NY Art Commentary

Chelsea - The New Art Scene

by Hedy O'Beil

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NYC Street Canyon
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Chelsea continues to grow as the new art center in New York. With over two hundred galleries and more moving in all the time, Chelsea is superseding SoHo as the place for contemporary art.

This will come as a surprise to some, but for others, it was apparent that Chelsea's vacant streets were beginning to house art. Those loyal to SoHo, those who have roamed the streets of West Broadway, Wooster, Greene, Prince, and Spring, etc., since its inception in the late sixties, saw indications of change beginning in the mid-nineties.


The signs of change were there in the proliferation of expensive restaurants and the cavernous, pricey fashion shops and shoe stores. And when upscale houseware emporiums opened, selling fancy bed sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths, and dishes, it was clear - the SoHo scene was different. What had started as an artists' neighborhood had turned commercial.

Perhaps the greatest losses in SoHo were the excitement and energy, the formation of co-op galleries, and the sheer thrill of transforming old brown streets and cast iron buildings into an area for art - new, experimental art.

And then there was the popular restaurant - FOOD. It was not only a place to meet after seeing the shows, but FOOD had the best vegetable soup in town, served hot, in big bowls with thick slices of black bread. No butter, thank you.

With the move this Spring of the three sister galleries, Blue Mountain, Bowery, and Prince, from SoHo to Twenty-Fifth Street in Chelsea, a SoHo -- tradition ended: Friday night openings on the second floor . . . white wine, crackers, meeting old friends, talking about painting and good shows to see. Of course, the receptions will go on in their new location, but before, it was part of the SoHo scene, as was Leo Castelli's building at 420 West Broadway, Mary Boone across the street, and the latest femnist exhibition at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery on Greene Street. O.K. Harris, a SoHo landmark, continues to hang in there as Ivan Karp, the proprietor, walks the floor of his spacious gallery, including his recent venture, the cigar store, that somehow makes no sense next to the gallery - but, well, there it is anyway.


Soho Broadway
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What with the cost of real estate in SoHo going through the roof - after artists developed the abandoned, area thirty years ago - many galleries had little choice but to look elsewhere. Art dealers who owned their spaces sold them for big profits, and they too looked for a fresh, new life. In addition, the SoHo scene, particularly on weekends, had become a zoo, what with mom, dad, the children, and the tourists coming down to shop, to look at the street art, the sidewalk vendors selling beads, bangles, bags, hats and of course, they came to eat.

Chelsea began quietly, over six years ago or more, not much press, with small galleries beginning on Twenty-Second Street off Tenth Avenue. Other galleries followed, galleries with more money, which found larger spaces on Twenty-Fourth Street. It took a few years to develop, but when the building at 529 West 20th Street opened with every floor in the place filled with galleries, usually four on a floor, then the neighborhood really took off.


Soho Hot Dog
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The buildings in Chelsea were waiting for something to happen anyway, like a lost, abandoned soul waiting or a lover. Previously, printing companies, bookbinding companies and storage lofts filled their spaces, but as time went on, the buildings lost their value, prices were low, ceilings were high, spaces big - just ripe for an art scene to take hold.

An important boost to Chelsea was the recent arrival of Gagosian Gallery on Twenty-fourth Street, near Eleventh Avenue. Next to Gagosian's mammoth space is the new Mary Boone Gallery. Down the street is Metro Pictures and Barbara Gladstone Gallery. Recently, Metro Pictures showed Tony Oursler's latest video installation, while Gladstone Gallery had a video showing of the Iranian filmmaker, Shirin Neshat.

Only in the huge space of Gagosian Gallery could Damien Hurst exhibit large vitrines that held gallons of water with live fish, combined with a turn of the century gynecologist's examining table. Greeting you, in the center of the first gallery, was a gargantuan painted bronze male figure, the outer layer of skin peeled away to reveal the internal organs of the body.


For those "old-fashioned" people who still love painting - it is harder to find. Robert Miller Gallery on Twnety-Sixth Street exhibited Philip Pearlstein's latest paintings of the nude model combined with folk art objects. Pearlstein has definitely softened from his stark, angular figures to what one might say borders ever so slightly on the sensual.

Earlier in the season at Miller Gallery, Alice Neel's work was shown, as well as the very painterly, homoerotic pictures by Julio Galan.

Down in Chelsea, the buzz word is "edgy." Good art, bad art, art that makes us scratch our heads and wonder how it got on the wall - well, it's all there, like it or not. For sure, there will be more exhibitions presenting the union of technology and art, more political, environmental, gender based, scatological stuff, Cindy Sherman photographs - dress up and be someone else.

More recently, it's Eleventh Avenue where entrepreneurs are buying and leasing spaces. What? Eleventh Avenue? Yes, indeed. Witness Gary Snyder fine Art on the corner of Twenty-Ninth Street and Eleventh, opening the fall season with, "Abstract Expressionism - Expanding The Canon".

Wherever there is large space available, especially in economically depressed areas of the city, there will be artists and galleries. The people will follow, ever anxious to see what is new, what is audacious, shocking - what is happening in the ever-changing New York art world.

by Hedy O'Beil

Printed in The Artists Proof, N.Y. Artists Equity Association, Fall 2001, Vol. 18.

Hedy O'Beil is an artist, art critic, curator, and art lecturer. Her reviews have appeared in Arts Magazine, the West Side Beat, and Manhattan Arts.

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