When you walk up the driveway at David Kordansky’s new home in the hills above Los Angeles, the first thing you notice isn’t the house itself, but a groovy aluminum sculpture—a swirling piece by Evan Holloway, studded with incense sticks and positioned to track the celestial path of the moon. The second thing that catches your eye is a 10-foot metal post on the front lawn, topped by an electric yellow sign for a store called Waz Up! It’s an artwork by the L.A. artist Lauren Halsey that memorializes her childhood neighborhood in South Central. After you’ve made it past the front door and spent a bit of time checking out the early Jerry Garcia drawings, the original storyboards for raunchy vintage alt comics, the elegant Fred Eversley parabolic sculpture, and the showstopping Mary Weatherford abstract painting, you might finally remember that this place functions mainly as a residence for a young family of four. Mixed in among the dozens of extraordinary artworks are some actual bedrooms, a few closets, even a kitchen.
But anyone who knows Kordansky, one of L.A.’s top gallerists, won’t be surprised to learn that this reworked 1940s single-story ranch was essentially designed around art—especially California art. The main wall in the living room was built specifically to house the Weatherford painting, and Kordansky had his contractor make a life-size mock-up of the Halsey sculpture so that he could move it around countless times while searching for its perfect permanent spot. Still, the house is anything but a white-box exhibition space. Partly due to the influence of Kordansky’s wife, the artist Mindy Shapero, and partly due to his own wide-ranging obsessions, the rooms are judiciously sprinkled with wild colors and subversive surprises. Somehow the place manages to function as an ideal playground for both rambunctious preteens and serious art geeks.
“It’s very Dave and Mindy, the whole thing,” says the artist Rashid Johnson, one of Kordansky’s closest friends. (Three of Johnson’s paintings hang on the walls, and Kordansky’s finger is adorned with a gold ring from Johnson’s Anxious Men jewelry collection.) “Dave is kind of a Deadhead who’s become one of the pioneering art dealers of his generation, and that’s what the house looks like.”
Kordansky’s rise to prominence has largely mirrored L.A.’s own growing importance in the art world over the past two decades. When Kordansky first arrived in town as a graduate student, after growing up in suburban Connecticut as a skater-stoner-troublemaker, “It was this really interesting moment, when the Los Angeles landscape was kind of wide open,” he recalls. He’d chosen CalArts over East Coast schools because the L.A. scene had no rules and was home to artists like Holloway, who were expanding on the handwrought, object-making traditions of Paul McCarthy and Charles Ray. “I wanted to be with the surfers and the punk rockers and the garage tinkerers,” Kordansky says. His own work was mostly performance-based: At one point, he and a partner strapped themselves to an eight-foot inflatable ball, then rolled around. But after graduating in 2002, Kordansky stopped making art and started selling it, from a scrappy little gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown in 2003. The painter Lesley Vance, a fellow CalArts grad who was the first artist Kordansky signed, remembers that the dealer and his then partner, Ivan Golinko, were so hard up for cash while building the place that “I think they took full advantage of the self-checkout at Home Depot.”
Vance says that Kordansky’s formative years at CalArts left him with an ability to critique artworks and to passionately advocate for them, in a way that’s rare among dealers. As we stroll around the house, it’s clear that Kordansky could easily spend an hour discussing each piece, starting with a bevel-edged 1970 Sam Gilliam painting that hangs on a plywood wall in the entryway: It sparks a riff on everything from John Coltrane and Sun Ra to the physicality of Gilliam’s process, which involved folding the canvas in on itself before blowing aluminum dust onto it. (Gilliam, 87, joined Kordansky’s gallery nine years ago and is currently having a major late-career boom.) “This painting is everything I believe in,” says Kordansky, who’s wearing a denim shirt and a pair of bright pink Vans. In the study off the entryway, he’s almost as effusive about a midcentury sofa by Sergio Rodrigues, part of his collection of Brazilian modernist furniture. “It’s super sexual,” Kordansky says of the piece, whose cushions are attached to the frame by thick leather straps worthy of a BDSM harness. “It’s like this bondage-y, phallocentric log of leather, you know? It’s not a sofa; it’s a sculpture.”
As we head deeper into the house, it becomes easier to see the impact of Shapero, who describes her sensibility as more instinctual and edgy than her husband’s. When confronted with an unfamiliar artist or pattern or color, Kordansky often needs time to analyze and theorize, while Shapero instantly goes with her gut. “I think Dave would be happy if all the walls were white,” she says. “He wants the art to sing, right? I want the art to sing too, but along with everything else.” Shapero clearly won out in the TV room, which has pink walls, op-art upholstery, and many leopard-print pillows. “At first I was like, this doesn’t work—it’s chaos,” says Kordansky, who took charge of hanging the 30-plus artworks in the room. (Regarding the pillows, he adds, “I hate cats.”) “But the more I live with it, the more I love it.”
The same is true about the furniture by Brazilian designers including Joaquim Tenreiro and José Zanine Caldas. Kordansky sees the pieces as fortuitous “misunderstandings” of Danish and French modernism that turned out to be far more interesting than the objects they were imitating, thanks to their handcrafted imperfections. “They’re hyper organic and warm, but the forms themselves are really quite elegant.” Pointing to a Zanine chair in the living room, he says, “This is the woodworker’s version of Prouvé.”
Did Kordansky and Shapero work with a decorator? No. Did they even consider it? “No way,” Kordansky says. “I know it sounds kind of cocky, but we’re completely confident in our sensibility and our vision of the world.” They did recruit the L.A. architect Barbara Bestor to oversee the remodel, which involved substantial changes to the original layout (more wall space for the artworks, better light) and a radical overhaul of the color scheme (dark gray exterior, black concrete tile floors). The house’s most dramatic feature might be its backyard, which abuts the rough-hewn hills of Griffith Park; a steep patch of urban wilderness juts up behind the property like a snowless black diamond ski slope. “For some reason, it doesn’t scare us that we have, like, giant mountains that could tumble down on us at any moment,” Shapero says. Other features of this little pocket of Los Feliz include some choice only-in-L.A. neighbors (Paul Reubens, Sarah Silverman) and a Batcave (exteriors for the 1960s Batman series were shot just inside the park). At the edge of the lawn, there’s a fecund plot of vegetables, and a cluster of planters where Shapero has been raising butterflies. “We need to get some more caterpillars,” Kordansky says as we sit down at a Carlos Motta picnic table near the pool.
Whether he’s discussing the house or the garden or individual pieces of art or furniture, Kordansky has a thing for what he calls “the conflation of different sorts of energies.” Friends describe Kordansky himself as a similar jumble of contradictory qualities: an ambitious dealmaker who still hasn’t lost the deep curiosity and the punk-hippie openness that brought him to California in the first place. When I ask about his business strategy at a time when the gallery scene keeps getting more top-heavy, with international players like Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth leaving less and less room for midsize dealers, Kordansky makes it clear that he’s thinking bigger, not smaller. But even while discussing sales, he soon steers the conversation toward subjects like fatherhood and male vulnerability. Lately, he’s spent a lot of time pondering “the growing pains that come with being successful but still not wanting to sell out.” He notes that he and his 8-year-old son, Leo, share a birthday, and “there’s a lot of young David in him that’s making me nervous.” Intense and rebellious, Leo has waist-long hair, and recently used markers to tag his bedroom wall with the words leo the pro. Kordansky raises an eyebrow. “Dude, you’re 8.”
Although it’s standard for a dealer to describe his gallery as a big family, in Kordansky’s case, the claim is true in a literal sense: Several of his artists are married to each other, and their personal lives have been enmeshed with his and Shapero’s since the early 2000s, long before any of them became big names in the art world. In the dining room, along with abstract works by Shapero and Vance, there’s a painting by Jonas Wood, who joined the gallery in 2011. Wood once worked as Shapero’s assistant and is married to the artist Shio Kusaka, whose ceramic works Kordansky has on display in his home office. The two couples’ children have often played together, and Wood designed the rug in Shapero’s walk-in closet.
Kordansky recently has made a push to expand the gallery’s roster; he now represents 46 artists, and each of them has at least one artwork on display in the house. Shapero says the couple never really discussed how dominant the gallery’s artists should be in the overall mix: “I mean, sure, we want to live with artists that Dave represents, but if he didn’t already love the work, he wouldn’t represent them.” As for thematic through lines in the couple’s art collection, Kordansky singles out two key motifs: sex and death. “In some strange manner, they’re both omnipresent in everything you see here,” he says. “Maybe it’s within the substrata, but I’m titillated by those two spaces and realities.” Certainly, there are more skeletons and tumescent penises on the walls here than in your typical Los Feliz home. (Many of the latter are courtesy of Tom of Finland, whose estate Kordansky represents. Kordansky first discovered the artist through the comics world, and believes that he could render beard stubble with the skill of da Vinci.) Hanging opposite the conjugal bed is a Joel Mesler painting with the words in n out depicted in ecstatic spurts of ketchup and mustard. “It’s hilarious,” Kordansky says. “There are so many reads on it, and that’s why I love it so much.”
No matter how big his business becomes in the future, Kordansky stresses that it will always be an “artist-centric gallery—there’s no confusion there.” Rashid Johnson recalls that when the two first met, in 2008, while Kordansky was trying to persuade him to come onboard, he told Johnson that he was willing to jump in front of a bus for his artists. That hasn’t been necessary yet, but the two men do have a phone conversation every day at 1 p.m. PST. What do they talk about? Pretty much everything. Johnson describes himself as someone who “eats, drinks, and sleeps art,” and he says Kordansky is the same.
For Kordansky, the intricate process of creating a new home for his family has brought about a well-timed examination of his priorities. “When you really surround yourself with this stuff, it keeps you directly connected to the heart and soul of why it is you began this journey,” he says. Then he admits that he and Shapero are already thinking of buying a second house in the desert, or somewhere outside of L.A.
“We do need more wall space,” he says.