Twenty years ago, Chelsea was best known as a relatively quiet gay-friendly residential community dotted with a handful of galleries, boutiques and Cuban-Chinese coffee shops tempting passersby with the delicious aroma of garlicky pernil and cubanos. Since then, the neighborhood has transformed dramatically into a cultural mecca and the undisputed king of the New York art scene. Anchored on the west side by the enormously popular, art-rich High Line and home to the world-class Rubin Museum, renowned performance spaces The Joyce Theater and The Kitchen, art-book mecca Printed Matter and some 350 galleries, Chelsea packs an enormous amount of cultural capital into its west side streets. Wandering leisurely through the art district (largely concentrated between West 18th and West 27th Streets, and 10th and 11th Avenues) is a quintessential part of the New York art experience, one that's defined by browsing exhibitions by both world-renowned artists and exciting unknowns in cool, pristine spaces, then pausing at a nearby café for an espresso or languid brunch for sustenance and a spirited discussion. (And it's an affordable outing, too, as admission to all is free.) Since it's nearly impossible to visit every single one, here are 25 essential venues, organized by street, for you to start your art adventure.
456 W. 18th St., 212-680-9467
For a good glimpse of scene makers in the international contemporary art community, Petzel is a must-see stop on any Chelsea art itinerary. The gallery consistently carries artists who are featured in major annual fairs like the Whitney Biennial and Documenta, including Wade Guyton, Yael Bartana and Philippe Parreno, along with prominent artists of the last 30 years, including Daniel Buren and Jorge Pardo.
Hauser & Wirth
511 W. 18th St., 212-790-3900
The most recent and, at 24,700 square feet, the biggest addition to the Chelsea scene, is the long-standing Zurich-based gallery Hauser & Wirth, which takes over the former roller rink nightclub The Roxy and has transformed it with large-scale work from European artists like Dieter Roth and the Los Angeles–based provocateur Paul McCarthy.
519, 525 and 533 W. 19th St., 212-727-2070; 537 W. 20th St., 212-517-8677
David Zwirner, the only real rival to Gagosian, in terms of star wattage, opened his eponymous gallery in 1993 and has nurtured the careers of some of the best European new masters working today, including Luc Tuymans, Neo Rauch, Marlene Dumas, Thomas Ruff and Francis Alÿs. The gallery recently began expanding to include well-known American artists and today represents established artists like Suzan Frecon and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, as well as the Judd Foundation (Donald Judd) and the estates of Dan Flavin and Gordon Matta-Clark.
545 W. 20th St., 212-924-7545
To see the artists everyone else will be hearing about in three years, Elizabeth Dee is the place to go. Since 2002, the gallery has proven to be a skilled player in a variety of artists and media, hosting the first shows of the likes of performative video artist Ryan Trecartin, as well as innovative exhibitions from film icon Derek Jarman and mixed-media artist Adrian Piper.
521 W. 21st St., 212-414-4144
For purists, Tanya Bonakdar's program is hard to beat. The large, minimal space makes it an apt showcase for the sound installations of heady artists like Susan Philipsz or Danish-Icelandic technical genius Olafur Eliasson (who's currently exhibiting Your Waste of Time, which comprises chunks of glacial ice at MoMA PS1 as part of Expo 1: New York). But don't forget to go upstairs, where other exhibitions are often held.
525 W. 21st St., 212-645-7335
The former Pace employee's gallery is a relatively new addition to the neighborhood, having moved in 2005 after nearly 10 years in SoHo. He's helped organize New York Gallery Week and promoted the underrated California-inflected conceptual artist Jonathan Monk and New York artist Trisha Donnelly, who is currently participating in The Museum of Modern Art's Artist's Choice series. But it's the group shows here that really shine and are not to be missed.
534 W. 21st St., 212-255-1105
Perhaps the grandest grande dame of the art world, Paula Cooper has worked with conceptual and minimal artists like Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt and Mark di Suvero since her first show in 1968. Her gallery was one of the first to move to Chelsea from SoHo and is still making headlines, most recently in 2011, when it stayed open around the clock—with lines around the block—for the screening of the 24-hour-long film The Clock, by Christian Marclay.
535 W. 22nd St., 212-268-6699
Check out this gallery for young but talented artists who are making work of uncommon vitality—whether it's the desiccated paintings of Kysa Johnson, the delicate watercolors of Kim McCarty or the cosmic canvas work of Ryan Wallace—where the focus is on painting and the new guard who's living up to the old ideals.
535 W. 22nd St., 6th fl., 212-627-2410
With its original goal of focusing on photographic-based art, this gallery is now best known for works on paper, illustration and design, including exhibitions of New York illustrators Maira Kalman and Roz Chast. Perhaps it's a return to its roots that had it recently courting controversy with photographer Arne Svenson's The Neighbors, in which he surreptitiously captured images of his neighbors without their knowledge. Catch the openings, which can be good-natured, even friendly affairs.
507 W. 24th St., 212-255-1121
Established in 1984 at 303 Park Avenue South, Lisa Spellman has been a nomadic evangelist, inevitably leading the way, whether by moving to the East Village in the '80s, where she began working with Christopher Wool, or to SoHo a few years later, where she exhibited Andreas Gursky, Doug Aitken and Rirkrit Tiravanija before leading the charge to Chelsea. Now in another new space, her gallery represents well-regarded mid-career artists like Hans-Peter Feldman and Karen Kilimnik as well as up-and-coming new breeds like Jacob Kassay, all while retaining a punk-rock cred—Kim Gordon and Richard Prince have both held shows there in the last year.
509 W. 24th St., 212-680-9889
The place to go for names that are just on the cusp: Boesky launched Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, supported Rachel Feinstein and recently took over the estate of Salvatore Scarpitta. In many ways, it's the quintessential Chelsea gallery, with shows by emerging artists, including the visceral canvases of Barnaby Furnas, the cool multimedia installations of Sue de Beer and the high-stakes sculptures of Roxy Paine.
515 W. 24th St., 212-206-9300; 530 W. 21st St., 212-206-7606
One look at the commanding walls of the gallery and it's clear that this is a place for serious art. The gallery consistently represents some of the most profitable artists working today, such as Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat, Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor, Carroll Dunham (father of Girls creator Lena Dunham), beloved New Yorker Keith Haring and American film artist and Björk partner Matthew Barney—Gladstone even produced four of his five touchstone Cremaster films in the 1990s.
519 W. 24th St., 212-206-7100
The gallery, founded by two veteran gallery directors, has worked with Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and Jack Goldstein since the 1980s, with later additions like Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger and Louise Lawler—many of whom continue to exhibit at the gallery today, joined by younger artists like Sara Van Der Beek, Olaf Breuning and Trevor Paglen.
525 W. 24th St., 212-627-6000; 544 W. 24th, St., 212-627-6100
Known for resolutely managing the estate of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, this gallery represents German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans along with artists known for their eclectic creations—Elliott Hundley, Mika Rottenberg, David Altmetjd and land artist Andrea Zittel. Last December, she opened a second space, Gallery 2, with a curator-driven program where artists as diverse as Rita Ackermann, Hans Bellmer, Jacob Kassay and Llyn Foulkes can coexist.
531 W. 24th St., 212-206-9100
Here is the rare blue-chip gallery in which all kinds of work seems to be at home, whether it's photographs from Gregory Crewdson, video pieces from Ragnar Kjartansson and Guido van der Werve or installations from Martin Kippenberger and Rachel Whiteread—where images from Kids director Larry Clark feel equally as lush as the landscapes of Joel Sternfeld.
Fredericks & Freiser
536 W. 24th St., 212-633-6555
One of the most consistently cutting-edge galleries in Chelsea, Fredericks & Freiser hosts works like the illustrative pieces from Zak Smith and Gary Panter and the visceral paintings of Max Toth, Natalie Frank and Keegan McHargue. The shows tend to be the ones you can't get out of your head, and that's a good thing. If you're lucky, you'll be able to find an exhibition by former Jim Jarmusch collaborator John Lurie.
Mary Boone Gallery
541 W. 24th St., 212-752-2929
One of the most scene-making galleries of the 1980s, Mary Boone's first two artists were Julian Schnabel and David Salle, who became internationally famous in the ensuing years and earned the gallerist the moniker “New Queen of the Art Scene.” Over the years, she's represented Jean Michel Basquiat, Eric Fishl and Barbara Kruger at the height of their careers. In residence in Chelsea since 2000, the space has continued to show first-rate work from artists as different as the Chinese dissident Ai Wei Wei and fashion designer Nick Cave.
555 W. 24th St., 212-741-1111; 522 W. 21st St., 212-741-1717
Currently the biggest name in art, Larry Gagosian operates 11 galleries, two of them in Chelsea. The artist roster reads like a Who's Who of contemporary art: Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon, Diane Arbus, Ed Ruscha and many more. The gallerist opened a space in Chelsea in 1986 but moved to his current large-scale location in 1999 in order to better show monumental works from the likes of Richard Serra.
508 W. 25th St., 212-989-4258; 510 W. 25th St., 212-255-4044; 534 W. 25th St., 212-929-7000
With three locations in Chelsea alone, Pace stands out for its ability to host both large-scale as well as intimate affairs, depending on the need. And with a roster that includes heavyweights like light artists Robert Irwin and James Turrell, conceptual maven Sol LeWitt, Vietnam Wall Memorial maestro Maya Lin and one of the strongest collections of Chinese artists, there's sure to be something that catches your eye.
Cheim & Read
547 W. 25th St., 212-242-7727
Unlike most of its white-box neighbors, the architecture here divides the space in two to create an exhibition hall that offers a unique way to experience art in Chelsea. The gallery has a diverse group of talents on its roster but specializes in female artists, showing work such as Jenny Holzer's language-based light installations, the organic sculptures of Lynda Benglis, the abstract, Impressionistic paintings of Joan Mitchell and the portrait-style figurative works of Alice Neel.
526 W. 26th St., 8th fl., 212-463-7770
One of the very first galleries in the neighborhood hosts shows that at their best can feel like a trip back in time to a glimpse inside the artist's studio. The well-respected spot is a gallerists' gallery—perfect for the freestanding sculptures of Tony Conrad and Rachel Harrison, while others like Gedi Sibony, Paul Chan and Jim Drain benefit from the offhand presentation that's precise without being threatening.
540 W. 26th St., 212-255-2923
This nearly 20-year-old gallery has given some of contemporary art's most highly respected artists their first one-person shows in New York, including Tracey Emin, Do Ho Suh and Juergen Teller, while also showing established artists such as Gilbert & George, Billy Childish and Tony Oursler. Like many of its Chelsea neighbors, it has also begun expanding overseas, opening a Hong Kong branch in March of this year as a reflection of its interest in Asian artists, having featured Taiwanese artist Sulin Wang, Japanese filmmaker Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba and Beijing-based Liu Wei.
475 Tenth Ave., 212-239-1181
Last year, Sean Kelly relocated to a 22,000-square-foot space that was the culmination of more than 20 years of growth. The gallery was located in SoHo, where it hosted shows by Marina Abramovic and Joseph Kosuth, until 2001, when it moved to the neighborhood and took on the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe and expanded its roster to include British sculptor Antony Gormley, while initiating shows with Leandro Erlich and Cuban collective Los Carpinteros.