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TIRED OF THE THEORIES ABOUT ART, which I had either absorbed or spun myself, I did the decent thing at last. I took the inductive path—wandering the galleries themselves. Mockery had proven too facile, even if the offerings of New York galleries and museums had facilitated that posture. It left me hollow, especially after realizing that the closest one can come to the official channels of art criticism are doing a fine send-up job already. And so I walked, like a penitent pilgrim, and did so for approximately seven years. Austrian Heinrich Harrer had his seven years in Tibet, and I my seven years in Chelsea, scaling the cliffs of culture in that extraordinary concentration of art galleries on the west side of Manhattan. Looking back now from a professorial post, the precious leisure that enabled an art history graduate student to so frequently pound the New York pavement seems unimaginable. But some lessons require leisure to learn.

Chelsea is a relatively new feature of that ever-shifting accident of cultural history so clumsily referred to (as if it were something monolithic or definable) as the art world. One enthusiastic art historian has called this concentration of well over three hundred individual art venues “the most extraordinary gallery area in human history,” which sounds impressive until one remembers that the gallery as we know it is a late-nineteenth-century development, or that an Amsterdam census in 1650 showed there to have been more painters in that city than bakers. But no matter. Chelsea as an art center is still impressive, born in the mid-1990s, thanks to the overconfidence of SoHo’s downtown gallery district, which had chased out its clients with skyrocketing rents. This immediately made Chelsea, a drug-infested, low-rent holdout, home to a different kind of dealer. Out stepped the prostitutes, in stepped the painters in that well known waltz of gentrification. The enormity of the spaces, former warehouses from the neighborhood’s industrialized past, made them ideal venues for art’s expansion into grand-scale performance and more ambitious installations. Before long, nearly half of the galleries in Manhattan found themselves here. Indeed, nearly all galleries of major international standing have a space, or spaces, in Chelsea.

To assist in the bewildering task of evaluating art, Henry James famously offered three questions: “What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he/she succeed? Was it worth doing?” As I attempted to evaluate what I witnessed in Chelsea, I generated three answers to the first of those questions. Firstly, there was art about art: art that somehow commented upon art history or the state of art today. “Being an artist now,” explained conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, “means to question the nature of art.” This kind of art can be of interest, but it also becomes irrelevantly insular very quickly, so I’ll politely leave such exhibitions aside. Secondly, there was protest art, what could be called the art of the barricade. This is art that critiqued, problematized, or even attacked what we might call the artist’s host society in some way. Thirdly, there was art that could be categorized under the banner of beauty, so long as—and this is very important—beauty is not precisely or narrowly defined. In short, to navigate the Chelsea galleries in the years that I did was to witness the eclipse of the second category by the third, the barricade being overtaken by beauty. Beauty, after all, is a protest of its own, because the presence of the kind of apophatic, indefinable beauty I am describing naturally—and far more effectively—challenges the injustice and disorder of a necessarily imperfect world. My claim to have witnessed a transition from the barricade to beauty requires explanation, much of which, I’m afraid, has less to do with a grand-scale societal re-enchantment than a plain, uninspiring appeal to politics and economics.

Plate 7. Thomas Hirschhorn. Superficial Engagement, 2006. Installation view at Gladstone Gallery. © Thomas Hirschhorn. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

The Bush years, when my sojourns in Chelsea began, had the effect of galvanizing the art world’s Democratic bloc into a vague coalition of resistance. This was accomplished by (perhaps appropriately) intensifying anxiety. When Artforum, surveying the art of the last decade, put forth that it is “heightened insecurity that much art has attempted to manifest, even to exacerbate,” this was largely—it seems to me—what they meant. On one of my first visits, I recall not knowing how to relate to Thomas Hirschhorn’s Superficial Engagement, a collage of gruesome Iraq war images that had mutated to encrust the entire Barbara Gladstone Gallery like gangrene [see Plate 7]. Hirschhorn responded to media saturation by attempting to outdo it, not unlike—it seems to me—attempting to fight fire with gasoline. He combined horrifying images of war with copies of abstract art, as if to call attention to the impotence of paint before blood. Hirschhorn’s was a walk-in Guernica, where the crucifixions—mannequin hands punctured with hundreds of nails—were multiplied, but to no salvific effect.

Not all barricade art was as serious as Hirschhorn’s. Another artist, featured at a Whitney Biennial if I recall correctly, simply placed a Michael Jackson bobble head that he had purchased in a toy boat alongside a drunken Uncle Sam. The artist’s statement spoke of the “death of America” (and this in an exhibit that the curators promised was “not cynical”). Another artist depicted the American male as a life-size Minotaur leaning on a cane made of Budweiser cans (“I hope people can see this is made with love of men,” pleaded the artist in the audio guide). There was also the video installation that simply comprised video footage of the Mall of America, stained red, with loud, menacing music in the background, or another video of people rolling around in fake blood shooting fake machine guns. Henry James’s two questions (“Did he/she succeed?” and “Was it worth doing?”) come to mind, along with the words no and no. As I suggested, the official voices of art criticism are quite good at giving this kind of art what it deserves. Harvard’s Benjamin Buchloh aimed his arrows at the plumpest of targets: “Matthew Barney, even more than Jeff Koons…is a proto-totalitarian artist for me, a small-time American Richard Wagner who mythifies the catastrophic conditions of existence under late capitalism.” Likewise, Yve-Alain Bois of the Institute for Advanced Study complains: “The paradigm isn’t resistance versus dissolution any more: resistance is immediately dissolved in the new situation.” Indeed, that seems to constitute the essence of art theory’s momentary vanguard: protesting, from the world’s finest universities (or a Manhattan pied-à-terre), that artistic strategies of resistance to the late capitalist regime might not be effective. I cringe to suggest this because it echoes the complaints of certain reactionaries who unjustly dismiss our universities in toto, but on this particular point, the complaints are unfortunately correct.

Slowly, however, the winds seemed to change. There was something about the economic crash of 2008 that troubled—to mix my metaphors—the routine waters of protest. Generally speaking, a shrunken art market meant fewer opportunities for risk: fewer mangled Madonnas and contorted crucifixes, fewer galleries willing to give over their expensive real estate to art that shocks before it sells. Obama politics, at least initially more conducive to art world intelligentsia, combined with an economic downturn, frustrated the barricade mentality. During the Bush years, the mission of contemporary art was clear: “Everyone had become a rabble-rousing critic-activist-curator,” wrote one contributor to October, the heady journal named after Russia’s 1917 revolution. “Then Obama happened, and we are still in a state of collective shock.” One Chelsea artist, Alex Grey—chief cleric of the New Age gallery called the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors—even went so far as to deify the new president (as, to be fair, Grey would deify us all). Using his signature style that fuses medical textbook illustration with Buddhist, Hindu, and gnostic spirituality, Grey painted Anatomy of a World Leader, an image of a smiling Obama with a shining globe on his forehead, and with what seems like a traditional Christian halo, but with star-spangled rays of red, white, and blue. Chelsea had discovered patriotism.

Plate 8. Dominic McGill. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 2011. Graphite and collage on paper, mounted on canvas. 80 x 96 inches. Courtesy of Derek Eller Gallery, New York.

To be sure, the art of the barricade did not go away. The impossibly intricate, wildly detailed pencil drawings of Dominic McGill—“epic works in graphite”—were a feature of Bush-era Chelsea, venerable biblical timelines where eschatology was replaced with contemporary politics, and Isaiah and Habakkuk switched out for Marx and Foucault [see Plate 8]. To accommodate the new political order, McGill simply took one of his drawings, drew a caricature of Obama, and stubbornly added the words “Black capitalism is still capitalism.” McGill is a talented artist of conviction, but if one’s objective is class struggle, the artistic agenda scrawled on a Paris wall during the 1968 riots is difficult to surpass: “The most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop’s head.” What’s more, the gallery that housed these excoriating anti-capitalist timelines was adjacent to the Lamborghinis, Bentleys, and Alfa Romeos for sale at Manhattan Motor Cars, robbing McGill’s work—I’m afraid—of much of its intended impact. Chelsea is a less than sturdy platform from which to remonstrate the bourgeoisie.

If one hopes to protest an oppressive society, why not instead set up an exhibit in, say, North Korea? Yibin Tian’s Our New York seems to be an answer to that question. His performance art involved Korean men dressed up as North Korean soldiers marching down Wall Street and in front of the Statue of Liberty, led by the artist dressed up as a monk. Tian, the catalogue tells us, “wanted to confront another demilitarized zone called American capitalism.” But all Tian’s exhibit really succeeded in doing was to highlight the astonishing degree of liberty that artists enjoy within it. Tian and his retinue were (understandably) inspected by New York police, their fake holsters were examined, and the grandest consequence seems to have been the exhibit being given center stage at the Chelsea Art Museum. The same stunt in North Korea might not, we can guess, have ended so happily. When I heard that the Chelsea Art Museum was closing, I wasn’t surprised.

Plate 9. Andrew Sendor. Installation view from right: Alejandro Celestino, artist unknown, 2013, human being & mixed media, dimensions variable; Soliloquy, Ana Libittina, 2012, video projection, 107 minutes, 2009. Oil on linen mounted to panel. 26 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist & Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica.

All this is to say that after 2008, the artists and theorists who manicure the lawn of resistance grew weary, and beauty’s dandelions began to spring. The shift for me came with a show by a young artist, Andrew Sendor, at Caren Golden Fine Art, entitled Based on a True Story. Previously, mere mortals such as myself might have been brushed aside as gallery owners bee-lined for AmEx Centurion cardholders, but in the new market, everyone got the tycoon treatment. Not only did the gallery owner eagerly describe the paintings to me and my companions, he introduced us to the painter as well. This was no Kafkaesque hunger artist staring from behind the bars of his display cage, but a courteous presence who was genuinely eager to share the inspiration of his work. Sendor’s collages mixed nineteenth-century Victorian figures into contemporary museumscapes to create “uncanny hypothetical scenarios.” In one painting, the artist chose to depict Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and was happy to learn from one in our group the background of the imagery he had innocently, not ironically, employed [see Plate 9].

I was pleasantly surprised at enough similar exhibitions to tentatively suggest my theory of beauty’s return to a knowledgeable friend, who thought I was mistaken. The challenge prompted an unplanned visit to Chelsea—a pop quiz on the art world to see if beauty’s comeback was overplayed. The first gallery I stepped into hosted a series of exquisite landscapes by Albert Kresch—the kind of painting that, inexplicably but just as certainly, stimulates the taste buds as well as the eyes. Kresch’s miniature vistas betrayed bold use of the brush, and were seasoned with a complicating dash of abstraction [see Plate 10]. Think of Kresch as a Mark Rothko who averted suicide, quit smoking, kept painting, and descended back down to earth. Or consider him similar to Vincent van Gogh, who somehow translated the Bible into the language of landscape. As was becoming more commonplace, the gallery was warm and inviting, and again, the artist was present. Two students in their early twenties stepped forward to introduce themselves to the painter. They had been charged with visiting this show by their professors at the Studio School (one of many schools that now teach traditional artistic practices). I romanticized the scene: an older painter, who had protected beauty’s flickering flame from the winds of fashion, was meeting a younger generation who hoped to light their torches as well. But perhaps this was less romanticism that the truth.

Plate 10. Albert Kresch. House by the Road, 2006. Oil and acrylic on canvas board. 6 x 7 ¾ inches. Courtesy of Lohin Geduld Gallery, New York.

Fearing this to be a fluke, I entered the next gallery, and portraits and landscapes once again delivered an aesthetic rush. I was charmed by a depiction of an old-growth suburban home and a green Volkswagen bus. The piece was painted from a crooked bird’s-eye view, and gently exposed the lazy-eyed lie that the suburbs are visually uninteresting. I don’t have the budget for Chelsea paintings, but in my fascination I forgot, so I asked the gallery owner about it. His smiling reply was, “It was sold a half hour ago.” After similarly pleasant visits to two more galleries I could only conclude that Chelsea, beauty’s sanctuary on this particular Thursday night, had passed the quiz.

This new emphasis becomes all the more worthy of attention when one considers that the traditional New York galleries of the Upper East Side never abandoned beauty in the first place. With a reminder that beauty need not be limited to certain styles, I can confess that these experiences culminated in a visit to the studio of the noteworthy classical realist Jacob Collins [see Image issue 60]. As the artist articulated his principles to the group of us there gathered, he effortlessly dismantled each of the preemptive criticisms I had heard uttered about the presumably conservative nature of “this kind of work.” Honing a craft over a lifetime is only the first step—one must also ensure that the craft itself has been honed over lifetimes, even centuries, as the kind of painting too often dismissed as “traditional” has.

Even the formidable art theorist Rosalind Krauss seems to have come around to this realization late in her career (after, one could argue, doing so much to undo it). In the latest version of the heady tome Art Since 1900, the woman who built a career by railing against Clement Greenberg’s medium-specific formalism pulled a complete about-face:

If I as a critic have any responsibility now, it is to dissociate myself from this attack on the medium, and to speak for its importance, which is to say for the continuance of modernism…. [A] medium grounds an artistic production, and provides a set of rules for that production. Without the logic of a medium, art is in danger of descending into kitsch.

One feels for the artists who—taking cues from an earlier Krauss—did not benefit from her reversal. Fortunately, the priority of craft and the ensuing beauty on offer in Chelsea show that many realized this on their own. Furthermore, if modernism as a style now deserves continuance, why not the style that it reacted against, or the style before that? When art is released from teleological captivity—the Hegelian heresy that only something recent can be right—then art is liberated to move up as well as forward, to cultivate old pathways as well as to break new ones. The aim should be the beauty of being itself, a beauty capable of exhausting—and renewing—any and all media employed to unfurl it.

§

During my seven-year sojourn among the galleries, I noticed that a different kind of openness ran parallel to Chelsea’s new openness to beauty—and the two developments are not unrelated. This was the friendliness to religion I was enjoying at the institution from which I would launch these monthly trips into the city: Princeton University. When I had enrolled there as a graduate student in art history, fresh from the same town’s theological seminary, I was expecting a certain hostility to religion. On the contrary, I experienced hospitality to faith that frequently rivaled, and sometimes exceeded, that of the seminary I had just left. This increasing hospitality was as measurable in my seven or so years of study as was the increase of beauty in New York.

On the way to a seminar one morning, I finally decided to count up the ubiquitous signs for religion-based events, and realized that university-sanctioned activities having to do with faith easily outnumbered all others. Stanley Fish’s oft-quoted assertion that religion would “succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy” was becoming more reality than suggestion. The news was frequently confirmed in print. “It was inevitable,” wrote William Johnsen in the inaugural issue of English Language Notes, “that the shame associated with admitting religious belief in the secular world of the human sciences in midcentury would prepare the ground for the great succès de scandale of religious (re)turn at the end of the century.” Writing in History & Theory, Berkeley professor Martin Jay put it this way: “The cultured despisers of yore—a few well-publicized exceptions like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins aside—have been replaced by a new gaggle of no less cultured admirers.”

During my years of study, I watched this post-secular ethos slowly transform the history of art. Just before I began, the art historian James Elkins had written On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, which had upset me when it first appeared. My frustration, however, was unnecessary. From the vantage point of art history, the place of religion was becoming far more familiar than strange. One professor, noting my interest in faith, directed me to an article in the journal of record in my field entitled “The ‘Return’ of Religion in Scholarship of American Art.” I was thrilled—but quickly discovered that there was an equivalent viewpoint in nearly every sub-field I cared to research, from the medieval to the modern. Even the most resolutely secular of the sub-disciplines—the dominant field of contemporary art—has confessed its secular predicament and called, however halfheartedly, for change.

One recent book seems to encapsulate this disciplinary inevitability: Timothy Gorringe’s Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art (2011). The author, a theologian with an impressive mastery of art history, does not ignore or refuse the secular, nor does he insist that explicitly religious imagery be permitted into galleries. Instead, Gorringe offers a “positive appreciation of secularity…[which is] part and parcel of Christian revelation.” Accordingly, landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, once considered worldly because they lacked explicitly religious content, instead reveal what Erich Auerbach termed the “sacredness of everyday life.” Like the goose at the head of a V-formation, Gorringe’s book seems to be leading the migration from the frosty northlands of secularism to warmer domains where different kinds of scholarship can flourish—domains where, in Gorringe’s words, “the secular as an autonomous ‘godless’ sphere simply disappears.” James Elkins once suggested that the exclusion of religion from art and art history could only be remedied with a “change in the sum total of people who give us our best account of art.” He posited that shift as a distant possibility, but a new flock of art historians is affecting that change more quickly than was previously assumed.

It is here that we can bring in the revival of interest in the Catholic philosopher and art theorist Jacques Maritain, or the fact that one of the finest art historians of the twentieth century—who anticipated the best developments in the field—was the Orthodox priest and polymath Pavel Florensky, martyred by espousers of the secular ideology he out-thought and out-loved. If art historian Michael Fried’s career-making essay Art and Objecthood began with a snippet from Jonathan Edwards’s prayer journal, a new generation is now interested in going back to North America’s greatest theologian of beauty for more. Art historians are now less willing to ignore the fact that Hugo Ball, very much like Salvador Dalí, abandoned the Dada movement that he so ardently cofounded, returning by 1920 with his wife Emmy to the Catholicism of Ball’s youth. “I have broken the oath of allegiance I once gave to the church,” he confessed. “Now I am seeking my way back to the church and a life full of mistakes lies between us.” And so, we might argue, Hugo Ball’s resistance to his host society really began. It is no coincidence that after Ball’s “defection to God” (as one frustrated art historian put it), he then went on to write a book about Byzantine ascetic saints.

Indeed, it is just those early desert monks who offer the kind of resistance that the makers and critics of contemporary art have found so elusive. One semester, as I oscillated between Hal Foster’s course on the artistic avant garde and a seminar on Christian monasticism, the comparison waxed endlessly instructive. In short, early Christian ascetics were a brand of radical that would make Joseph Beuys blush: men who spent their wedding nights convincing their wives not to consummate the marriage that they might both become monastics; who would confess to crimes they hadn’t committed for the sheer humiliation; who would happily counsel those who came to them spewing insults, but would turn away all who esteemed them as wise; who, to repent for killing a mosquito in anger, would descend naked into the swampland and return unrecognizably swollen. Rather than demonizing the bourgeoisie, these monks demonized demons, and saw the real battle to be primarily not with the decadence of the leisure class, but with themselves. Such ascetic acrobats knew that genuine resistance requires divine momentum, which is perhaps why the half-hearted protests of well-fed artists and art theorists so predictably fail.

One need not be a Christian to come to this realization. One of the brightest of self-professed revolutionaries long ago realized that secularists are more than fashionably late to the barricades. In 1938, postmodern darling Georges Bataille pointed to the early Christian movement as a model which could prevent the perpetual compromising of the artistic avant-garde—an exemplum of the kind of revolution that was actually successful. Granted, Bataille had long renounced his Catholic faith and tried to revive a (now defunct) atheistic mysticism, but at least he was honest about the religious origins of lasting social critique.

§

Plate 11. Hermann Nitsch. 60 Malaktion, 2011. Installaions view at Mike Weiss gallery, New York. Courtesy of Mike Weiss Gallery, New York.

As I continued my visits to Chelsea in the final years of my graduate work, I had reason to think that these dual resumptions—that of beauty in the art world and religion in art history—were uniting. More and more artists seemed to be playing church. One afternoon turned up an explosively colorful pseudo-chapel that called to me from across Chelsea’s canyon-like streets. The artist was the Austrian Hermann Nitsch, a self-described “actionist” whose performance art faintly echoes the stunts of the desert monks just described [see Plate 11]. Unlike them, Nitsch lacks a liturgy, and therefore must invent one, infamously—in one early performance—playing art’s high priest by crucifying a lamb and displaying its entrails. Art Since 1900 puts it this way: “Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater (Orgies Mysteries Theater) sincerely attempt[s] to reconstitute the intensity of experience once offered by catharsis in the classical tragedies, the redeeming rituals of Christianity, opera, and Baroque theater….” But Nitsch has been less severe of late. The show I witnessed at the Mike Weiss Gallery entailed the fossilized remains of a semi-religious ritual that had taken place days before. Paint-splattered liturgical vestments were laid upon makeshift altars, not in an attempt to attack religion, but to approximate it. It felt like a prayer to the maker of color. The walls, too, were smeared with red pigment as if Nitsch hoped to protect his art, Passover style, from the avenging angel of banality.

Plate 12. Terence Koh. nothingtoodoo (eliade), 2011. Installation view. C-print. 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

On the same visit, I was fortunate enough to witness a performance comprising one solitary artist, Terence Koh, encircling a massive pile of salt on his knees [see Plate 12]. Earlier on I would have laughed and moved on, as indeed many did. But years of exposure had worn down my suspicions, and I began to see this act for what it was—less idolatry than (to cite art historian Daniel Siedell, so helpful in these matters) a prayer to an unknown God, and a remarkably disciplined one at that. Like Nitsch, Koh began his career with some ridiculous antics, which I will resist the temptation to relate. But also like Nitsch, Koh seems to have turned a corner. “Maybe,” suggested one commentator on his salt circles, “the work is an extended apology for past bad-boy behavior.” Perhaps those better versed in the arts of repentance and contemplation should not snicker, but understand. The silence in the gallery as Koh slowly circumnavigated this pillar of salt left me in wonder that there is something other than nothing, and did evoke a note of repentance. Looking back, I wonder if I should have kneeled along with him—kneeled, that is, to the God who was actually there.

The painter Piet Mondrian may have claimed that “Art advances where religion once led,” but the sacred is not a zero-sum game. Instead, “the vision which the artist has,” wrote H.D. Lewis, “is always on the point of passing over into a religious one.” Why do galleries so frequently play church, to the point where the Venice Biennial Leone d’Oro prize for best National Participation last year was awarded to another pseudo-chapel? Because art has failed as religion, and no other options remain. The theologian David Bentley Hart, who—I braggingly relate—once joined me and another friend on one of these Chelsea walks, explains it best:

Christianity is the midwife of nihilism not because it is itself nihilistic, but because it is too powerful in its embrace of the world and all of the world’s mystery and beauty; and so to reject Christianity now is, of necessity, to reject everything except the barren anonymity of spontaneous subjectivity…. Where now can we go? Everything is Christ’s…. The Christian God has taken up everything into himself; all the treasures of ancient wisdom, all the splendor of creation, every good thing has been assumed into the story of the incarnate God, and every stirring toward transcendence is soon recognized by the modern mind—weary of God—as leading back toward faith.

That faith is deeply present in Chelsea, the material presence of which, over the years, I was less and less able to ignore. The name Chelsea, after all, can be traced back to the London neighborhood, once home to Sir Thomas More, after which the New York district’s first homestead was named. That family ultimately donated land to the Episcopal Church to construct General Theological Seminary, a Chelsea resident since 1827, located just south of where the galleries are clustered today. After a gallery walk one wintry afternoon, I finally visited, because the sunset had cast the nineteenth-century brownstone Gothic tower in screaming red. I had arrived just in time for evening prayer, and a hospitable seminarian gently guided me as to which book to use and where to turn. The Anglo-Catholic vespers were recited with solemn perfection between two small bands of worshippers across the darkened choir. Makeshift liturgies, invented by artists just yesterday, simply can’t compete. Which is to say, Nitsch’s crucified lamb cannot take away the sins of the world.

As we sang the Apostle’s Creed, we all turned toward the altar, which for structural reasons faces north. There a sculpture of Christ the good shepherd, flanked by four saints, looked back at us, a routinely sumptuous example of Victorian-era statuary. Each was neatly situated in a Gothic lunette. The statues, I then realized, were curiously in line with the galleries just beyond them. It was as if the reality represented by Christ and his companions had underwritten each one of my Chelsea afternoons.

§

Since I’ve left the area, migrating—like Nick at the end of The Great Gatsby—from the East Coast to the Midwest, I read that things have changed. The New York Times describes Chelsea of the last year as “high-polish mediocrity…a long flat line, with month after month of young artists rehashing yesteryear’s trends and veterans cannibalizing their own careers.” ARTnews even reports on a reverse migration to the SoHo galleries, making 2012 “the year that downtown became hip in the art world again.” And Occupy Wall Street, of course, has resuscitated the barricade mentality, in some cases literally.

Plate 13. Derek Buckner. AGowanus Canal Evening, 2011. Oil on canvas. 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of George Billis Gallery, New York.

A recent trip to New York gave me the opportunity to see what had become of the galleries I had frequented so often. The Highline, a public park made of an abandoned elevated railway, finally stitched the disparate Chelsea galleries together. At one viewing point, I noticed, the Empire State Building itself seems to spring miraculously from General Theological Seminary’s tower. I descended to street level and slipped into one opening to witness the exquisite cityscapes of Brooklyn artist Derek Buckner. Canaletto gave us panoramas of Venice, and Buckner does the same for our post-industrial habitations—making them, through the alchemy of paint, almost as beautiful. Buckner is an urban Jacob van Ruisdael, or a version of the American city painter Charles Sheeler, but with more painterly flair [see Plate 13]. Beauty persists. On the other hand, the Highline almost makes it too easy to access the galleries. Rents are rising, restaurants are abounding, the subway is being extended west, and for the first time I entered a gallery and was politely told (because it was a private party) I had to leave. One could conclude that Chelsea’s edge has been inexorably blunted, moneyed away. But whatever has, or will, become of the Chelsea art scene, ever since those vespers in General Seminary, my perspective has changed.

My eyes were opened to a fact so obvious that I was dumbfounded it had escaped me, even as it escapes thousands of gallery visitors each year, and even as the Highline vantage points make it all the more difficult to ignore: Chelsea is ensconced in churches—living ones, too. There is the mighty Church of the Holy Apostles that warmly greets visitors from the north, and the proudly Pentecostal church on Twenty-Ninth Street that has yet to be gentrified away, with Jesús es la luz del mundo emblazoned on a neon cross. The aforementioned syncretist Chapel of Sacred Mirrors has since moved upstate, but for now, the churches hold. At the south end of the district is the rambling Romanesque façade of Guardian Angels Roman Catholic Church, whose expertly carved winged protectors steadily keep watch. Not to be forgotten is the handsome Gothic tower of Saint Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, or Saint Eleftherios Orthodox Church, its golden interior swimming with painted saints. The monumental presence of faith is as evident in Chelsea as religion now is to the most recent histories of art. These churches are reminders that the supposedly secular art world is a fast fraying myth, one only as formidable as we allow it to be. Nothing, after all, eludes the persistent, gentle presence of the infinitely transcendent, infinitely immanent God—a God closer to the creative class aristocracy than each of them are to themselves. The stones of these churches sing the liturgies that preceded those of the art world, and which will outlast them. The beauty within the galleries, I have noticed, sometimes sings along.


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