My Lunch with Charlie
Audrey Rose Smith
Photos: Elise Gallant.
Noon in the Meatpacking District – I was standing right there at number 55. 53 was to my right, 57 to my left and yet I was completely lost in my search for the gallery at 55 Gansevoort Street. Wandering down the street I inquired with a few waiters smoking on their break. “It’s supposed to be open 24/7, starting today,” I pleaded, sounding like a confused tourist at the closed doors of a Time Square Applebee’s. They recalled something about a pop-up gallery but knew nothing more. I wandered back down to 55, peeking through a dusty door into what looked like a derelict reception room.
Next I know, I’m meeting Victor, a small guy with an afro looking for the same gallery. (Why is it that lost and confused people always tend to find each other, but never someone who knows where to point them?) So we did a bit more searching but came up with nothing. He was waiting for his friend Charlie. We were both about to call it quits and head back to our respective work days when there came Charlie, barreling out onto the street from a restaurant across the way.
“Victor!” he yelled, “We’re over here!” As we both darted across the street, Victor whispered, “If you haven’t met Charlie, he’s a legend.” And before I could say or do anything aside from introduce myself to a table of four strangers, with a man I met five minutes ago, I was sipping a drink and looking over a menu. Charlie was insistent that we join them for lunch. I proceeded with suspicion.
Charlie is immense, both in his physicality and personality. Tall, wide and nearly toothless, with a swath of blondish gray hair swooshed over his head, he was wearing a polo shirt and khakis that looked like they hadn’t been washed since the Lower East Side became the new Chelsea, or so they say. As he greeted me with a bear hand and a mouth full of half chewed steak, I quickly began to understand Victor’s words as we were crossing the street: this man really must be a legend I thought, because only true legends are free to carry themselves in such a way. (Cue to the time I mistook Woody Allen for a homeless man, before realizing his identity).
Going around the table introducing each guest with a brief history of their education, affiliation, past and current occupation, I quickly learned I was having lunch (he insisted I order something), with the director of this mystery gallery. I’ll explain more on this later. But first, about Charlie.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, I got a whirlwind recap of the New York art world from the last 30 years. Charlie is like a gossip queen and a serious journalist all at once, never shying away from the dirty details while retaining a near encyclopedic knowledge of the person he is lauding, slamming, or merely mentioning. No scandal unmentioned, no juicy detail forgotten; I felt as if I was getting the backdoor tour of a world so rich, so silly, so wonderful and ridiculous that it could only exist around the practice and sale of art.
I learned that Leo Castelli would declare the art world closed from the end of May until Labor day (and that he could). That, according to Charlie, “You can never spend too much time going to parties”. That he believes an artist should never, ever trade their work, whether it’s for studio space or a root canal. (According to Charlie, dentists are the largest acquirers of free art). I also learned that there are over 12,000 artists now living in Bushwick, or was it 50,000? He couldn’t agree on a number.
Over the course of lunch I also learned the gist of this 55 Gansevoort Street gallery. The gallery, opening with a show by the notorious Leo Fitzpatrick, was right under our noses this whole time. The show takes place in the small dusty entrance I was peering into. The show is an instillation, where viewers are meant to look through the glass portion of the door, but not to enter. Advertised as open 24/7, it turns out that open means the lights are on and any time of day you are welcome to peer in from the sidewalk.
I also learned that this was the celebratory lunch for the opening of this non-open gallery. “This is the best kind of opening,” Charlie bellowed as a mouthful of half chewed lettuce rolled between his tongue and remaining teeth, “because it’s not in the gallery.” We all laughed and I furiously typed on my phone, trying to capture all these quotable moments without looking too much like a novice journalist, suddenly allowed backstage access.
“I have to finish installing” admitted Ellie, the director. The show was progressing uniquely: advertise an opening, have a Prosecco drenched lunch, then finish the installation. A bit of signage might be next, but who knows. Charlie found the opening quite perfect, “Be fashionably late to your own opening” he chuckled, “now that’s a good dealer!”
They all laughed again; I continued to type away. I realized it was getting way past my ‘lunch break’ and work emails were beginning to pile. But soon lunch would be over and I’d be on my way. Charlie insisted he pay for all of us like a lavishly wealthy and eccentric grandparent treating his grandchildren.
We then walked across the street, back to this curious gallery at 55 Gansevoort. I peered into the space again, taking another look at the turned over table in the corner, the layer of plaster and dust that carpeted the floor, along with various installation tools. But this time I noticed a rubber ear descending from a string in front of the door and two tiny canvases with plastic appendages (two noses, two ears) hung on the side wall. I’d missed the art in my search for the open door.
Next time, I’ll know better than to think ‘open 24/7’ means you can walk in. Silly me, I thought. But lucky me, too.
For 15 years Charlie Finch was an art critic for Artnet.com. Previously he was one of the forces behind Coagula, an art scene magazine that was the raining gossip and news source for the New York–art scene (and the word to fear or love for any art world figures) in the 1990s and 2000s.
Ellie Rines is the director of 55 Gansevoort Gallery, currently showing artist and actor Leo Fitzpatrick. The gallery is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Consider yourself warned.