From SoHo to Sarasota

By staff February 1, 2008

Ever wondered just how an arts curator puts together a show, or for that matter a season of shows? Me, too. All the more so because my husband, Kevin Dean, who’s taught at the Ringling College of Art and Design for more than 20 years, has for 13 of those years also been director of Selby Gallery on the Ringling campus. He’s presented and curated dozens of shows, from the annual student and faculty shows to solo exhibitions featuring nationally and internationally known artists, including such names as Pat Steir, Helen Frankenthaler, Leon Golub, Lesley Dill and others.

For most of those years, and as part of the process of putting together his shows, he’s also traveled at least once a year to New York City—still the hub of the art world in the United States, if not the world, and a must-visit for any art curator or gallery director who wants to stay on top of the visual arts scene. Or so Kevin tells me. I was never really sure of what he did on those nearly weeklong fall excursions, because I never went with him. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t have liked to, but the demands of raising children and working my own job always meant that I stayed in Sarasota, holding down the fort.

Until last September, when for the first time I tagged along on one of Kevin’s arts jaunts and got to see with my own eyes just what he does and how he does it. Now you can see it, too, in this diary of a gallery director’s whirlwind tour of New York City.

Wednesday, Sept. 12

Having made copious “to-do” lists for our now old-enough-to-be-left-alone kids (feed the pets, take your sister to school, bring in the mail, etc.), we’ve boarded a plane at Tampa International Airport that will take us to LaGuardia. It’s a beautiful fall-like day when we land there, and for the first time in our recent travel history there are no delays, no hitches to our arrival. We take a taxi to the Salisbury Hotel, our home base for our five-day stay. It’s across West 57th Street from Carnegie Hall, a good location for just about everything we want to do while we’re here.

Since it’s already late afternoon when we arrive, there’s not enough time to begin gallery hopping, talking to art dealers and meeting with artists. There is enough time, however, to walk down Broadway, passing the standby line at the Ed Sullivan Theater waiting to see The Late Show with David Letterman, head for the discount tickets booth near the Marriott Marquis and plunk down $119 for two tickets to see Spamalot. (After all, there’s art and then there’s art.) After dinner at the Brooklyn Diner, also right across from our hotel, we head back to the Shubert Theatre for Spamalot. The show is great fun, and there’s also a twisted sort of fun in calling our Monty Python-loving kids at intermission and saying, “Guess what show we’re seeing? Spamalot!” Groans of envy ensue.

Thursday, Sept. 13

We’re spending today in SoHo. Long one of the gallery centers of Manhattan, SoHo is being supplanted in part these days by the expanding gallery scene in the Chelsea neighborhood. But a number of galleries are still here, including a couple where Kevin has established good working relationships with the owners.

One of those dealers is Louis Meisel of Louis K. Meisel Gallery, who Kevin tells me coined the word “photorealist” back in 1969. The Meisel Gallery, on Prince Street, has been showing realist artists for decades, and two of the most popular shows in Selby Gallery’s history, REAList Men and REAList Women, borrowed heavily from Meisel as well as other New York galleries. (Another popular Selby show, featuring pin-up art, was also indebted to Meisel’s holdings.)

As we head out the hotel lobby doors, Kevin explains that he’s looking for contemporary photorealist artists he’s never exhibited before for a show he’s putting together for the 2009 season. In planning Selby’s exhibition season that far ahead, he sometimes runs the risk of choosing a piece or pieces that will be unavailable by that time because they’ve been sold, but he usually can replace those with something close in style.

“I know the format I want to follow with this show, because it’s the same as the other two,” he explains. “It’s the third to look at the word ‘realism.’ It’s a word we all use, but what does it actually mean? The idea is to go from obviously realistic works to ones that are less so, to examine the distinctions between pure realism and naturalism and other brands of realism, too. What the show will do is go from the obvious to works that people may question as to why they’re included.”

The Art Students League of New York, a venerable organization founded in the 1870s that has welcomed dozens of well-known instructors and students over the years, is practically next door to our hotel, and before we head to Meisel we stop to take a peek inside. Their window display turns out to exemplify the distinctions Kevin is talking about, as four or five works hanging there neatly demonstrate for us the journey from purely realistic work to more expressionistic painting. “This is exactly what the realist show will be about,” says Kevin.

The realist theme has struck a chord with Sarasota audiences; Kevin tells me one of his top three best-attended shows ever was REAList Women (the others were the Helen Frankenthaler solo exhibition and a group show featuring glass works by well-known artists gleaned from local collectors).

It’s already late morning, so we take a cab to SoHo and enjoy lunch at Fanelli’s, a SoHo institution (it says so right on their menus). Fanelli’s has been around since 1847, serving pasta, soups, salads and more on traditional red-checked tablecloths at the corner of Prince and Mercer for most of that time. Then it’s on to Meisel.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the willingness of most galleries to work with us,” Kevin says on the way. “After all, we’re not a major museum or a profit-making enterprise. Some of the galleries have heard of the Ringling College, some haven’t. Since we’re a gallery that deals with education, in choosing work, I think about how I’m going to talk about it in the context of the show, so that’s part of my agenda.”

At the Meisel Gallery, we look at photorealist works by such luminaries of the genre as Richard Estes, Tom Blackwell and Don Eddy, among others. Louis is happy to show Kevin some works by new artists he hasn’t shown at Selby before as well. One young female artist in particular has Meisel excited. Her name is Raphaella Spence, and she does enormously detailed photorealist paintings, many of them cityscapes or vistas of the countryside in Italy, where she lives.

“Because of the improvements in camera equipment and computers, she can blow up the photos hugely without losing clarity,” Meisel explains. Then Spence spends months painstakingly replicating every detail in oil. Soon Meisel and Kevin are hatching a plan to have Raphaella come to Sarasota, go up in a helicopter, shoot photos of our coastline, and then, over time, paint a picture of Sarasota that will hang in the realist show at Selby.

After parting with Meisel, it’s across the street to the Nancy Hoffman Gallery. Hoffman is another dealer with whom Kevin has worked before; in fact, one of her artists, Viola Frey, had a memorable, huge, seated ceramic man in a Selby show I remember well. There’s another Frey piece on display as we enter the Hoffman gallery here.

Nancy leads us back to her office and starts clicking away on her computer as she shows Kevin works by her artists she thinks he might like for the 2009 show. “That one could work as an installation in the entry of the gallery,” says Kevin, pointing to an underwater scene. “It’s especially appropriate for Florida.” Artists from China, Russia and a myriad of other nations are represented here, and one young Eastern European female artist has a video piece running in a loop Kevin is thinking he might also use in the realist exhibition.

After a quick stop at nearby Girls Props to secure a souvenir gift (read: bribe) for our teen daughter, we’re back to the Hoffman Gallery to meet up with our friend Heinz, a photographer who divides his time between his homes in Brooklyn Heights and Sarasota. Kevin always connects with Heinz on his trips to New York, because Heinz keeps up to date on the latest hot shows and has good suggestions on where to go and what to see.

Heinz guides us to Chelsea, where, perhaps because it’s now later in the day, perhaps because of the greater concentration of gallery spaces, especially along 24th Street near 10th and 11th Avenues, more people are looking in the gallery windows or just strolling from one to another than in SoHo. Here there’s also less automobile traffic, along with fewer boutiques and shops than in SoHo; the atmosphere is more seriously arty. For me it soon becomes a dizzying experience of one gallery after another displaying the latest in paintings, videos and installations from New York artists. It’s an interesting example of how starving artists gentrify a neighborhood, since Chelsea used to be known more for its industry and warehouses (think of the movie On the Waterfront) than for its art or eateries. Soon, one figures, Chelsea will become too expensive for aspiring artists and they will move on elsewhere.

Exhausted by the time we head back to the Salisbury, we drag ourselves to dinner at Angelo’s Pizza, right next door to our hotel—one of those genuine New York Italian trattorias where you see the pizza dough being flipped and kneaded by the expert chefs in the kitchen as you wait for your own food to arrive. Mmmm….

Friday, Sept. 14

We begin this morning with our visit to TriBeCa, to the studio-loft of artist Melissa Meyer. Meyer has lived in TriBeCa (famed now for being Robert de Niro’s stomping grounds) for 31 years and has seen the area change and grow phenomenally in that time. “When I first moved here I could see the water,” she says. “Now there are so many more buildings. On the other hand, then it was hard to get people to come here to look at my work. Once it became a restaurant neighborhood, that got easier.”

A native New Yorker who attended NYU, Meyer (clad in traditional artist’s black on this day) has made her home almost since graduation in her 1,500-square-foot loft on the sixth floor (the top one) of her building. It’s stacked practically to its high ceilings with books, newspapers, plants and more, with several large-scale abstract canvases in differing states of completion on the walls. Kevin is showing Meyer’s work Feb. 15 through March 19 of this season, so he knows which pieces he plans to show already. But it’s one thing to see them on slides and another to see them in person.

Meyer has come to the Ringling campus before as a visiting artist, but this is her first one-person show at Selby. Kevin has wanted to feature her since her earlier visit, and when Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania organized this show he signed on as a second venue for it.

After paying our respects at the nearby World Trade Center site, now a construction zone, we take another cab back to the 57th Street area for an Indian buffet lunch at the Bay Leaf with Heinz and Suzanne, his wife. Then we take a pleasant walk alongside Central Park to East 70th Street for a stop at the famous Frick Collection, a spot we’ve never visited before.

Industrialist Henry Clay Frick had the money and the savvy to acquire numerous paintings, sculptures, clocks, porcelains and fine decorative art works, many of them priceless today, and then display them, almost casually it seems, in the Frick mansion here, now a museum. Imagine having a Vermeer or two in your foyer, a Rembrandt self-portrait hanging in the library, and a long gallery full of immediately recognizable faces like Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of St. Thomas More. Comparisons to the Ringling Museum and home here in Sarasota spring to mind, but Frick had a head start on John Ringling, beginning his collecting some 20 years earlier.

From the Frick we move onto the Museum of Modern Art, where Richard Serra’s immense and almost overwhelming pieces of coiling rusted steel are still on display and draw the expected sighs of admiration on our parts. It’s a free Friday night at MoMa, though, and between the crowds and the feeling of art overload, I’m getting seriously tired. Heinz and Kevin are indefatigable, however, so while they take in gallery after gallery of modern art icons, I collapse on a couch by one of the escalators and close my weary eyes.

I open them again for dinner that night (grilled salmon and Asian shrimp) at Rue 57, again a restaurant near the hotel, because my feet are killing me!

Saturday, Sept. 15

Saturday dawns overcast, but before we’re ready to head to the sidewalk the sun is peeking out. Today we’re going to Brooklyn to meet Maxine Rosen, the widow of artist and poet Bruce Rosen, whom Kevin is featuring in a show (which actually ran in November here). Immediately turning off the Brooklyn Bridge, the city seems green and leafy compared to Manhattan, and Henry Street is a welcoming neighborhood of brownstones, maple trees and young couples walking their children in strollers. After lunch at the nearby Heights Café (quiche for me, French toast for Maxine, meatloaf for Kevin), we’re ready to look at Bruce’s works and make selections for the exhibition.

Maxine grew up in Brooklyn, and she and Bruce met on the Promenade there in the early ‘60s, living together and bringing up their daughter in the same small apartment where Maxine has now lived for 36 years. She tells lovely stories of their meeting and their marriage as Kevin props paintings up on white sheets spread over the living room furniture in order to photograph them so he can e-mail the images back to her later, to make sure titles and images match. The Rosen show at Selby will have approximately 25 pieces in the smaller of the two gallery spaces there, and Kevin is trying to figure out beforehand how best to hang them. “Too much light will kill them,” he mutters (he eventually opted for soft spotlights to draw visitors’ attention to the paintings’ subtle nuances, influenced by the artist’s years spent teaching 19th-century literature, including the Transcendentalists).

There were two distinct periods of painting in Rosen’s life, with the early work consisting of large, hard-edged paintings comparable to works by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. The ones that came later, from the early 1980s up to when he died 12 years ago, were usually smaller works. The question Kevin is asking himself here is, “How much range do you show? You don’t want one that sticks out too much from the others. I need to get some variation in light and darkness for how I want to talk about them. And the students need to see that if an idea is worth doing once, it may be worth looking into doing an ongoing series that keeps evolving.”

Kevin and Maxine also discuss how ads and catalogues for the show should be done—what image and what text to use, how best to garner media coverage in Sarasota. Maxine will actually pack up much of the art herself, saving a bit of money on paying to have it done, before shipping it down to Florida.

After an hour or so, Kevin narrows down his choices here, knowing he has more paintings to look at and select from tomorrow when we visit the Rosens’ other home, in The Springs neighborhood of the Hamptons.

The afternoon is waning, and it’s time for us to think about our Saturday-night dinner. It turns out be pasta at Savoia on Smith Street, blocks from Rosen’s apartment and also from Heinz and Suzanne’s converted carriage house, which we visit briefly before strolling the Promenade and taking in those great views of the Manhattan skyline, including the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and the Queen Mary 2, docked here just now. Then it’s the subway back to 57th Street.

Sunday, Sept. 16

Maxine picks us up in her car and we take the Long Island Expressway (remarkably uncrowded, since it’s Sunday morning) to drive to her weekend/summer home in the Springs, not far from the house where painters Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived in the 1940s and 1950s. The Rosens’ home here is a small, comfortable casual house they purchased in the 1980s.

Once we start looking at the paintings here, we all agree the difference between the Brooklyn works and these is readily apparent. These paintings reflect a different, brighter light; it’s a reminder of why so many New York artists have beaten a path to the Hamptons.

It’s a gorgeous fall day, and we’re reluctant to leave, knowing we’ll be heading back to the still-steamy heat of Florida. But it’s time to get home to the kids, and for Kevin to build on the work he’s done here in presenting upcoming exhibitions at Selby.

“We’re the front door to the college for the community,” says Kevin. “Our primary function is education, and we try to show a wide variety of contemporary art, both for our students and for the audience beyond, which is interested in learning about it. I don’t program the most difficult shows for viewers to grasp back to back, but I don’t shy away from them, either. This gallery is my classroom.”

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