There is a pathetic story of a man from Connecticut who, a few years ago, took his Porsche to be repaired in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, only to find that an art gallery—and a big one, too—had usurped the space where his garage had been. What’s more, in the very spot where the jack-lift had raised his car for servicing, there stood a hefty installation by Tony Smith. The man was out of the loop. He hadn’t realized that his Chelsea, a place of garages, repair shops for upscale autos, taxi gaseterias, tire fixers, and huge warehouses, was morphing into an art arena where modishly dressed art dealers, doers, and buyers rubbed elbows with grungy mechanics groping the innards of cars and trucks.

For about a decade now, Chelsea, located on the far West Side of Manhattan, stretching roughly from 13th to 30th Streets between Ninth Avenue and the West Side Highway, has been the “new” art district, a giant salesroom for contemporary work (as in SoHo, there are no purveyors of Old Masters there). And if the larger of the new galleries somewhat resemble auto showrooms, well, you can’t say they don’t reflect the neighborhood.

Chelsea is the latest in a long run of Manhattan art districts—districts that have included 57th Street and the upper Madison Avenue area, the short-lived East Village phenomenon of the early 1980s, and the loft-and-small-factory precincts of SoHo that now make up a high-rent shopping mall. Unlike SoHo, which grew organically as a dealers’ venue because artists lived and worked there, the Chelsea scene has been imposed on an unprimed neighborhood by dealers who wanted to get away from the clownish weekend bustle that SoHo has become. Looking for better spaces at cheaper rents in idle old buildings, they have, for the most part, found them. Some 150 galleries now operate in Chelsea, most of them defectors from SoHo or uptown.

Actually, there are two Chelseas. One consists of a genteel West 20s residential section and the General Theological Seminary’s early nineteenth-century campus at Ninth Avenue. The second Chelsea is the neighborhood’s industrial edge, once the site of warehouses, lumber and rail yards, breweries, factories, and freight handlers; now it is the art mart.

The name Chelsea—given to the entire area in the mid-nineteenth century by Thomas Clarke, a retired British Army captain who owned a large farm there—evokes the residential quarter of West London that was once the stomping ground of writers and artists such as Jonathan Swift, Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The ambiance of New York’s Chelsea does not quite measure up to West London’s, however.

Unlike SoHo (a name that, even though the result of city planners’ jargon, reminds one of the arty English neighborhood), Chelsea has never been an haven for artists. (There are a few exceptions, among them Louise Bourgeois, ensconced for years in a residential brownstone.) The inhospitable blocks of the Chelsea art district are a muddle of monolithic buildings that swallow up the people who come to visit them, and whose façades—except for those now housing ground-floor galleries—offer no clue as to their purpose. Chelsea’s lack of soul as an art neighborhood, its scarcity of feeding spots, and the fact that in winter it is the coldest place in the city, raked by sharp winds playing off the Hudson, do not encourage the kind of street life endemic to SoHo.

The pioneer Chelsea dealer is said to have been Larry Gagosian, who opened one of his many art venues on West 25th Street in 1985. But Chelsea hadn’t ripened yet, and buyers kept their distance. He left, but is now back in an emporium a block away from his old spot. The real breakthrough was made in 1987 by the Dia Foundation (now the Dia Center for the Arts): it established an austere showcase in a refurbished four-story factory building on West 22nd Street. When I first saw it, I was struck by its Quaker meetinghouse-cum-factory plainness, a reverent setting for the art that Dia has always treated with nothing less than religious piety. (Dia’s recently reinvigorated and extended lobby, resplendent with the sculptor Jorge Pardo’s California colors, takes a big step toward breaching the churchy atmosphere and making the place more accessible.)

It took a few years, but—on a much more diminutive scale, of course—what Lincoln Center accomplished for the Upper West Side, Dia did for Chelsea. Dia’s establishment as a visual arts presence in the neighborhood, along with the lure of cheaper space, helped establish a critical mass of dealers. Paula Cooper got there in 1996, and shortly thereafter Barbara Gladstone, with Matthew Marks and MetroPictures, bought a single-story garage 150 feet wide on West 24th Street. Smaller galleries then arrived from SoHo and Madison Avenue, acquiring spaces in warren-like buildings like the Starrett-Lehigh on West 26th Street, an humongous 1930s relic built to accommodate railroad boxcars—boxcars that could be hoisted up inside the building for delivery of their contents. (Quick to seize an opportunity, the owners of the building have now reinvented it as the Starrett-Lehigh Center for Creative Arts, Media, and Technology.)

The larger spaces, particularly the ground floor garages with truss-supported ceilings, offer the advantage of columnless floors, providing the display area necessary for the gargantuan proportions of artists’ work today. But too often the space and its chic, factory-like architecture overwhelm the art, spoiling its cumulative effect and compromising the intimacy of individual works. Some of the larger galleries, moreover, have taken to putting their offices at a distance from the selling floor, a corporate practice that, while adding to display space, tends to isolate dealer and staff from the audience. Not that this withdrawal doesn’t happen elsewhere; still, Chelsea seems to have exacerbated it. I can remember a time long ago when art dealers, like booksellers, actually seemed to enjoy walking the floor to chat up visitors and ply them, deep pockets or no, with a little sales patter.

Some dealers cite as beneficial to business Chelsea’s very lack of ambiance, as well as its dearth of restaurants, retail stores, and subway stops. “The people who do get here are serious, not shoppers,” mused one gallerist. “It’s good that we’re away from retail.” What, I wondered, does he consider his own business? In the Madison and 57th Street areas, dealers are not heard complaining that the close presence of “retail” interferes with the sale of art.

But does the location of a gallery at all affect its sales? It’s true that artists have been known to design installations or to arrange their paintings according to their dealers’ spaces. And some dealers have specified the size, color, and themes of their artists’ work, under the impression that once an artist develops a signature motif, repetition can only enhance his works’ value. But the venue—downtown, uptown, under the Brooklyn Bridge—doesn’t really matter. Would Jackson Pollock have painted differently if Peggy Guggenheim hadn’t shown his art at her Kiesler-designed gallery on 57th Street? Did exposure in SoHo affect the materiality of Richard Serra’s sculptures? The obvious answer is no.

Still, if I were an artist with a hot dealer in Chelsea, where the small seems to get lost, I think I would try very hard to expand my format. Art has been enlarging since the days of the Abstract Expressionists, to compete with movie screens, billboards, and, of course, other art. Big-thinking Chelsea pushes that trend. Here the survival of the fittest means the biggest wins out.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 4, on page 99
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