Travel: Manhattan: the Mecca for art lovers

With its complex food chains of artists, dealers, critics and industrialist-financiers, New York's heart remains the most exciting place in the world to see art. And the big institutions are only the start. By Sarah Gracie

"A narrow island off the coast of New Jersey devoted to the pursuit of lunch," said writer Raymond Sokolov of Manhattan in the thirties. And anyone who has spent time in the city knows the great lunch project has only improved since the Depression.

The only thing that comes close to it for New Yorkers, in passionate exegesis, unquestioned outpouring of skill and talent, the obsessional drives that make for perfection, is their art.

Aside from the fact that the city is so visually stimulating that they all have to walk around in dark glasses all the time, New York has over 500 galleries and museums, many of them outstanding.

When you have done the heavyweights - the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick Collection, MoMA and the Guggenheim - which will wear out a pair of walking shoes and leave you comatose in your hotel for a week - there is also the commercial scene.

This is the scene designed to channel work into the hands of the collectors. With its complex food chains of artists, dealers, critics, and industrialist- financiers, it is a fairly heady Manhattanite brew of commerce and art. To interpret it, I enlisted the help for the day of a sculptor friend of mine, Michael Usyk.

Michael is a Brooklyn Jewish old-style New York Bohemian. He lives in a shoebox apartment in the Village, and secretes his sculptures (welded mobile affairs) in the bathroom cistern, behind the couch, under the bed. His partner Jane is tolerant. She has to be: she is a writer and any visitor to their place will have to wade through Chapter III of her latest novel to find a place at the kitchen table. They earn a living looking after wealthy Alzheimer's patients in Palm Beach during the summer and spend the winter making art.

Like every other artist living in the city, Michael's life is a business. It is an affair of co-operatives, leases, gazumping on studios, multi- track investments on shows and reviews, and shaky returns. The whole year I was living in New York, he was in negotiations for a studio space. Now - two years later - he has found somewhere, a warehouse co-operative down in the meatpackers area by the river. We are going to finish the day with a visit.

We meet at the Plaza Hotel at 11 am, by Central Park, opposite Trump's golden tower on Fifth Avenue. Michael, round and stocky, with chopped hair and glasses as notional on his face as those of a Flemish lens grinder, looks out of place (monied uptown is not his scene). He is wearing a blue blazer with gold buttons. Being a strictly lumber shirt man, nothing could send out clearer signals of the sacred journey we are about to embark on.

"Cwawffee first," he says in his Brooklyn Jewish drawl, somewhere between a busted cheer and a wail. "Then we'll do 57th Street. That's the really big stuff. Pace Wildenstein, West 57th, The Fuller Building. This is the Mecca of the art world."

After coffee we set off. Surging streets give way to cool lobbies. We hitch a ride in art deco elevators, with their gilded plate doors and brass tendril decorations. We ride the elevators to the top, puffing down the stairs between floors while Michael tells me the history of modern American art. Artists fleeing the Holocaust, fabricated visas, salvaged paintings. Dealers in the new world setting up galleries and keeping the artists alive with piecemeal handouts. And then the great outpouring of the fifties and sixties: Raushenberg, Rothko, Pollock, Mondrian, Miro, Motherwell, Stella and de Stael.

Each building contains between five and 10 galleries and the shows range from pop and super realism to Brazilian magic realism and Russian minimalism. At Reece, there is a wonderful assemblage of semi abstract figures in serpentine and springstone from Zimbabwe. At Heidi Neuhoff's, "emerging markets" are big, with Brazilian artists making collages of bark in elegy to the great hardwood forests that are vanishing. At Zalman's, Roger Creelman continues the old heroic life of the New York dealer. He goes to Russia and meets struggling Russian artists, paying for the most talented to come on extended visits to the States to experience contemporary art. "You can see their palette change as they reach the States: they have enough to eat, the colours get brighter."

The highlight for me is a host of Picasso late drawings at Pace Wildenstein. A flurry of sheets torn from the artist's drawingblock, mounted and put in plain pine frames. Nothing could equal the singing brilliance of the lines. Three or four markings, scumbled, back-tracked or direct, make a classical monster, a magician, a dreaming wide-eyed woman. Some piece of perfection so minimally stated, it is proof, if any were needed, of a higher order of intelligence.

And all for sale! I have to admit that the possibility of possession gives a throbbing immediacy to the experience, as if we had wandered into the artist's studio in the South of France just as he tore a sheet of cartridge from the block.

After lunch, we head South for SoHo. SoHo once meant industry. A mass of light engineering and garment manufacturing taking place within tenement- style factories with elaborate cast-iron facades and fire escapes stepping criss-cross down the exterior of the buildings.

The workforce was immigrant and poor. "Hell's Hundred Acres", Michael explains, it was the red-light district of the city. Its deathknell was sounded in 1911 when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire burnt to death a sweatshop of young women locked inside during their shift hours.

As governments began to get serious about safety regulations, the area emptied out. But in the sixties, it was colonised by a new breed, artists needing space who could no longer withstand the high rents of the Village. The warehouses with their tall industrial windows and large floor spaces made great studios. Now you can't move for avenues of silk banners announcing new galleries, for Miu Miu and Morgane le Fay, and gorgeous restaurants.

As far as the art is concerned, it varies enormously. There are the slick empires to commerce such as Nathan's - purple carpets and gold banisters, thoroughly competent art but unsatisfying, "Chinese painting for the American market" as Michael puts it - to the adventurous Gargoysian, who has been showing enormous metal work sculptures that couldn't sit in a factory, let alone a living room, for 20 years.

There is OK Harris' super realism - a fantastic exhibition of life-size figures made of polyurethane and real hair who look as if breath has just departed from them - to a "concept" gallery dedicated to the idea of continuing art, which shows gold leaf sculptures that will tarnish after purchase and tanks of snails in the process of losing their shells. You will see every type and trend of modern American art, and whatever else, an afternoon wandering around SoHo will challenge your senses and preconceptions.

When I ask Ivan Karp of OK Harris, one of the first SoHo galleries, about the business of running a gallery, he says: "The art establishment is a complex political organism - you have to attend all the right openings, dinner parties, events, exhibitions, you gotta show your colours and keep what you think to yourself. I'm not good at that - I've got a big mouth. It's a small world, if I say something here, it'll be in Dusseldorf in two hours." And on shifting trends in New York: "The Eighties were hysterical - a consensus of the misinformed. The bubble had to burst. Now the scene is shifting to Chelsea, where you can get away from the shopping." He indicates the crowd. "You see these people. Students, tourists. Average Joes. They're never gonna buy. The Chelsea directors don't want that. They want invitation only. The serious buyers."

So after SoHo, we head off for "invitation only" Chelsea. This is downmarket warehouse - no restaurants, clothes shops, silk banners or placarded entrances.

When you finally locate the galleries - and it's quite a struggle, like studying a map of enemy territory written in invisible ink - you'll come across a tiny plaque with 9pt Helvetica saying laconically: Paula Cooper, Matthew Marx; Diaz. Serious cool. And the interiors are equally cool: minimal displays of photography or installation enshrined in huge klieg- lit silently ventilated air hangars of space.

The stellar beings who are shaping this new art scene recently had their photograph taken for American Vogue in the Empire Diner on Seventh Avenue. In charcoal Armani suits, elegantly draped over the tin art deco counters, they discuss new moves on industrial property in the vicinity.

This is the new avant garde. One gallery is entirely given over to the restaging of an exhibition to the fly previously shown in Moscow. Seven rooms decorated green and chocolate paint, a bare low wattage bulb, and a colony of flies recreate the lugubrious atmosphere of the Kremlin and the Lubianka in the fifties.

"Twice a day, everyday..." announces another gallery. We enter a room entirely empty apart from an ominous black metal box hanging from the ceiling. The box contains a video and standing beneath it, you will find yourself positioned directly in the line of fire of someone doing an enormous shite on a prison toilet. I struggle between fascination and gagging for a few moments before Michael drags me off. "Frankly, I'm so tired of the mouldy art school, the meat art school, the crap art school." says Michael. "Come on, let's go see my studio."

We leave Chelsea for Gansevoort St and Michael's studio. The old meatpackers area, the air overhead is a mass of crossed rails coming in from Kansas, Texas, Ohio for the terminals at Penn Station. Dark shambles and warehouses with painted lettering announce: DiMaggio's Beef Corporation, Heffer's Inc, Penn's Packing.

We spend a pleasurable hour or so in the glowing interior of Michael's studio, contemplating the delicate welded sculptures of the exoskeletons of whales and leaf mould, and his jewelled collages, before going on to have dinner at Florent's.

Florent's is not to be missed. An old workers cafe in the heart of the meat district, it has now become a hip place for artists, models and colourful vagrants of all types. In winter, you dodge the ice cubes from the packing chutes dancing across the cobbles. In summer, heat boils between the streets in lilac dusks and gays go on the pick up along the piers.

Coloured fairy lights draped above the tin roof announce its makeshift romance. We walk past the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life sitting on a stool in a darkened doorway in white lace with a man in black leather uniform beside her. "Mary Lou" says Michael, "I thought she died of AIDS way back." We eat marvellous Caribbean snapper and steak au poivre, while Michael fells us the story of Mary Lou, who was a stevedore on the docks of Rio, before coming to America and discovering she was a woman.

With a life like this, who needs art?

New York factfile

Essentials

Don't go out without your "Gallery Guide", a monthly survey of what's on in New York artwise, and free at any major gallery. Entrance to all the commercial galleries listed below is free.

57th Street - "The Mecca of the Art World":

You don't get to show in these galleries unless you're seriously brilliant. There is very little trash here. The fact is, all the work is mostly museum quality so a selection of galleries becomes difficult.

Don't miss

The Fuller Building, 41 E 57th Street

Andre Emmerich; Leonard Hutton, LittleJohn Contempoirary, Marisa Del Re, Robert Miller, Heidi Neuhoff, Zabriski, among others.

PaceWildenstein, 32 E 57th St, 24 West 57th St

Garth Clark, Marian Goodman, Bill Hodges, Reece, Mary Ryan, Zalman, among others.

SoHo

Gagosian; Leo Castelli, Sonnabend, OK Harris, Broome St, Fulcrum; Holly Solomon; Guggenheim; Jacques Carcanagues; Art 54. These are just a few of the big names. Otherwise, wander the grid of streets between Lafayette and Thompson and Houston and Grand: most of it is outright splendid, and the little that is poor quality is always conceptually challenging.

Chelsea

Paula Cooper; Dia Center for the Arts; Barbara Gladstone; Pat Hearn, Linda Kirkland, Matthew Marks; Metro Pictures; Anita Nosei. These are just a few of the attractions. For a more thorough tour, scour the streets between Tenth Avenue and West Side Highway and 28th in the North and 17th Street. This is the new avant garde: expect to be challenged.

Restaurant Florent, 69 Gansevoort Street

24 hours/7 days a week tel: 212 989 5779

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