The New SoHo

New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, with its hundreds of art galleries, is a good place to spend an afternoon

By Eleanor Berman

Every city has art galleries, but where can you find more than 300 in one neighborhood? That’s the current count in Chelsea, New York’s latest hot spot for art.

A decade ago, gas stations, parking garages, and warehouses were the main occupants of this part of the city, running roughly from West 18th to 27th streets between 10th and 11th avenues. Then art galleries priced out of SoHo began to eye the lofty, low-rent spaces.

Now galleries are everywhere, in striking quarters on the street or in vertical “art malls,” where the elevator opens to a different gallery on every floor. Big-name uptown galleries now want a Chelsea address, too.

Chelsea is all about the avant garde. You’ll find a list of exhibits at chelseaartgalleries.com. Because many shows are by emerging artists, names may not be familiar. Part of the fun is making discoveries.

It isn’t possible to cover all the galleries in one day, but you can get a sampling of the best on 22nd and 24th streets. One way to get there is to take the 23rd Street crosstown bus to Tenth Avenue. Most galleries are closed on Sunday and Monday.

On 24th Street, you can see old garage doors transformed into artful façades at two of the best-known galleries, Andrea Rosen at 525 24th (andrearosengallery.com) and Gagosian at 555 24th (gagosian.com). The large spaces, featuring many of the original industrial details and lots of natural light, lend themselves to oversize canvases and sculptures.

Mary Boone, at 541 24th (maryboonegallery.com), is another big name. She helped launch the careers of Julian Schnabel and Brice Marden and continues to find new talent. Her Chelsea gallery specializes in large, dramatic installations.

Many of the galleries are as interesting for their architecture as for what is inside. Marianne Boesky, at 509 24th (marianneboeskygallery.com), is in a geometric building of steel, brick, and concrete—a space built from scratch but designed to fit the character of the block. Boesky exhibits many young artists.

The Matthew Marks Gallery, at 523 24th (matthewmarks.com), is one of four locations for this A-list dealer. His roster of artists includes Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, and Ellsworth Kelly.

Two other galleries on 22nd show major artists as well as emerging talents: Sonnabend at 536 22nd (sonnabendgallery.com), where you might see a Jeff Koons sculpture, and Pace Wildenstein at 545 22nd (pacewildenstein.com), which represents Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, and Jim Dine.

To see a variety of art, you can ride the elevator to the smaller galleries at 535 22nd. Last time I visited, I found photos from Beirut, abstract oils, scribbly works on paper, and an homage to Andy Warhol. Other art malls can be found at 526 26th and 529 20th streets.

You can’t help but notice the High Line, a defunct elevated railroad running between 10th and 11th avenues. It is being converted to an overhead city park, with the first section due to open in 2008.

The Chelsea Art Museum at the 11th Avenue end of 22nd Street is worth a visit not only to see the creative use of the 1850 warehouse but also for exhibits by international artists (chelseaartmuseum.org). You can take a break at the attractive new waterfront park across the street or walk down to 19th Street and 11th Avenue to see the new sculptural IAC building, the first in New York by architect Frank Gehry.

The influx of gallery goers has given rise to interesting restaurants along Tenth Avenue. Check out Cook Shop at 20th for American comfort food (212-924-4440; cookshopny.com), Tia Pol between 22nd and 23rd for tapas (212-675-8805; tiapol.com), or Red Cat between 23rd and 24th for Modern American fare (212-242-1122; redcatrestaurants.com). The Empire Diner, a landmark for late-nighters on the corner of 22nd, is open almost 24/7 (212-243-2736).

Besides the galleries, a few shops are worth a look. Beyond a cavelike entrance, Comme des Garçons (520 W. 22nd between 10th and 11th) features high-style Japanese designer fashions. Intimate 192 Books (192 Tenth Ave. at 21st St.) has art books and interesting titles you don’t see everywhere. Printed Matter (195 Tenth Ave.), an edgy bookshop across the street, is a nonprofit promoting publications by artists.

To round out the day, you might try bowling, ice skating, the golf driving ranges, or a kayak tour on the river at Chelsea Piers, 30 acres of sports facilities beginning at 23rd Street and the Hudson River. Or explore the food shops at Chelsea Market, a converted Nabisco bakery between 15th and 16th streets and between Ninth and Tenth avenues. Two Philly restaurant landmarks, Buddakan and Morimoto, recently opened outposts in the building.

You might want to walk over to 14th Street and Ninth Avenue, the start of the Meatpacking District, to see the cobbled streets that are a hot hangout for young New Yorkers. Restaurants and bars abound, and late-night sidewalks are jammed.

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