To succeed in New York these days, Wirth may need to draw equally on his optimism and his sang-froid. “It’s absolutely a buyer’s market right now,” he says. Still, since Wirth himself is a buyer as well as a seller, he has been actively purchasing for clients and for the family collection; he shelled out a record $4.1 million for a Kippenberger at Sotheby’s in May. On the sales front he is gratified to see the balance of power shift away from auction houses and back to galleries, as rampant speculation falls further out of favor. During the flush years, Wirth says, “I think the auction houses thought they had some real clients, but now they’ve realized they don’t. And galleries thought they’d lost their clients, but they hadn’t.”
When it opened in September, Hauser & Wirth’s New York location was jammed with used car tires for William Pope.L’s reinvention of Yard, a work Allan Kaprow inaugurated in 1961 when the Martha Jackson Gallery occupied the space. The six-story building later housed Zwirner & Wirth, the secondary market partnership Wirth operated with New York dealer David Zwirner. (That affiliation has ended, though Wirth and Zwirner will continue to collaborate.) The Upper East Side is an odd area for a contemporary gallery, and Wirth admits he did look at spaces downtown, but after the economy imploded, he, Ursula and Manuela decided to adapt the town house, which they already owned. “It’s the perfect space for us at this time,” he says.
Iwan and Manuela have an apartment on the building’s upper floors, where, every night during their New York sojourns, they offer the ultimate tribute to art by actually sleeping in a sculpture. Their bed is a typically ribald work by Rhoades, who gave it to them before he died, three years ago; it’s a plywood platform on overturned buckets, with lamps symbolizing female genitalia and Nineties porn magazines stashed in a cabinet.
Wirth, who was a close friend of Rhoades’s, insists the piece is not for sale. But who knows? If the right person wants it, for the right price, maybe he’ll see what he can do.