52 on 57th

By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES May/ June 2010

Gallery Night on 57th Street, NYC57th Street, New York City

For amost as long as New York City wrested the title of “art capital of the world” from Paris in late 19th/early 20th-Centuries, it has been 57th Street in its midtown location that took the reins as the epicenter of the “artscene”. To have one’s work exhibited in Manhattan is to have arrived; to have one’s work on 57th Street, the coveted goal of most serious artists.

The mid-town artscene — roughly between 8th Avenue and Lexington and including a short distance up or down 5th Avenue — has been a steadily shifting scene of prestigious exhibition spaces as galleries have come and gone, some closing permanently, others morphing into “newer” manifestations (and new names) as economics fluctuated, all the while steadily increasing in number as the years have gone by. Hard to believe that there was a time when there were but a handful of galleries in all of New York City — not so hard to see that it has fully grown into its “art capital of the world” status.

Why clustered in an easily-reached walking distance? And why 57th Street? The first is easy — to make it simpler for art buyers and patrons to “shop”. The second? Perhaps because the Art Students League of NY has been on 57th since October of 1892, moving in for business at 215 West 57th just a bit short of its 18th Birthday — and already attaining a world-wide reputation as a formidable addition to the world of art-instruction. As the old joke goes about how to get to Carnegie Hall — also on 57th Street — “Practice, practice, practice! — so also young art students at the League had their dreams of some day having a show just down the street and practiced, practiced, practiced under teachers who shared the same dream. Rosina Florio, the late director of the League, once had a dream of convincing the municipal planners of transforming the length of 57th Street into a French-style Boulevard complete with a center mall of greenery — a bona fide art promenade to outshine all others. It never happened, but still, the street was seen by most artists as a “special place” and to have one’s work seen in the window of a gallery on 57th was, for many, a sign of growing reputation — to have a solo show in one of these galleries, the sure stamp of having become a “star”.

On the other hand, maybe it was just because 57th Street sat plump in the middle of a burgeoning metropolis. And, of course there were galleries that were established long before the Art Students League moved onto the Street, Babcock Galleries for instance, among the oldest still surviving that opened some forty years before that school opened its doors to students from around the world. The fact is, it was this street and its environs that became the goal of artists the world over and the symbol of success if they could make it. (I hear strains of Sinatra’s “If I can make it there…” from New York, New York thrumming in my head.)

“Gallery Night on 57th Street”* was inaugurated last year, but this time — with fifty-two galleries keeping their doors open to the public from 5:00 to 8:30 pm on Thursday, May 6th — it heralds a city-wide “Gallery Night” that includes Chelsea, SoHo, and both Lower and Upper East Sides of Manhattan, a four-day event of exhibitions, tours, films, talks, performances, and book signings, which will begin on the following day, Friday, the 7th, and run on through Monday, May 10th. To be featured, then, in any of these “happenings” — even if not on the coveted sidewalks of 57th — would be quite a feather in the cap of aspiring artists.

In our own quarter-century-plus presence on the New York City artscene, we’ve personally witnessed a lot of its history, a lot of its ongoing transformation, with places like SoHo — and now Chelsea — vying for status that competes with Midtown Manhattan. We’ve noted galleries — and, for that matter, arts publications — come into being, blossom, and fade away. Some of the galleries listed on the 57th Street May 6th event are new to us, many old and familiar places. I’ve been summoned time and again to 57th Street to cover an exhibition — sometimes of someone “new” to me, more often than not, however, of an artist I’d already met. Jack Levine, Paul Cadmus, Will Barnet, for example, all artists I’d already profiled in our pages, who were showing their work at such places as Midtown Payson Galleries (now morphed into D.C. Moore Gallery), Terry Dintenfass Galleries, Alexandre Gallery, and Marlborough Gallery. Then, there were those whom I’d “discovered” on 57th — Pier Augusto Breccia at Arras, Bernarda Shahn and Walt Kuhn at Midtown Payson, Leonora Carrington at the Brewster Gallery, Adam Straus at the Nora Haime Gallery, Carolyn Plochmann at Kennedy Gallery, Frederic Amat at Galeria Joan Prats, Mark Swartz at Gallery 84, Harvey Dinnerstein at Gerold Wunderlich & Co., Moses and Raphael Soyer and Richard Pousette-Dart at ACA Galleries, Jui Guliang at China 200 Fine Art, Matthew Daub at Sherry French, or Clarice Smith at Kennedy — some becoming long-time friends with whom I maintain contact. Some of these galleries have persisted; some now lost to history. Most recently, it’s been Richard Segalman at Katerina Rich Perlow, Timothy Clark at the Hammer Galleries, and I dropped into D.C. Moore to visit Jack Levine at his 95th year birthday retrospective. There are probably more places I’ve covered — and, of course, just visited  — including numberless galleries, museums, schools, art clubs, art institutions and private studios in other parts of the city at one time or another over the past 26 years — but now lost to memory.

Though individual galleries along 57th have been coming and going for as long as its existence, the Street still retains its vibrancy, its excitement as the destination to see what was going on in the art world. Some might even remember when Dali had a show at the Pace and, as if this was not enough to gain him some attention, arranged to have his work hoisted up from the sidewalk into one of its windows rather than putting it on an elevator so that more could witness the splash he was making. There has always been a mix — from galleries that remained steadfast in its showing of the old standards to those that always seemed to have the very latest, “cutting-edge” innovators on the scene. There are “specialists”, like Galerie St. Etienne for example that features European art. Some stuck with the tried-and-true (the “saleable” artists); others — in spite of the prohibitive rents the area demanded — to show the unknown, the up-and-coming (hoping that, by their showing them “here” on 57th, that they also would soon become all the rage — “saleable”).

The concept of a “made-to-order” location for communal art showings has pretty much spread over the landscape, with “Saturday Strolls”, Open Studio Tours, mini-arts/crafts fairs, joint showings at refurbished factories cum artists lofts, town and village galas, and on up to regional affairs such as the recent Hudson River Quadricentennial up and down the length of the river continually filling the ever-expanding bill. It all works — but still, it’s just not the Street— it’s not 57th — it’s not Midtown Manhattan — and let’s face it: when it comes to outright prestigious location, Manhattan’s 57th Street remains the ultimate goal for artists the world around. As conventional wisdom advocates, it’s “location, location, location” that, in the end, is all that really counts.

*(“Gallery Night on 57th Street”, Thursday, May 6th, 2010 (5-8:30pm). (212) 888-3550 for full list of galleries and artists on 57th and newyorkgalleryweek.com for all others.)