Unexpected art on the Upper East Side

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Surprising venues include an apartment building, an outdoor plaza, a bar and the subway


  • At Sarah Meyohas. Photo via Facebook

  • Open House by Liz Glynn at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza. Photo courtesy of Public Art Fund

  • Sarah Sze Mural, Second Avenue Subway, 96th St. Station. Photo: MTA Arts & Design, Rob Wilson, via flickr

The Upper East Side has become synonymous with the art world. It’s home to some of the most famous art museums in the city — the Met, the Met Breuer, the Guggenheim, the Frick — and a stroll up Madison Avenue never leaves you more than a block from one gallery or another. Delving into the art world, though, doesn’t mean you have to spend all day in a tourist-crowded museum or an eerily quiet, hospital-white gallery. If you know where to look, you can spend all day appreciating amazing works of art in surprising venues.

1. Meyohas

181 East 90th Street, 28th floor

With the increasing cost of real-estate pricing art dealers out of gallery space, many have turned to exhibiting their works in their own homes. While these DIY display rooms are most often found in Brooklyn, Sarah Meyohas has transformed the bright and airy living room of her childhood apartment — where she still lives — into her very own exhibition space. What Sarah describes as a “constant flux of install and deinstall” has come to showcase the works of dozens of different artists, from abstract paintings to copper leaf-covered Doritos. On display now are three video installations by Jonah King that explore human permanence in the age of technology. Due to the intimate nature of the operation, an appointment to view the collections needs to be made in advance, but public events for new exhibitions are held roughly every two months. Information for upcoming events can be found on the Meyohas Facebook page.


2. Bemelmans Bar

35 East 76th Street

At this neighborhood institution, nestled inside the Carlyle Hotel, timeless elegance and child-like imagination have been coming together since 1947. The walls of the bar, which was named after Ludwig Bemelmans — the creator and illustrator of the Madeline children’s books—are covered in murals that are now Bemelmans’ only surviving commission open to the public. Under the dim lighting, surrounded by the dark leather and wood decor, you can sip on martinis while listening to live jazz and take in Bemelmans’ fanciful interpretation of Central Park, which, of course, includes an appearance from Miss Clavel and her 12 little girls. If you’re looking to save a little money, it’s best to go earlier in the evening — a cover charge applies after 9 pm Sunday to Monday and 9:30pm Tuesday to Saturday.


3. Doris C. Freedman Plaza

Fifth Avenue and East 60th Street

At the south-east corner of Central Park art lovers can get their fix while enjoying the fresh air, thanks to the Public Art Fund’s rotating sculpture installations at Doris C. Freedman Plaza. Currently on display is Liz Glynn’s Open House — a collection of life-size Louis XIV-style chairs, ottomans and sofas sculpted out of cement. The furniture, and the matching grand arches that sit in front of it, are meant to highlight the class distinction that existed in the Gilded Age between the wealthy, who gathered in luxurious private ballrooms, and the poor, who were drawn to the democratic access of public park space. Whether or not the sculptures have sparked a class debate among those viewing (and sitting on) them, one thing’s for sure — it’s much nicer than your average park bench.


4. Second Avenue Subway

63rd, 72nd, 86th, and 96th Street

When the seemingly endless construction of the Second Avenue subway eventually came to a close, it brought along with it some unexpectedly impressive art pieces. In each new station, hurried commuters can catch a glimpse of the installations, but this underground art deserve a proper look. At 96th Street you can find “Blueprint for a Landscape” by Sarah Sze, a 14,000 square foot royal blue and white design of swirling scaffolding, trees, birds and paper. At 86th Street are mosaic portraits by artist Chuck Close. The “Perfect Strangers” series by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz can be found at 72nd Street, depicting all kinds of New Yorkers standing side by side, including familiar faces like Daniel Boulud. Lastly, down at the 63rd Street station you can find Jean Shin’s ceramic tile and glass mosaics inspired by archival photographs of the above-ground Second and Third Avenue trains. You can experience all of these for just one swipe of a subway pass.

5. Society of Illustrators

128 East 63rd Street

If you’re more into Marvel than Monet, then a trip to the Society of Illustrators may be exactly what you’re looking for. The society, founded in 1901, is the oldest non-profit group dedicated to the art of illustration, with past members including the likes of Norman Rockwell and Rube Goldberg — a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist. Select works from the society’s 2,500 piece permanent collection are rotationally displayed. In 2012 an exhibit exclusively dedicated to comics and cartoons was also added. Currently on display are works by Will Eisner, a pioneer in the comic book industry and the man who popularized the term “graphic novel.” Exhibits are open Monday through Saturday, with varying hours. Admission is $12 for adults and $7 for seniors and students. Children 10 and under are free.


6. Carlton Hobbs

60 East 93rd Street

There’s more to antiques than mismatched end tables and mahogany wardrobes at the Carlton Hobbs’ antiques show room. Behind the wooden doors of his lavish 51-room mansion — formally owned by socialite Virginia Fair Vanderbilt — Hobbs, a native Englishman and renowned antiques dealer, has also curated a large collection of 16th to 19th century English and continental artwork. While technically labeling itself as a gallery, with all of the beautiful furniture and artwork that it holds, Carlton Hobbs feels more like an impeccably decorated home. The collection is only open to the general public once a year, in February, for Old Masters Week, but offers free tours to educational groups year-round.


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