The previous country manager of my TB project in Cambodia was in New York last week and on Friday night he met Karen #1 and I here in SoHo for dinner. We had a lovely night but far too much alcohol was consumed which made waking Saturday morning less fun than usual. Planning a quiet day, Karen then announced that a walking tour of some SoHo art galleries was beginning in an hour and did I want to go? No, I don’t. Yes you do. No I don’t. It’s starting one block from here, it’ll be fabulous, you should go? No. If I go, will you go? No. Oh you’re so boring. Okay, let’s go!
Every second Saturday these tours are led by Rafael Risemberg, a PhD in arts education who was a college professor when he started the tours as a sideline. He has since transformed the tours into a thriving business and left his tenured college position to devote his time to the business of gallery tours. Most galleries in New York have a commercial purpose, meaning most exhibits are for sale. Usually exhibits last for about six weeks, showcasing an artist’s work briefly before moving onto a new artist. New York has over 600 galleries, more than any other city in the world. The turnover of art taking place in these galleries is infinite.
Risemberg visits a number of galleries in a specified area during the week, choosing the best few for his Saturday walking tour. He also offers private guided tours. Most of New York’s galleries are in the Chelsea neighbourhood and Risemberg says that this is where the most exciting walking tours tend to take place, which is also why he hosts a regular Chelsea walking tour whereas other neighbourhood tours such as in SoHo occur far less frequently.
Saturday’s tour was the first in SoHo for about six months. He began by talking us through a short history of the area. There are about 250 cast iron buildings in New York, most of which are found in SoHo which has become synonymous with this architectural style. Much of SoHo has been designated a historic district, in large part due to these iconic cast iron buildings. In the early 1960s SoHo was largely abandoned with many empty warehouses and industrial spaces. Artists were attracted to the neighbourhood because of the ideal studio spaces and low rents. Since that time SoHo has slowly gentrified and the accompanying rise in rents has seen the artist community migrate north about 20 blocks to Chelsea.
We started at The Earth Room, a permanent exhibit which is not for sale. Described as “an interior earth sculpture”, it is a 335sq metre apartment space filled with about a 1-foot depth of dark soil which has been there since 1980. Sprinklers from the ceiling release a mist of moisture onto the dirt regularly to keep it hydrated. A staff member is employed to look after the exhibit and keep the space open for public viewing five days a week. Anyone can go in off the street to view it at no cost. Karen wondered with me at how many Cambodian families could live here. I wondered myself at how many homeless New Yorkers could live here!
As we arrived, Karen was fooling around with the Up app on her iPhone, which wasn’t registering her most recent steps. She was quite distracted, looking down at her iPhone for at least the first half hour of the tour. We moved from the Earth Room down the street to our next of seven more galleries. Here we saw the most beautiful light installations made from a single light bulb shining onto strategically placed glass panels containing prisms and specific chemicals to make an array of angular colours. These installations start at around US$20,000.
A few blocks away at a gallery called Team we saw some very appealing comical style acrylic paintings on nettle cloth, which is a different type of canvas. The exhibit by German artist Andreas Schultze, called “Traffic Jam”, portrays cars in both a comical and nightmarish way. These paintings, regardless of size (they are all large), sell for US$35,000. It was in this gallery when Karen whispered into my ear “do you know why my Up wasn’t working?”. No? “Because I’m not wearing it, I left it in the bathroom!”. We tried unsuccessfully to stifle our laughter in the middle of this beautiful gallery!
Rafael then warned us that we were now going to “the most experimental gallery in SoHo”. A not-for-profit organisation, Recess Gallery receive applications from artists wishing to exhibit there. They have certain requirements for their art projects which includes short, evolving exhibits. Rather than hosting exhibition openings, they host a closing on the last day of the exhibition, to showcase the completed project. Saturday was the closing day of Chris Domenick’s exhibition which has been at Recess for the past six weeks. It was highly unusual and contentious as a modern, young and rather messy exhibit. Risemberg described the slices of dried orange embedded into slits cut through a plastic surface as the artist’s current masterpiece. We then watched as some apples and another unknown, tired-looking piece of fruit were cut and placed into a blender as the artist talked about “the reconceptualisation of fruit as a still life once blended into a smoothie” and the act of making a smoothie being “action art”. Despite Risemberg’s enthusiasm, I wondered “how is this a thing?”. Karen made eye contact with me, sidled towards me and whispered in my ear “it’s utter bullshit!”. More stifled hilarity as I distanced myself from her to control the laughter!
From there we walked to Catherine Ahnell gallery, where Serbian artist Miljan Suknovic had some abstract acrylic paintings which I enjoyed. The artists who display at this gallery, which is also the owner’s home, move in for the duration of their exhibition, staying in the loft above their art. Miljan who is also currently exhibiting at the World Trade Centre, is considered an emerging abstract artist and has showcased in a number of acclaimed galleries in America and Europe, spoke to our group. He explained one large piece he had painted directly onto the wall of the gallery since moving in, as “representative of me, as it is a combination of free and messy with straight and organised”. This large piece would cost US$100,000 to re-create in another space. The gallery owner plans to keep this on her wall, erecting a false wall in front of it to obscure it from sight whilst preserving it once the exhibition is over.
A few blocks up the street, British artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble have an exhibit at Suzanne Geiss Gallery, of their “handicap art”. Many of their paintings are dyptichs, one side a portrait of Sue drawn by Tim; the other side a portrait of Tim drawn by Sue, both done whilst blindfolded. Some other pieces were done using their feet. A clever concept, the drawings are quite deformed. Risemberg learned on arrival at the gallery that the couple who are still working together, are recently divorced, and he wondered if the contortions of their drawings were somehow symbolic of their relationship. These pieces sell for between US$25,000 to US$55,000. We liked them but they are unconventional and would not be to everyone’s taste.
A short walk from here we saw Pedro Cabrita Reis’ minimalist sculptures at Peter Freeman’s Gallery. Some of this was interesting but again, not being terribly abstract-minded, I found myself wondering “how is this a thing” at some of his ideas, as Karen gave me more of her “bullshit” expressions from afar. Having said that, this is the highest-earning artist of those we saw on the tour and he has exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale, a major art exhibition which, as the name suggests, takes place in Venice every two years.
We then walked a few blocks towards the Lower Eastside, where a huge walk-through sculpture reminiscent of something out of a Dr Zeuss book, was having it’s last day at the Storefront for Art and Architecture Gallery. Jana Winderen and Marc Fornes collaborated on this piece, Marc an architect who built the sculpture and Jana an artist who developed the sound art which played as we walked through the tunnel-cave structure. One website describes this as “an immersive sound and light object”. Again, it was very interesting and Risemberg described it as the most exciting piece of the day’s tour. Yet my “how is this a thing” ponderings were not completely vanished!
From the gallery tour, we found ourselves in a beautiful dimly-lit and Christmas decorated converted garage operating as a restaurant, for a late lunch. A 1920s style jazz band serenaded diners with a piano, saxophone and vocalist in front of the mistletoe-adorned window and I absolutely “got” how this was a New York thing!
On our walk home we dropped into a gourmet chocolate shop called Vosges. One of the young chocolatiers was standing in a corner providing tasters of chocolate and encouraged me to try the bacon flavoured chocolate, which a couple of New Yorkers had recommended to me a few days earlier. It was wrong and I don’t know how it is a thing! When our hot chocolates were somehow mixed up, Karen drank mine and I found myself sipping spicey chilli-flavoured chocolate, which in my opinion, despite liking spice and chilli in the right context, should definitely not “be a thing”! Which only goes to show that this is all highly subjective and that no artist should ever be deterred by critics when doing something they have a passion for.
Today I took a more conventional route and visited The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, North-East of Central Park. An easy subway ride to West 190th Street, followed by a face-freeze walk through the wintry park alongside the icy Hudson River, this museum is a branch of The Met dedicated to medi-evil European art and architecture. George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor born in 1863, travelled to France to study and work. While there he came under the spell of medi-evil art, returning to America with a whole collection which he established as a museum in order to introduce Americans to the art of the Middle Ages. In 1925 he sold his collection to The Met. His objects form the core of holdings at The Cloisters.
Meanwhile, John D. Rockefeller, born in 1874, rode horses around the hill upon which Fort Tryon Park is situated, as a boy. A prominent member of the wealthy philanthropist Rockefeller family, whose money started with an oil company, while Barnard was purchasing medi-evil art, Rockefeller was buying land around this part of Manhattan. After gifting the land of Fort Tryon Park to the City of New York, Rockefeller worked closely with architect Charles Collins, who travelled to Europe to study European monastery designs, upon which The Cloisters is based. Every European monastery had an open courtyard with covered walkways around the side and a garden in the centre. Known as a cloister, these edged courtyards connected the places where monks or nuns carried out their daily routine and at The Cloisters, the different art galleries are connected in this way. It is utterly beautiful and very reminiscent of monasteries I have visited in Spain and Italy.
The art collections here are astounding, including doorways, windows, altars and other architectural structures from monasteries and churches which have been incorporated into the architectural design of The Cloisters here. Medi-evil gardens grow with plants that are known to have been used in the Middle Ages; ancient ceiling to floor tapestries hang on walls; statues and sculptures, paintings, vases, stained glass windows and tombs are all a part of the impressive collection. The chapels are used for concerts and today Lionheart, a chamber music ensemble of six men were performing their annual holiday concert in one of the chapels. Sadly it was sold-out and I was told their Spring performance should be booked now (as I don’t know where I will be in Spring, it wasn’t a commitment I could make).
It’s really impossible to do “art in New York” any justice with a short blog written by an unskilled critic. Herein are a very few examples of what is on offer here but as you can see below, art in New York is everywhere.