Steven Learner designs a spatially subtle gallery in Chelsea for Sean Kelly.
Jeff Hill -- Interior Design, 8/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
Sean Kelly's migration from Soho to Chelsea came rather late compared to most other major galleries, but the dealer appreciates having taken the time to size up the evolving Chelsea scene. "What I bring to the project is 25 years of working with space, either as an artist, curator, museum director, or gallerist," he remarks. "I had looked at many other sites in Chelsea, and no one had built anything like what I wanted. This was an opportunity to re-evaluate what a gallery in this neighborhood could be."
Working closely with architect Steven Learner, Kelly began that re-evaluation with questions of scale. "To no small extent, our decisions were predicated on most galleries being cavernous, cold, and barn-like," he continues. "We wanted an intimacy in the spaces, both physically and psychologically, and we wanted to establish a very specific relation between public spaces of different sizes." Kelly regards the design of the gallery as a "physical manifestation of the kind of work we show." His roster includes such internationally renowned figures as Joseph Kosuth, Ann Hamilton, Marina Abramovi´c, Lorna Simpson, and James Casebere. "The work I show is absolutely central to the architectural design," he says. "There is a conceptual rigor and formal elegance among the artists that is like a spine. Steven and I wanted to find equivalents for these principles in the gallery's design." Learner concurs, adding, "I've seen every show that Sean has mounted since '95. I know his artists and I know what sort of demands they will make of the space."
Kelly's 7,000-sq.-ft gallery, a former milk depot, is located on the northern periphery of the Chelsea art district. It consists of a procession of public spaces that is increasingly complex, moving from the raw project room to a traditional "white box"—or black box, as the architect describes it, since it's windowless and particularly well-suited to video presentations—and culminating in the main gallery. The latter's placement in the middle of the overall layout "creates a conscious spatial ambiguity," according to Kelly. The room measures 35 ft. by 37 ft.—just off square—which introduces another subtle irregularity. "Here, we didn't want to lose the beauty of the original ceiling and we didn't want a homogenized white box," the dealer adds. To achieve that, the walls stop roughly one ft. short of the ceiling, which seems to float above the space. This effect heightens the aforementioned ambiguity, suggesting that the main gallery somehow seeps into the surrounding spaces, with a free flow of information between them. Learner stripped away a tin ceiling, revealing the original joists. He also removed three skylights and created two new ones using an extruded polycarbonate glazing system with aluminum frames. The main gallery's centralized placement permits access to the areas behind the walls, which are not exterior walls, as one might expect. As such, the room can be adapted to accommodate projections. Unlike the project room and the white box, entry to the main gallery is axial, underscoring its importance.
The ancillary galleries provide different types of spatial experience, suitable to the varying installational requirements of the artists. "The rawness of the project room stems from a specific intention: minimal intervention," comments project architect Michael Stevens. The architects simply painted over the exposed brick walls, without patching them or cleaning up corners. The elongated white box (measuring 27 ft. by 18 ft.), on the other hand, conforms to the design of a traditional gallery, crisp and neutral. It can be divided into two, off-square spaces, with a center wall that is completely removable.
The design of the private spaces was no less important to Kelly. He lays particular emphasis on the importance of the library: "If the main gallery is the heart, then the library is the mind." As in the main gallery, walls stop just short of the ceiling, encouraging that sense of information seepage that Kelly finds so provocative. Shelves are made of a blackened steel armature with walnut display cabinets. "The library's material richness presents itself as a counterpoint to the enforced starkness of gallery spaces," adds Stevens. Kelly's office and that of the director have also been tailored as personal rather than anonymous rooms.
Kelly and Learner have complementary perspectives on the design of the gallery, but they diverge somewhat with their relative emphases. Learner appreciates the roughness of the surrounding neighborhood, and tried to remain true to that character in the gallery itself: "22nd Street is the Madison Avenue of Chelsea, 29th definitely is not. Sean's is a 'destination' gallery, people seek it out rather than stumble in." Kelly stresses instead the unpretentious refinement of the design: "I spend more time here than anywhere else—more time than I spend at home—so I want it to be as aesthetically gratifying as possible."