Just weeks after Christie’s postwar and contemporary chairman left the auction house to become a partner in a gallery, another member of the department has defected for that world. This week, Jonathan Laib, formerly a senior vice president and senior specialist at Christie’s, began work as a director at David Zwirner in New York, leaving after a 17-year tenure.
In a phone call, Laib explained that he will handle private sales while also working closely with a number of artists’ estates represented by the gallery. One estate that Laib will deal with personally will be the one the gallery most recently added to its roster: that of Ruth Asawa, the artist who, after graduating from Black Mountain College, went on to have a 60-year career before she died in 2013. While at Christie’s, Laib oversaw two selling exhibitions of the artist’s work, in 2013 and 2015.
Speaking on the phone from Zwirner’s West 20th Street gallery, Laib said, “At Christie’s, I brought Asawa’s family in, brought them into the fold, and Christie’s became the sole representative of the estate.”
But as he began to focus almost entirely on private sales, it made more sense to operate in a gallery landscape, he explained.
“I started as an auction specialist and I felt as though my role was changing, and I was becoming more of a private sales dealer,” he said. “I was taking the lead on putting together private selling exhibitions, and that experience lead me on a different path.”
The logical step, then, would be to transition, perhaps along with the Asawa estate, to a gallery.
“David Zwirner’s gallery specifically,” Laib explained. “Because I felt that the estate would benefit greatly and the rest of the gallery would benefit greatly from the estate. The estates that Zwirner represents, Donald Judd, Flavin, Sandback—these are artists who certainly are in line with what Asawa was doing in terms of her approach to minimalism.”
In a press release, the gallery called Laib “the authority on Asawa” with David Zwirner saying, “It is surprising that it has taken this long for Asawa’s work to be widely understood and appreciated.”
“I think her story, if properly told, should afford her a place amongst the great artists of the 20th century,” he added.
Asawa is known mostly for her large metal works—blooming spherical sculptures made with interwoven chains. Several of her massive public works can be seen in prominent spots in downtown San Francisco, where she was from. The city’s first public arts high school, which she was instrumental in establishing, was renamed for her in 2010.
The move comes just weeks after Brett Gorvy left his perch atop the postwar and contemporary department at Christie’s to join dealer Dominique Lévy in a new gallery, Lévy Gorvy (even if Laib had made the decision to leave prior to Gorvy’s exit). Days later, CEO Patricia Barbizet was replaced by Guillaume Cerutti, who was formerly president of Christie’s Europe, Middle East, Russia, and India operations. Earlier in the year, Christie’s lost postwar specialist Laura Lester, who became a director at Paul Kasmin Gallery. And a clutch of staffers left following the May sales in New York.
“Two thousand sixteen has been a big year of change in the auction world,” Laib said. “But my own personal desires were leading my decision to leave. It didn’t have much to do with the other movement across the board.”
Laib, who will be based in New York, began work on Tuesday. The first Ruth Asawa show at Zwirner is expected to appear in late 2017.