Travel: An Art-filled Weekend in New York City

Drenched, tired, and in foolish shoes, I began my art-filled New York City weekend in a little coffee shop along one of those vacant stretches of Chelsea that still—despite the neighborhood’s new boutique hotels and rooftop bars and all that buzz—feel like frontiers, balancing workaday caterers, warehouses and taxi garages with the somewhat occluded heart of the city’s gallery scene. When I lived in New York, I never really explored this far-west strip, a place where hunting down the contemporary art galleries still feels something like a game of cat-and-mouse. As the rain crashed down and I woke up a little, sipping coffee and reading the headlines, I spotted the first signs of life, the trickle of studiously hip gallery workers slogging their way to their gleaming white workplaces.

And then I met one of them, sort of, at my first stop, the Yossi Milo Gallery on 25th Street. I’d been staring at the gripping black-and-white photography of Liu Zheng, an artist living in Beijing who has documented Chinese society through his offbeat portraits of homeless children, puffed-up businessmen and painted opera singers. Right off, I had at least one pressing question: Is that a real human head cut in half and stuck in a jar?

So I approached the desk, where Future Curator No. 352 sat typing into the computer. And typing. And typing. It seemed five minutes went by before she deigned to acknowledge me—especially strange since I was the only one in the joint. Which made the entrance of the personal art guide I’d hired, Merrily Kerr, all the more comforting. Within minutes, the slight and serious art critic and writer had given me the backstory on the works that had most challenged me. (That shot was indeed of a cadaver, photographed at a medical school.) She also filled me in on the artist’s background, including his former job at a Chinese newspaper, and explained a few of his very American influences and references.

As we continued on our two-hour tour of the galleries that start on 25th Street and thread south between 10th and 11th avenues for five blocks, Kerr expounded on the works in front of us without ever seeming forced or professorial. (Imagine a kind of droll, English-educated friend who happens to know a ton about contemporary art.) At the Gagosian Gallery, we strolled up to the giant nude by Jenny Saville, and Kerr explained how the now-30-something artist got off to a grand start when ad magnate Charles Saatchi bought out her entire degree show. Saville had recently sat in on plastic surgery procedures, and elements of this current painting, Kerr noted, might be seen as a reaction to that kind of forced, medical perfection. In the next room, as we gazed upon ghostly architectural photographs by Vera Lutter, Kerr described how the artist builds her camera obscura: She sets up a room/camera across from the buildings she wishes to capture, then waits for days or weeks until the light filtering in creates the kind of image she seeks.

By the time we’d taken in “William Eggleston: The Nightclub Portraits 1973” at Cheim & Read and migrated to the Paula Cooper Gallery on 21st Street (where, amid garages and warehouses, many galleries have no posted names), I’d learned who “John Dogg” is and how one contemporary artist imitates Persian technique by threading squirrel fur through ostrich quills to create her brushes. Not that Kerr is devoted entirely to trivia. Throughout our session (she charges $200 for a two-hour tour for up to four people), we traded more general opinions on the art in front of us. (“This one,” she quipped of a sculpture composed of a giant set of pink plastic saucers, “belongs to the school of—if you make an everyday object really, really big … it’s art!”) She also provided a quick sketch of the Chelsea gallery scene. It grew up after the Dia Art Foundation moved to the neighborhood in 1987 (the center is now slated to relocate to the Meatpacking District), and continued to expand as gallery owners like Gagosian migrated out of pricey SoHo for the then-hinterlands of Chelsea. The latest newcomers, Kerr said, are successful younger artists and gallery owners from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who are seeking a larger buying public in Manhattan.

Of course, they’re not the only young and hip things flocking to the area. In Chelsea, the two-year-old Maritime Hotel stands like a beacon, attracting limos, celebs, and a lively rooftop scene most nights of the week. Culinarily, the area around 10th Avenue is about to explode. Our own Masaharu Morimoto is scheduled to open a new restaurant there in November. Across from his outpost, fellow TV-friendly chef Mario Batali will simmer the gravy at Del Posto this fall. And the list goes on, though my current picks for dinner are of a more tried-and-true nature.

For sharing the first, the Wild Lily Tea Room, at least one of my New York friends will shun me. Not that this intimate, Asian-inspired teahouse with the goldfish pond and smooth, George Nakashima-like tables is exactly a secret. But it is tiny (make reservations) and cool and the perfect place to catch up with a friend or catch your breath in the most Zen way. For dinner, and your antidote to all the Chelsea hipness, go to the Red Cat. The regulars at the bar swore by the grilled salmon, roast chicken and seared skate, and indeed, the latter—along with everything my friends and I ordered—raised the level of the meal above basic bistro. But best of all, and I don’t mean this as some kind of code for the food not being that good, the staff is unusually nice at this local institution, from the way they take your reservation to the care they take pouring your prosecco-and-strawberries concoction.

If you’re staying the night, the no-fail downtown recommendation is the Ritz-­Carlton Battery Park. From Chelsea, it’s a quick shot down the West Side Highway by cab (or a few stops on the subway) to all that luxury and service. Rooms in the three-year-old skyscraper are handsomely outfitted with muted, Art Deco-inspired furnishings, marble baths (and on-call “bath butlers”), and world-class beds and linens. Sliding out of the million-count Frette sheets the next morning, I was greeted by the view from the southernmost tip of Manhattan, now without a trace of fog. Seemingly an oar’s-length away were the Statue of Liberty and the spires of Ellis Island, with ferries shuttling betwixt and between. Joggers ticked along the path that follows the water north from Battery Park, and I joined them there later, running with the help of the breeze off the water. Rise, the hotel’s rooftop bar, has another not-to-be-missed view.

Day Two of the art experience began at the much-heralded Museum of Modern Art. When I’d called ahead and asked about the best time to go, I’d been told there was “no magic window,” and to expect a line. But before noon on a Sunday, I waltzed right in, and noticed, amid the vast space, with ceilings that stretch to the sky, how much more dressed-up everyone seemed to be than I recalled from the pre-renovation days. Apparently, MoMA is now a place to be seen while you’re seeing Art. I started on floor five, which I’d been told was the thing to do. The endless parade of modern masters—Chagall, Gauguin, Miró and more—was impressive, yes, but surprisingly entertaining, too. Two hours passed before I realized I should also hit the floor below, a more inscrutable collection (a canvas of black, a collection of clear tubing).

Whatever; it was time to eat, and my husband had arrived to meet me for lunch at the bar at the Modern, chef Gabriel Kreuther’s slightly less formal answer to the main MoMA dining room. The Modern has the view of the sculpture garden, but the bar had that wonderful New York mix of Upper East Side doyennes and downtown aesthetes. We feasted on small plates, including roast quail stuffed with citrus and rhubarb, and arctic char tartare with daikon sprouts and a dollop of trout caviar, and thoroughly enjoyed the energetic ’60s-retro space (with very 2005 communal bathrooms), which has a sophisticated wine list. Just make reservations; those who hadn’t were given a wait of over two hours.

Next, we headed north a few short subway stops to cosmetic magnate Ronald Lauder’s rarefied jewel on Fifth Avenue, the Neue Galerie. Devoted to Austrian and German art, with beautiful Klimts and Schieles and a veritable shrine to Mies van der Rohe and other Bauhaus craftsmen, it’s a great way to pass an hour. Even if you’re not all that into 20th-­century German art, you’ll love the gilded space, once the home of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III. Grab a coffee at the museum café, which feels like a moment in Vienna.

After a stroll in Central Park and dinner with our Upper East Side friends, we taxied to our final destination, the Library Hotel, located one block south of Grand Central Station and offering a quirky boutique experience. Each room is filled with tomes on a different subject: biography, art and design, poetry, or, in our case, “erotic literature.” Titles examining everything from incest to fertility rituals unnerved us more than they turned us on, but we appreciated the well-appointed room, the chic bath, and, most of all, the gorgeous multi-room rooftop deck and lounge, where you can recuperate amid the twinkle of city lights.

* What to Do:
Merrily Kerr Art Tours, 877-839-4926.
The Museums of Lower Manhattan,
The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street; 212-708-9400.
Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue; 212-628-6200.

* Where to Stay:
Ritz-Carlton Battery Park, 2 West Street, 212-344-0800; rooms from $545.
The Library Hotel, 299 Madison Avenue, 212-983-4500; rooms from $229.

* Where to Eat:
Wild Lily Tea Room, 511-A West 22nd Street, 212-691-2258; afternoon tea, including tea sandwiches, scones, pastries and teas, $30.
The Red Cat, 227 10th Avenue, 212-242-1122; dinner for two, about $110 with wine.
The bar at the Modern, 9 West 53rd Street, 212-333-1220; lunch for two, about