gemini 10 capsule, bearing the astronauts John Young and Michael Collins, splashed down into the Atlantic, an event watched by “millions of TV viewers in the U.S.A.” Of course, many, indeed infinite, other things also happened throughout the world on this day, including the fact that Kawara started and completed his meticulously rendered painting. Also implicit is that this July day long ago was merely one among billions of days. With precision and care, and using only one word, two numbers, and two colors, On Kawara evokes a vast and unfathomable ocean of time that overwhelms not only a single day, but all our little moments on Earth.

Neo Rauch, “Der Türmer” (2017), oil on canvas, 118 ½ x 86 ¾ inches, © Neo Rauch, courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong

Minimalism and its precursors, offshoots, and successors were evident in the gallery’s early years, with the roster including John McCracken (who joined in 1997) and Raoul De Keyser (1999). In recent years, they have since become especially prominent, as the gallery has absorbed estates, including those of Dan Flavin, Fred Sandback, Ad Reinhardt, Josef Albers, Gordon Matta-Clark, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and the Judd Foundation.

A really excellent Donald Judd floor sculpture, made of red enamel paint on galvanized iron and with an open space in its center, shares one room with a diagonal yellow Dan Flavin neon, a Richard Serra sculpture made of lead plates balanced against one another, an atmospheric white-on-white painting by Blinky Palermo, a black-and-white abstract painting by Ad Reinhardt, On Kawara’s “July 21, 1966,” and a four-part Fred Sandback sculpture in which small horizontal and vertical planes are delineated not by yarn but instead by thin steel rods coated with purple enamel. This room is a condensed exploration of how protean and adventurous reductive aesthetics can be.

Most of the artists are very well-known, and the talent level is very high, including a horizontal row of Kerry James Marshall’s fantastic Rhythm Mastr comics, now appearing as inkjet prints on Plexiglas, featuring black protagonists and dealing with potent, racially charged themes, and a transfixing female mannequin sculpture with attitude and flair by Isa Genzken.

Jeff Koons’s “Bluebird Planter” (2010-2016), an outrageous, giant bluebird made of mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, and housing live flowering plants, faces Sigmar Polke’s marvelously inventive “Auto (Jeep)” (1992), with the black, cartoonish outline of a jeep painted on polyester treated with artificial resin. The polyester is transparent. You look at the jeep but also through and beyond it to visible stretcher bars, while your gaze is drawn to sections made of wood veneer. This painting accentuates its objecthood, revels in the fact that it’s a blatant artifice. It is also stunning.

“David Zwirner: 25 Years” at David Zwirner, New York, installation view, including works by Jeff Koons and Sigmar Polke

Two comparatively less-heralded female artists, both recent additions to the gallery, are also standouts. Anni Albers (1899-1994), a German Jew, immigrated — thankfully — to the US with her husband Josef Albers in 1933. Her woven fiber “Scroll” (1962), an abstract “painting” sans paint, with various tones in light and dark brown, glinting bits of gold, and upraised squiggles and patterns, is simply entrancing. It is installed next to Josef Albers’s oil-on-Masonite suite of differently colored squares (“Study for Homage to the Square: Distant,” 1964), making for a wife-and-husband pairing, but the real magic happens with the interplay between Anni Albers’s work and the bewitching hanging sculpture in iron and brass wire by Ruth Asawa (1926-2013). The title says it all with this work from 1951, which is so vastly different from what was being made during the same period by male luminaries: “Untitled (S. 535, Hanging Five Lobed Continuous Form within a Form and Two Interior Spheres and One Teardrop Form).” Made by using crochet techniques with hard metal, this sculpture is at once transparent and opaque, ethereal and heavily physical, and it is heart-achingly lovely. Both pieces by these two veterans of the experimental and influential Black Mountain College in North Carolina are sensitive, intricate, distinctive, and soulful.

While it’s easy to look askance at David Zwirner Gallery as a rampaging, behemoth hogging attention and garnering gobs of money, taking no prisoners and shoving smaller galleries aside, it’s also hard to overlook the number of memorable, meaningful and beautifully installed (as in stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful) shows that have been held there, including the 2017 exhibition of Asawa’s hanging sculptures, which brought this wonderful, way under-recognized artist — the daughter of Japanese immigrants, she and her family were internees in a despicable Arkansas internment camp during World War II — to the forefront and was one of the top shows in New York that whole year.

At the preview, Zwirner acknowledged that the gallery has come a long way from its early, scrappy days I understand that this once fledgling and precarious gallery (not a single sculpture by Franz West sold in the inaugural show) has become a very big business, but I also understand — and I may be nuts, but I don’t think so—that at its core is a profound respect for and belief in not just artworks, but artists, with their singular visions, and with all their quirky ways. This comes from Zwirner, but also from his longtime employees/colleagues, including Senior Partners Angela Choon, Hanna Schouwink, Bellatrix Hubert, and Kristine Bell, who have all been with the gallery for many years. A palpable devotion to artists and artworks just seems part of the gallery’s DNA.

David Zwirner: 25 Years continues at David Zwirner Gallery (519, 525 & 533 West 19th Street and 537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 17.

Gregory Volk is a New York-based art critic, freelance curator, and associate professor in the Department of Sculpture + Extended Media and the Department of Painting + Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth...