The Wild West: Alex Gartenfeld and Matt Moravec’s Avant-Garde Incubator Grows Along the Highway

Mr. Gartenfeld and Mr. Moravec (Photo: Matt Creed)

Three tiny letters—“WSG”—pasted  over the buzzer for apartment 2 at 395 West Street let you know you’ve arrived at West Street Gallery, but that’s the only clue. When The Observer visited the gallery, which is run by Alex Gartenfeld and Matt Moravec inside Mr. Gartenfeld’s three-bedroom apartment, the traffic from the West Side Highway was zooming loudly past. At a construction site on the corner, a group of men were jack hammering the street. Across the river, New Jersey loomed. A neighbor’s dog was barking threateningly as The Observer walked up the flight of stairs to go inside. Mr. Gartenfeld, the online editor of the magazines Interview and Art in America, lives in the apartment, but Mr. Moravec, an independent curator, keeps office hours. He answered the door in his socks.

“It’s a good thing the dog didn’t bite you,” Mr. Moravec said to The Observer.

He was bearded, well-dressed and so tall The Observer had to crane his neck a bit to meet his eyes.

Mr. Moravec led the way into an office—it used to be an extra bedroom—that was cluttered with papers and big rolls of bubble wrap. Leaning against a wall next to a humidifier was a framed piece by the artist Sam Falls, whose solo exhibition filled the apartment. The framed work was part of his first series of abstract “fades,” which West Street Gallery showed for the first time at the NADA Art Fair in Miami last December. Mr. Falls placed sheets of construction paper outside his studio and covered portions of them with other sheets of paper; as the piece is exposed to light, the sun fades the area where the obscuring paper rests, leaving behind a dark shadow. In the main room—the fridge and stove in the corner, the space’s only visible furniture aside from the desk and chair in the office, made it clear this is a kitchen and dining area—two flat, geometrical sculptures, one bright orange and the other blue, were illuminated by the sun poking through the window. Their color was playing off of two other fades hanging on the opposite wall, these ones made in the California desert with swaths of dyed fabric and two-by-fours. It was hot and there was no air conditioning. At times, it was difficult to hear Mr. Moravec over the traffic from the street below.

There are other constraints here—low ceilings and narrow hallways—that place limits on the work the gallery can show (Mr. Falls had to make his fabric fades smaller so they would fit), but this helps create low-key exhibitions, ones that allow the objects in the room to speak for themselves. The founders have cultivated a group of young talent—all roughly the same age as Mr. Gartenfeld and Mr. Moravec (24 and 27 respectively)—that includes Zak Kitnick, Ryan Foerster, Kyle Thurman, Dominic Nurre and Erik Lindman. They don’t represent these artists, in the way a conventional gallery would, and the closest galleries—Gavin Brown and Maccarone—are to the east. On the surface, West Street Gallery feels like it is at the far edge of the art world.

Except that it isn’t. With only about 10 shows, West Street has already become a kind of destination. Everyone involved is young, but the space was partly formed, and is still entangled with, people in the higher reaches of the global art scene. Every opening is packed, with crowds spilling out into the stairwell and bodies pressed against one another in the cramped space, all trying to get a better view. There are lots of 20-somethings, but among them are more established figures, like artist Rita Ackermann, who has been in a group show, and collectors, like real estate developer Phil Aarons and his wife, Shelley. It is the quintessential postrecession art space, as much the product of connections with key people and institutions as it is the outgrowth of the spirit of a youthful scene.

West Street Gallery opened in the summer of 2010 with an exhibition of works by Grayson Revoir, Daniel Turner and Kon Trubkovich and a website complete with an idiosyncratic blog that many of the artists are involved with (it is updated a couple times a week with posts that include images of Mr. Revoir brushing his teeth and Sam Falls flossing). For a year before that, Mr. Gartenfeld had been co-organizing shows in the apartment at 13 Allen Street that he shared with his then-roommate, and co-founder, Piper Marshall, assistant curator at the Swiss Institute. The two cast a wide net in terms of what they exhibited, from rising stars like the artist duo AIDS-3D to older talent like Dan Graham and Richard Aldrich. The apartment was cramped and in an old tenement walk-up; the furniture competed with the work for space. They called it Three’s Company.

“It was really strange at times,” said Ms. Marshall. “We had different pieces in our bedrooms. We’d give tours. It was a very small apartment and it was very lived in. We did a projection once that was over my bed.” She was referring to a video by Tobias Kaspar that showed hands perusing a fanzine dedicated to Leonardo DiCaprio. “It got to be a little much at times,” she said.

When Mr. Gartenfeld moved out he began working with his longtime friend Mr. Moravec. They didn’t discuss goals or a mission statement. They found the space at 395 West Street through the Lower East Side dealer Joel Mesler’s landlord.
From the outset, West Street was a dramatic departure from Three’s Company. That older space had presented domesticity as a way of both complementing and contending with the art on the walls; part of its allure was the clutter of everyday life, which made the art, at times, into an unnatural presence. West Street is more like the triumph of art over life. One artist described the apartment as a “completely neutral” environment. Any evidence that someone lives there is carefully masked (Mr. Gartenfeld’s bedroom door remains closed). The apartment was the first apartment Mr. Gartenfeld and Mr. Moravec looked at. For the first year, Mr. Mesler leased an 8-by-12 foot bedroom in the apartment for $1,000 a month, helping out with rent and using it to show work that didn’t fit in at his Lower East Side gallery, Untitled. He called it Spare Room.

“The apartment isn’t a statement,” Mr. Mesler said. “It’s their life, and they take it seriously. But Alex still lives there. I came early once to an opening, rang the bell and he answered the door and looked awful. I was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And he said, ‘I just had a big burrito and I was sleeping.’”

Through Mr. Gartenfeld, Mr. Mesler met the British curator Sir Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary at London’s venerable Royal Academy. He recalls Sir Norman saying, “People like us should help Alex and push him to do what he wants to do.” Shortly before that, two years ago, Marcia Vetrocq, then editor of Art in America, assigned Mr. Gartenfeld two 4,000-word feature articles over the course of three months. Last year, the artist Haley Mellin asked him to be co-curator of the inaugural exhibition of a new initiative called the New Jersey Museum of Contemporary Art, and the two of them filled a 14,000-square-foot convention center with work by 37 artists. Mr. Gartenfeld now writes a column on emerging artists for Art in America but keeps his writing separate from the work he shows. In conversation, he can be a staunch realist.

“I think the idea of ‘discovery’ is ridiculous,” he said, “because everybody in the art world uses the Internet. But we do give people their first New York shows. So if that amounts to discovery, fine.” After a moment he added: “You kind of need someone to do that for you.”

Mr. Moravec is soft-spoken. One artist compared him to “a great player of chess,” adding that he “notices everything.” Sam Falls, Daniel Turner and Grayson Revoir are among his discoveries at the gallery. He curated shows with Kyle Thurman before Mr. Thurman decided to focus on his artwork (he recently had a show at West Street). Mr. Gartenfeld said Mr. Moravec spends much more time at the apartment than he does—he’s there only to sleep. Together they work mostly with young artists, but they are hardly outsiders. Their supporters include London-based collector and art patron Anita Zabludowicz—a Tate trustee who also has her own private exhibition space in London, who asked Mr. Gartenfeld to curate the first New York exhibition of her private collection last year—his neighbor, Gavin Brown, and collectors Phil and Shelley Aarons. At West Street’s first show, the Aarons purchased a work by Mr. Revoir, a picnic table that the artist had rendered nonfunctional by pounding hundreds of nails into it. It took up most of the gallery’s main room so that, during the crowded opening, most people were forced to look at it from the hallway. The Aarons put the table in their home in the Hamptons and Mr. Revoir came out to approve the location and put sealant on the piece.

“One of the pleasures of dealing with young dealers and young artists is there is a tremendous excitement and enthusiasm about what they’re doing,” Ms. Aarons said. “We recently bought a video from a very important, major gallery, and they not only were late delivering it, they sent us a viewing copy as if it was the piece. They don’t care about selling a $50,000 video. It took months to sort it all out.”

That everyone involved in West Street is around the same age has created a closeness that seems absent in the bigger, more bureaucratic galleries. Mr. Moravec mentioned that everyone is “dealing with the same generational issues.” The word “community” came up with every source The Observer spoke to about the gallery. The artists are close with one another despite the fact that their work doesn’t fit neatly into a single style or aesthetic. Many of the gallery artists attended Sam Falls’s wedding last summer. The artist Sam Anderson—whom West Street showed at the NADA Hudson fair in July—is using the New York studio of Mr. Falls, who recently moved to Los Angeles. After the opening of a show of works by Kyle Thurman and Ryan Foerster, the group put wine in water bottles and walked out to a pier on the Hudson River. As the bottles emptied, many of them—including Mr. Foerster and Mr. Thurman—jumped into the water.

Last week, The Observer was sitting with Mr. Gartenfeld in the bar beneath the gallery, home to many of West Street’s after parties. Two years ago, when The New York Times featured Three’s Company in a feature on the recession-pegged micro-trend of apartment galleries, he appeared in a photograph in the paper as rail thin, and a bit wan, with owlish glasses and a quizzical expression. Sitting across the table from The Observer, he had a different look, perhaps a more confident one. He’d lost the glasses. He’d bulked up and looked more athletic. In the bar, he wore basketball shorts and a baggy hooded sweatshirt  (he still has an eccentric appeal; the sweatshirt was covered in a paisley design).

Despite its name, he doesn’t quite think of West Street Gallery as a gallery in any conventional sense. “What kind of gallery has a website like we do?” he said. “What kind of gallery has a collaborative, comedic blog like we do?”

He was about to return home to meet the artist Dan Shaw-Town, who will show at the gallery in November with Julia Rommel and Eric Palgon (it will be each artist’s first show in New York). The Observer asked Mr. Gartenfeld, “Do you ever take into account that you’re going to be living with the work?”

“No,” he responded flatly. “My living is really minimal. I mean, Dominic Nurre made these large metal flaps that went in and out,” he made a waving gesture with his hand. “Was that a pain in the ass? Sure. That had an impact on the way that I circulated around the space. But that’s not interesting. What’s interesting is the objects and the shifting psychological impacts the objects create. I certainly bear frequent witness to that,” he said, “But it’s not about me.”

The Wild West: Alex Gartenfeld and Matt Moravec’s Avant-Garde Incubator Grows Along the Highway