|Should you go?|
|Time spent||51 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||A set of four large, multipanel works by Karina Cavat, who curated the show, and who resides in a Westbeth apartment. And with whom I had a really interesting conversation.
They’re all dense views of burgeoning nature gone haywire. If I had to choose one, I’d pick “Cook,” an homage to a Weber grill.
On the far, far, western borders of the West Village a huge building complex occupies the entire block from Bank to Bethune and Washington to West Streets. Today this is Westbeth Artists’ Housing, founded in 1970 as a place for working artists to find affordable housing and studio space. To this day, artists live and work, show and teach there. Westbeth also provides a home base to the New School’s drama department and the Martha Graham Dance Studio, among other cultural institutions.
The complex also houses a gallery space, showing work from resident and nonresident artists alike. However, Westbeth’s arts incarnation belies an older and even more intriguing history.
For Whom the Bell Labs Tolls
The Westbeth complex was originally built as the home of the legendary Bell Labs, which resided there from 1898 until it decamped to green-and-spacious New Jersey in 1966. The Westbeth Gallery doesn’t tell the Bell Labs story. Were it not for an understated plaque on the building I’d have no idea.
But, holy crap, quantum physics was experimentally proven there in 1927. Phone switches. Vacuum tubes. TV broadcasts. Claude Shannon invented information theory there (geeky but bear with me, it’s the fundamental basis of all digital data networks). A huge swath of the technology that drives our world sprang from seeds first sown by the geniuses who worked there. I knew Bell Labs started out in Manhattan, but funnily I just assumed no physical trace of it remained. Who knew that the buildings were repurposed from work to living and from science to art?
As I said, the gallery doesn’t tell that story. I wish it did. But signs remain. Karina Cavat, who was minding the place when I visited, pointed out that the ceilings in parts of the gallery did a lovely, curving thing.
That’s not for aesthetic purposes, but because the lab upstairs had floors specially reinforced with extra steel beams, to prevent stray vibrations from disrupting sensitive experimental apparatus.
Back to Art
Westbeth’s gallery space puts on shows pretty much constantly through the year. When I went, the exhibit was called “Rooms With a View: Seven Artists.” It was interestingly broad, featuring a surprising amount of fruit-and-vegetable still lifes, an array of sculptures, several extremely cool realist paintings of birthday parties with dark undercurrents by Nicole Santiago, and Ms. Cavat’s work.
I enjoyed it, though much of the work erred on the side of not-challenging-enough, in a “I need some fruit paintings to brighten up my breakfast nook” kind of way. Still, Ms. Santiago and Ms. Cavat’s work brought balance and menace and interest in spades.
The gallery space itself is expansive, typical New York art space, with old wood floors, white walls and columns, and high ceilings with fire sprinkler pipes exposed. The gallery divides into one main space and three side rooms, with abundant natural light. The Westbeth complex has a courtyard which is currently undergoing restoration and flood-proofing, so the gallery (and the place in general) were not quite in the best of shape when I visited. I’m looking forward to seeing it post-construction.
Who Should Visit Westbeth Gallery?
Westbeth is in some ways a pretty typical New York not-for-profit art gallery. But in some ways it’s not. It’s rare to see art in close proximity to the homes and studios of the artists who create it (it’s one thing I liked about the Living Museum). Indeed, you may well get to meet and speak with artists whose work is on display.
The entire Westbeth complex forms a pioneering example of adaptive re-use back when industry was leaving New York City. That gives it resonance in the life of the city at another moment when artists (and middle class folks of all types) are finding it hard to afford to live here.
And of course, there’s the Bell Labs story. I wish Westbeth devoted some physical space to recounting it, but the mobile internet (not directly invented there, but without Bell Labs it might not exist) provides.
This confluence of contemporary art and twentieth century science makes Westbeth unique. If you have an interest in art, or the history of technology, or the evolution of New York, the Wesbeth complex and its gallery merit a visit.
|Address||55 Bethune Street, corner of Washington Street, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: Free|
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