Eight tips for navigating the New York art scene



The view from below Leonard Erlichs's Swimming Pool, a permanent installation at PS1.


The author basks in sunlight on the steps outside the Met.


Andy Warhol's Shadows series at the Dia:Beacon.


The Dia:Beacon nestled in the Hudson Valley.


Museum of Modern Art visitors rest their feet and look at Helen Frankenthaler painting.


Museum-goers travel up the Guggenheim's winding central terrace.


Exterior view of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

If you are going to New York City, chances are you are planning on visiting at least one museum. If you are a senior art major at Whitman College, you are going to New York with sole purpose of museum-bingeing.

Some years ago, an alum donated a sum of money to the studio art department for the exclusive purpose of sending the kids to the Big Apple to get some Real Art Experience. Ever since, department chairs have been throwing together whirlwind itineraries to maximize the five-day excursion and flood their pupils with a tidal wave of art.

Having recently returned from the sacramental New York trip and visited eight museums and a plethora of galleries, I have some advice to give to the New-York-bound-art-seeker.

1. If you lack endurance, skip the Met. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is arguably America's most iconic museum. In the Louvre of the New World, one can see whatever one's heart desires. If you have a specific desire and a museum map, the Met is a great place to go, and free entrance (OK, you are asked to give a donation) makes it all the more appealing.

But if you are going to a museum just to go to a museum, the Met has the potential to squash your enthusiasm in about 20 minutes, as you will likely wander into a labyrinth of obscure Chinese art and/or have your path indefinitely impeded by massive crowds of children and tourists.

I do, however, recommend sitting on the steps. People watching, hot dogs and street performers make the Met steps a perfect New York hangout spot.

2. Like architecture? Go to the Guggenheim. Frank Lloyd Wright's last building took him 15 years and 700 sketches to design and is an imaginative escape from the monotonous Manhattan skyscrapers. While it is a little funky on the exterior, the interior is a sight to behold. A spiraling ramp that runs from the ground floor to the top tier encircles the main space and the skylight is breathtaking. During our visit, the special exhibition was a collection of abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky's work spanning his entire career. The architectural structure provided an ideal way to experience the chronological assembly; walking up the gradual ramp and seeing his paintings in a continuous line, I could see the clear progression of Kandinsky's artistic development.

The Guggenheim is also a good place to see Upper East Siders in their natural habitat: checking their fur coats and discussing the art in dignified, hushed voices. They are adept at avoiding the Guggenheim's principal pitfall: overprotective, obsessive staff, the kind that will intervene in a state of extreme distress if you step an inch too close to the art. The Upper East Siders know that the art is sacred, and that human breath, even that of a mouth frequented by fois gras and Chanel lipstick, might imperceptibly disturb the art.

3. Do NOT not go to MoMA. In fact, spend two days! Though the Museum of Modern Art can be a little overwhelming, it is not unmanageable. The permanent collection is essentially a lesson in 20th century art. They have it all: Matisse, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Duchamp, Rothko … the list goes on to include every name you've ever heard of. Also, they have Starry Night. And aside from the chance to see all the paintings you've seen in books and on postcards in the flesh, MoMA has superbly curated special exhibitions. We were just in time to miss out on a retrospective of Tim Burton's art and films, but were able to catch an exhibition on the Bauhaus that featured all sorts of objects created during the German art school's lifespan, giving a peek into a historical period of design that has had lasting influence.

MoMA also offers the most tempting money traps. Not only do they have a gift shop filled with enticing books and trinkets, but they have two cafs. The lower level cafeteria has decent prices and delectable treats if you want to take a break from all the ooohing and aaaaahing.

4. Don't bother with The Whitney unless you want to see the special exhibition. The Whitney Museum of American Art is an incredibly ugly building with a somewhat uninspired permanent collection. There's nothing wrong with it, but it won't necessarily impress, especially if you are planning a trip to MoMA. Our visit coincided with special exhibits by Roni Horn and the abstract works of Georgia O'Keefe; the former was fairly interesting, the latter, overcrowded and not very exciting. So while the Whitney wasn't one of my top hits, they do have lots of space dedicated to rotating exhibitions, and if you happen to be interested in one of them, it's worth going.

5. Feeling highbrow? Want to drop $200,000? Why, take the train down to Chelsea! Without a doubt, Chelsea is THE PLACE to buy and sell art in America, with fastidiously curated galleries featuring both up-and-coming artists and canonized works of the past (who knew there were so many Warhols floating around?). While the gallery girls and their heel-clacking airs of superiority are rather unwelcoming, as is the insistent guard telling you that no, you cannot sit on the Donald Judd furniture even if it is furniture, the gallery scene is worth checking out to any curious art fan. Most of the galleries feature solo exhibits or limited collections, which provides a nice change of pace from the image-barrage of the museums. Not to miss: Gagosian Gallery (which was showing the playfully pornographic paintings of Mike Kelly for our visit).

6. In the mood for an adventure? Take the train to Beacon! The Dia Foundation was founded in the 1974 with the goal of moving art out of the traditional museum experience. In 2003, the foundation opened the Dia: Beacon in Beacon, N.Y., (about an hour and half train ride upstate) in an old Nabisco factory. The expansive structure features exposed and painted brick, the original hard wood floors and skylights, creating a near perfect venue for the conceptual and minimalist art that comprises the Dia's collection. While stacks of felt and white paintings aren't necessarily everyone's cup of tea, the Dia believes in its art so fervently that you could easily be converted into a veritable conceptual art fan. And if you are ever going to understand such dense, cold art, it will be through physical interaction with individual works. That said, not all of Dia's art denies the pleasure of the senses; two of my personal favorites were Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipse series, which features huge spiraling steel structures you can wander into, and Andy Warhol's Shadows, a late abstract silkscreen with so many brightly-colored variations that the canvases line the perimeter of a large room.

7. Traveling with tots? Check out PS1. MoMA's more contemporarily focused extension in Queens is located in an old public school (hence the name). Like the Dia: Beacon, PS1 features a large number of works on permanent view. One such piece is Leonard Erlich's Swimming Pool, which from above appears to be precisely that, but is actually a shallow pool with a glass bottom. The catch is that viewers are allowed access below, where they can sit underneath the pool and watch the patterns of light on the walls, and if they are like me, remember their childhood desire to be a mermaid. PS1 is more likely than other spaces to feature interactive works, which are probably the least likely to bore kids. The other bonus is that your MoMA ticket will grant you free admission into PS1 within 30 days, so you may as well go, if only to check out their funky bookstore, which goes way beyond the typical monograph print collections.

8. Feeling the need to contemplate your existence? Check out Walter deMaria's Earth Room in SoHo. Ring the buzzer of 141 Wooster Street and you'll be fetched by the keeper of the Earth Room, a work that has been installed since 1977. It is what is sounds like; an apartment filled with about a foot of dirt. Sound enigmatic? It is. But is also more intriguing and interesting that can be described in words or captured in a photograph. Viewers can peer into a dimly lit space covered with dark, moist earth that exudes a surprisingly intoxicating scent, especially considering its unexpected presence in the middle of the metropolitan capital of the world. And hey, if the Earth Room doesn't suit your fancy, don't sweat it; it's free, and in a city where a Coca Cola costs $2.50, that's a beautiful thing.


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