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

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
News
peopleLynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance moves audience to tears
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
News
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee
people

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

News
news

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London