You could ask me practically anything about Chelsea, one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city. Looking for a trendy bar? I’ll rattle off 10 in seconds. You’re into shopping? There isn’t one style or shoe store I haven’t scoped out. Hungry? Here’s a list of the top restaurants. But inquire about the best sculpture collection in the neighborhood and I’d respond with a blank stare. My lack of familiarity with the area’s 200-plus galleries is shameful because, above all, Chelsea is an art lover’s paradise. So when ArtMuse founder and expert art consultant Natasha Schlesinger offered to guide me around the top exhibitions in the neighborhood, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Though most of the shows we saw are no longer on view, her art acumen made these galleries—and the Chelsea art scene in general—more accessible. Her ease with the language of artists is an art in itself.
I met Schlesinger at Citizens of Chelsea, a modern Australian brunch joint and coffee shop (the perfect pre–art tour warm-up spot—and here’s why). Surrounded by Bloody Mary–swilling curators and artists, Schlesinger and I had a relaxed conversation over poached eggs and beetroot hummus. She spoke about her family (she’s a mom of three), how she first entered the art scene (her Russian art–loving dad carted her around to galleries in Russia when she was a child), and the new app she was developing to help people stay up to speed on the latest art trends hitting New York City. After confessing that this was my first trip to Chelsea’s galleries, she didn’t judge me. “I just want people to be excited about art,” she said.
We stopped at the Paul Kasmin Gallery first, and Schlesinger flipped a switch from the proud mom I met for brunch to the art curator of the Surrey Hotel, Christie’s auction house specialist, and Bard graduate that she is. She began with an in-depth account of the making of Mark Ryden’s collection of paintings, “The Art of Whipped Cream,” a whimsical portrayal of the costumes and sets the artist created for the American Ballet Theatre’s recent show at the Metropolitan Opera House. Tim Burton–esque characters were drawn in costumes shaped like candies and cakes and were accompanied by “cute” furry creatures. But the sweet cartoons quickly turned sour, showing the main character in a hospital bed after overindulging in too much sugar. My eyes swept over the fairy tale–like portraits, the shading and meticulously drawn lines, and the many hues of red and pink. Like a seasoned pro, Schlesinger made sure to point out that the beauty in many art pieces lies in the details often overlooked. In Ryden’s work, these were the underlying Russian influences, antique-looking frames with tiny flower etchings echoing 18th-century designs, and Renaissance-period styling. Her favorite part of the exhibition, though, were the artist’s sketches: “They’re pretty specific and accurate. You can see how he’s measuring and giving instruction to what it should be and how he thinks it will look.”
Next, Schlesinger introduced me to mixed-media art with Susan Weil’s “Now and Then” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery. Shattered glass on black and white photographs, 3-D sculptures made of wood, dynamic portraits with careful engravings—nothing looked liked the other, yet they all shared a commonality of creating disruption. They reflected the artist’s physical interpretation of her personal history and favorite literature—which you could read about in the journals she had on view. While Schlesinger insisted I take up-close looks to make sure I noticed the acrylics, brushstrokes, and unusual materials, like recycled canvas and blueprints, used to construct each piece, I became very interested in a spiraled canvas, which consisted of nothing but photos of hands. “Hands are very hard to paint,” she noted. “Historically, how you drew hands determined your artistic ability.”
Wendell Castle’s “Embracing Upheaval” at Friedman Benda showed the merging of usable objects and art with textured and tactile pieces of wooden furniture. The artist played with the natural materials to engineer a seat where rules don’t apply—where you sit and where rest your head and arms is completely up to the viewer/sitter. Other shows, like “Dream Machines” at James Cohan, brought together multiple artists to push boundaries and create an awareness of our current reality.
A quick glance at Fred Tomaselli’s Behind Your Eyes showed a spotted painting of the internal workings of the human body, but a closer look revealed the “spots” to be over-the-counter pills.
Artist Omer Fast clipped together CNN newsreels to have each anchor speak a single word, which formed several monologues about the underlying message of their original segments (is edited news “real”?). Had I not been with Schlesinger, I might have breezed in and out of the gallery unfazed, but her insights turned each room into a wonderland of discovery and profundity.
During our in-between-gallery walks, Schlesinger revealed some of her best tips on the “art of viewing art.” Her most adamant rule: See the artwork in person. I had learned enough that day to know that a photo simply doesn’t give justice to the look, feel, or overall aesthetic a piece can present. If you’re a buyer, Schlesinger suggests watching your timing. Summer is considered the off season for most art districts, and galleries often use those months to display experimental collections or allow more amateur curators to take charge of an exhibition. Many of the best shows are put on view during the fall months, usually around the same time most auctions begin. More important, you have to know what you’re looking for. Are you interested in specific artistic mediums? Do you plan on starting or adding to your own collection? According to Schlesinger, even the most experienced buyers still ask for help navigating NYC’s many galleries and dealers.
Our tour ended on a (literal) high note with a rapid segue into the world of immersive art. Nothing could have prepared me for Carsten Höller’s “Reason” (on view until September 1 at Gagosian Gallery), a large exhibition that ties together art and play to help us understand how we comprehend the universe. In one room (Revolving Doors), I walked through rotating glass and mirrored panels catching different angles of myself and others at every turn. Around the corner, children were popping in and out of a 10-foot-tall die piece (Dice), which had holes instead of black marks.
The show’s pièce de résistance, though, was Höller’s Giant Triple Mushroom, a massive stabile with long arms holding oversize mushrooms and fungi. Inspired by how perception is altered while under the influence of psychedelics, the artist allows viewers to move the lowest arm to create an orbiting effect.
The old me would have expressed disappointment in how pointless these structures seemed, but after just an afternoon of art education, I appreciated their symmetry, movement, and creativity. Just as she would with any client, Schlesinger took the time to learn about my interests and familiarity with art to orchestrate a tour perfectly catered to me—starting off easy with Ryden’s quirky paintings and then advancing to hallucinogenic-influenced, spinning fungal species. I resurfaced from my four-hour art bubble and returned to an unchanged world, but now I’m beginning to look at it—and Chelsea—a little differently.
Here is a sneak peek of our walking tour, filmed in the Morgan Lehman Gallery, earlier this summer.
Want to be Schlesinger’s art muse? Get in touch and we can arrange a guided art tour, from the cutting-edge, tiny spaces in Chinatown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Or like us on Facebook to find out how you can win a day touring Chelsea’s galleries.