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Lucas Zwirner
Lucas ZwirnerPhotography by Jason Schmidt, Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery

Elise By Olsen: In Conversation with Lucas Zwirner

Elise By Olsen discusses the state of contemporary publishing with the head of content at David Zwirner gallery

Lead ImageLucas ZwirnerPhotography by Jason Schmidt, Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery

This week, 19-year-old Norwegian editor and publisher Elise By Olsen (Recens PaperWallet) is the guest editor of, presenting a series of articles exploring the current and future state of fashion and art publishing. Alongside conversations with publishers, critics and image-makers, this guest edit offers an intimate insight into her own publications and working practice.

Lucas Zwirner was born into the art world. He grew up with his father David Zwirner – the art dealer and owner of David Zwirner gallery – helping to grow the gallery into the international blue chip gallery that it is today. Lucas first became interested in publishing after studying philosophy and literature, where he focused primarily on questions of meaning and narrative. He translated a German children’s novel into English before becoming a seventh-grade English teacher at a school in Harlem, New York. That’s when he realised that he had an affinity for the “literary thing”, as he describes it, but also felt deeply connected to the business he’d been around his whole life. So, he brought these two passions together, helping his father launch his gallery’s publishing imprint David Zwirner Books in 2014.

It was important for Lucas to start off with something new, where a structure could be established and where his approach, taste and aesthetic could be implemented – not just expanding on his father’s legacy. Shortly after David Zwirner Books was launched he joined as an editor doing “line-editing, copy-editing and proofreading” and, within a year or two, launched the ‘ekphrasis’ series and started to get a clear vision for the publishing house. He then became editorial director of David Zwirner Books – a role he held for five years – and more recently was named head of content at David Zwirner gallery. Lucas is now focused on looking at all the initiatives that the gallery interfaces with the outside world. Responding to the demands of the world, whether technological or otherwise, while also maintaining the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic identity of the gallery. Whether it’s a website or in a viewing room, an e-book or podcast, he brings the same sensibility and intentionality as the gallery’s exhibitions.

I’m very intrigued by his work approach so sat down with him for an discussion about the state of contemporary publishing.

Elise By Olsen: Over the past few years, it’s become standard for big galleries to launch art book publishing operations. What makes David Zwirner Books different to other art book publishers?

Lucas Zwirner: We were definitely the first out the gate. If you look at what we’re publishing, we do about 50 per cent art gallery catalogues and monographs, which I think we do in a more comprehensive way than our competitors. These are not marketing pamphlets, these are historical overviews of an artist’s career on the line of museum catalogues; we want to be competing with them. We want it to be the best possible catalogue we can do and we’d rather make them as comprehensive as possible. We’ve done a lot of readers at this point too, which are text only and not strictly related to gallery artists. That’s what sets us apart; we’re really delving into the trade, working with active literary writers, and other sorts of writers, and seeing how we can be part of both conversations. 

EBO: What about the selection of artists or practitioners – how does David Zwirner Books relate to the selection of artists at David Zwirner gallery?

LZ: In some cases very directly. We’ll do catalogues about our artists, and our job is to figure out the most interesting writers to pair with our artists. On the other side, there’s lots of projects we do that are totally outside of what the artists are working on, and I think the artists really appreciate that. There’s an independent intellectual spirit in the publishing house. 

EBO: You produce catalogues, monographs, historical surveys, artist’s books and catalogues raisonnés. How many of publications do you do a year? 

LZ: Over 30 a year. There’s definitely a wide offering. 

EBO: In talking about contemporary publishing, we should mention the predicted ‘death’ of printed media. I think it’s a bit of a generational idea; a declaration of shock from our parents’ generation that grew up analogue and viewed digitalisation as an overpowering threat. We grew up online, which shapes our behaviour; our attention span has changed, and the digital realm has reified physical objects into sensible luxury objects. A lot of publishers are not getting this right and their circulations are dropping as a result. What are your thoughts on this predicted print death? Will there be a new influx on the newsstand?

LZ: I think there is obviously going to be a space for print publishing, and that space has to do with understanding what you do really well. For us, what we do really well is operate at that crossover of beauty and design – the quality is important and the content is also really important. Understanding your place, what you’re offering and how you’re offering it, and being focused on those things. Not trying to do everything, but one or two things really well. That’s the print side. On the online side, it’s clear there’s a real appetite for online publications and things that are being consumed online. The traditional print media companies have had trouble transitioning because they’re still tethered to the idea of the magazine. What place does the magazine as an object have? Unless you’re doing a highly produced object, that exists for some amount of time, probably printing it is a mistake. With the daily news, I’d rather just go onto a website to get that information, without leaving a trail of stuff around. 

EBO: Exactly, daily newspapers aren’t doing well because daily news is done better online – it’s faster. I also believe that digital and physical mediums are not competitors, but in sync; the real magic is in maximising the digital experience, while also maximising the physical experience. And digital publishing offers a range of options. You mentioned it, but what can an online platform do that print cannot?

LZ: If you want to reach a wide audience with quick information, one has to cultivate an online delivery mechanism of some kind. That seems totally clear to me. What can our website offer that the books can’t, what can the books offer which the website can’t, and in what ways do the two reinforce each other? That’s what I ultimately think it should be about. 

EBO: Are you experiencing a growing demand for print? 

LZ: Yes, in our particular segment of the industry. Obviously illustrated books and art books are growing because behind all of this there’s a return to the print object as a beautiful luxury object. If you’re making beautiful books that are really interesting, people are excited to have them and engage with them. 

EBO: As a young publisher, it seems that your vision is to bring a whole new audience to the gallery, through launching publishing ventures expanding beyond print – like the launch of your podcast, limited-edition prints, talks and so on. Other than that, how do you navigate your platform to a generation of digital natives that consume information entirely differently than before? 

LZ: The truth of the matter is, galleries don’t know how to communicate well with digital natives, and that’s a problem. The gallery of the future needs to know how to communicate with the future audience. It’s not a matter of radically changing what we do, but more of changing how we communicate. Events are important, but understanding what an interesting editorial platform looks like, what should be available to buy on that platform and how people want to interact. I think the future, with all the outward-facing things like books and podcasts – all of those things are very important for reaching new audiences and being in touch with people. 

EBO: You, for example, did a book called Re-reading Pettibon’s Twitter, which in a way feels like a way of communicating and interpreting of art history for a new generation in this new day and age…

LZ: Exactly. We had to delay the publication for a variety of reasons but I’m hoping that in the next year we can bring it out. Pettibon is an example of an artist who’s embracing a new medium and using it to communicate with his audience – and I wanted to turn it on its head and understand how that audience understands those communications. 

EBO: One thing we have in common, we both have done pocket-sized publications, you with the ‘ekphrasis’ paperback series, which I really like, and me with my current project Wallet. In my case, the 11x22 centimetre format was a conceptual spin-off on Wallet’s name and premise, but also in many ways an adaption of the accessibility of the iPhone. I wanted to test if the magazine could be a part of your essentials. It’s anti-coffee table publication in a way. Why did you decide on this small format? Despite their compact size, they are very readable. 

LZ: I wanted to distinguish this series from the larger format artists books that we offer. But I also wanted to emulate my favourite books published, the ‘Suhrkamp’ books published in Germany. I just love them, they’re so beautifully printed and a very similar size to ‘ekphrasis’. I wanted to bring something I loved to a new industry and into a new American context, where books like these are not typically done.

EBO: I like the idea that they’re solid literary works but you can read them on the subway. 

LZ: Yes and also they’re not too long. I wanted them to feel approachable. 

EBO: How do you see the art book’s function in today’s art world? What parts of the art market are depending on the publications, if any at all? And what’s your responsibility to the art world and the artists?

LZ: The main responsibilities are accuracy and attention to detail. At the end of the day, when people are doing research, they will ultimately take what appears in a catalogue as the fundamental truth. Of course there are great databases, but for now, having a great catalogue raisonné is crucial to the back-end stuff. Serious art collectors are of course very interested in the history of an object; when it came into existence, how it relates to previous objects, in what ways it’s innovative. Books contribute to that. And on the other hand, one has to remember that so many people cannot experience art in galleries because they’re not in a place where that’s possible, so making books is a great way to give them something that is closer to the physical experience of an artwork in a space – as opposed to a virtual experience which I always feel is a great way to get acquainted, but might not be a good way to get a sense of the texture or feel of something. Our books feel really immersive.

EBO: Lastly, what changes would you like to see in art publishing or publishing in general?

LZ: I’d like to see it become a little more savvy. It’s very important to cultivate great writing, but I feel there’s an obsession with marketing departments saying what they think will sell as opposed to editorial departments saying: “this is hugely important, how are we going to market this?” At the end of the day, anything can be marketed, so why not put your energies towards telling a great story around a fabulous, fascinating artist or object – as opposed to settling for something that is less interesting because the story is more obvious?