Red-Hot Steel? Sperone Westwater Gallery Scrapes the Bowery Sky

Once the site of flophouses, pawnshops and dive bars, the Bowery is fast becoming a headquarters for contemporary art and architecture. The New Museum’s critically acclaimed opening there three years ago ushered in what its director, Lisa Phillips, rightfully dubs a “Bowery Renaissance.” The area takes another step up with the Sept. 22 opening of the veteran Sperone Westwater Gallery and its stylish new structure between Stanton and Houston streets, designed by Sir Norman Foster. Architecture Web sites are already following every facet of its construction with the same attention tabloids normally grant celebrities.

Foster + Partners’ translucent mini-skyscraper, clad seductively in glass and corrugated black metal panels, features a 27-foot-high display wall for art, a sculpture terrace, a sky-lit gallery and–its most innovative touch–a huge, moving, elevatorlike room that’s visible from the street as a giant, Ferrari-red rectangle climbing inside the building. “The concept for Sperone Westwater is both a response to the Bowery’s dynamic urban character and a desire to rethink the way in which we engage with art” in a gallery setting, according to Lord Foster.

It’s the third new building on the Bowery to be designed by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect–joining the New Museum, designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, and the Cooper Union’s new building, designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis. The architectural trio gives an edge, visual and economic, to the Bowery gallery scene at a time when more neighborhoods than ever–the LES, Chelsea, Madison Avenue, 57th Street, Williamsburg–are trying to carve up the art-collector pie.

For Ms. Westwater and her partner, Gian Enzo Sperone, long associated with a slew of superstar artists (Bruce Nauman and Julian Schnabel among them), it was a big decision to leave their meatpacking district gallery on 13th Street. “We felt that we needed more space to create a more varied program,” said Ms. Westwater. The move was conceived more than three years ago, when the gallery bought “one of the restaurant-supply companies that traditionally dotted both the east and west sides of the Bowery, when the area was funky, with almost zero gentrification,” said Ms. Westwater. “It was full of character and reminded me of my first Bowery experience, when I visited Roy Lichtenstein’s studio in 1970.” 

When it comes to the new, 20,000-square-foot space, Ms. Westwater won’t talk about how much it cost (the budget is “still ongoing”), or the fact that the project was conceived in an unprecedented art boom and will open in a recession. “We opened the gallery in 1975,” with a show of Carl Andre, “when the local economy was in bad shape; we took that risk and we’ll take this one,” she said.

Red-Hot Steel? Sperone Westwater Gallery Scrapes the Bowery Sky