IN 1957, LEO CASTELLI converted the living room of his apartment on East 77th Street into an art gallery, a modest gesture that would come to have serious reverberations. It was in that living room that Castelli staged important early exhibitions with work by the likes of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, quickly establishing a gallery that would help define the contemporary art world in the coming decades.
Castelli wasn’t the only one to find a nascent exhibition space in his own home: Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is now the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, curated his first show — which included an installation of canned foods by the artist duo Fischli/Weiss — inside his kitchen in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1991. The art dealer Gavin Brown, whose gallery has locations in New York and Rome, used to stage shows at his Upper West Side apartment in the 1990s; he also exhibited early works by the painter Elizabeth Peyton inside the Chelsea Hotel. In the late 2000s, Alex Gartenfeld, now the artistic director at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, ran not one but two apartment spaces: Three’s Company, which he oversaw with the curator Piper Marshall inside a Chinatown walk-up, and West Street Gallery, which he ran with the dealer Matt Moravec out of an uninhabited apartment in Lower Manhattan.
Today, a sometimes absurdly commercial art scene and skyrocketing rents have meant that galleries, which have historically clustered together, have become decentered, which in turn means that they’re collectively less able to take as many creative risks. This makes the apartment gallery as important as ever — their low barrier to entry makes them one of the few relatively democratic endeavors in an art world almost unrecognizable from that of Castelli’s time. In 2016, Anthony Atlas started his gallery, the Middler, in a vacated bedroom of his Bushwick apartment. Atlas, 34, works a day job with the estate of the artist William N. Copley and freelances at Clearing, a gallery that now has branches on the Upper East Side and Brussels but which got its start in 2011 inside its owner’s Bushwick studio apartment. As is the case with many apartment galleries, the Middler began with a limited exhibition schedule — just three shows over the course of a single summer: It was, after all, his personal space as well — but Atlas has since expanded his ambitions. At various points, the gallery has exhibited art in every room of the apartment except the bedroom, assumed the role of a temporary bookstore and shown work from the midcareer artist Lise Soskolne. In a move that perhaps stretched the idea of the apartment gallery to its logical extreme, the Middler even threw its own art fair one weekend in June 2017. Six galleries each claimed a wall in the apartment, a slightly difficult proposition given that the space is filled with Atlas’s books and records. “I think I sold one thing,” Atlas said.
Sculptures by Harry Gould Harvey IV at Alyssa Davis Gallery, inside an 11th-floor apartment in the West Village.Photograph by Rich Gilligan. From far left, all works by Harry Gould Harvey IV from the duo show “Earth Crisis”: “Ms. Alyssa Davis Foundation Sculpture Garden,” 2018, rotting juglans nigra/black walnut, foraged black walnut and foraged clay from Swan’s Island, Me.; “Grave Goods/Radical Empathy,” 2018, oriented strand board, multidensity fiberboard, foraged black walnut from Newport Mansions, foraged clay from Swan’s Island, ME., thorns stolen from the Citibank Estate and ancient sinker cyprus; “Putting Claes 2 Bed Listening to deadmau5 in my Head,” 2018, reclaimed mahogany from Fall River, Mass., multidensity fiberboard, aluminum, stainless steel and an Art in America mailer; “There are Flames Pouring out of the Holes of the Dovecote,” 2018, reclaimed mahogany from Fall River, Mass., multidensity fiberboard, foraged clay from Swan’s Island, Me., and enamel; “Juggalo/Jugalone Sculpture Garden,” 2018, rotting juglans nigra/black walnuts, chakta viga burl and foraged clay from Swan’s Island, Me.
THE APARTMENT GALLERY has its roots in the salon, an informal gathering to discuss art and literature that first became popular in 16th-century Italy. (The word “salon” can be traced to the Italian “sala,” which, derived from “sale,” came to refer to a king’s or nobleman’s lodging or a central gathering room.) At the time, they were usually limited to upper-class intellectuals — in other words, the people who had the privilege of forming an opinion about the culture. By the 17th century, these events had migrated to France. Guests would gather in the bedroom of the lady of the house, who would lead the discussion, often from her bed. By the 18th century, the concept of the salon had transformed into the more formal exhibition space: In 1667, the annual survey of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris moved to the Louvre and was named the Salon, becoming a predecessor of the Venice Biennale, the Whitney Biennial and similar shows that survey the contemporary art scene at any given time.
The onset of the French Revolution stunted the salon’s influence in France, but the salon itself survived to become a symbol of 20th-century modernity. The American author Gertrude Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and subsequently made her apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus a refuge for society’s creative outliers, from American expatriates to the intellectually restless, many of whom rejected mainstream institutions. The long tradition of the salon shaping the culture while operating on its fringes continues to resonate in contemporary apartment galleries. Take Hotel Art Pavilion, a 10-foot-by-10-foot shed constructed in the backyard of a rent-stabilized Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment where Loney Abrams, 32, and her husband, Johnny Stanish, 36, live. It began in 2012 as a kind of roving curatorial project called Hotel Art while the artists were living separately in Brooklyn and studying at Pratt Institute; they staged exhibitions in hotel rooms and other unorthodox locations. In 2016, the couple decided to create something more permanent.
Since its existence, Hotel Art Pavilion has operated from the spring through the fall. They wrapped up their most recent season with a two-person exhibition from the artists Bunny Rogers and Edward Shenk. It’s not the kind of place where you typically find Rogers’s work; a multimedia installation and video artist, she had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2017. But one of her first exhibitions outside of school was in a Hotel Art group show in 2013.
In the winter, when they don’t have a show up, the couple will occasionally use the shed as a studio. When artists ask for the dimensions and floor plan of the space to prepare for a show, the couple will send along an image screen-grabbed from the website of the hardware store Lowe’s. It shows the floor plan of a basic garden shed, but the gallery doesn’t include the lawn mower, hose and miscellany shown in the Lowe’s rendering.
Works on view by the artist Justin Caguiat at 15 Orient, a gallery named for the address of its East Williamsburg townhouse.Photograph by Rich Gilligan. Clockwise from far left: Justin Caguiat, “A Rat, a Dog, a Boy,” 2018, gouache on linen (in the mirror’s reflection). Justin Caguiat, “Merculet,” 2018, goache on linen; Justin Caguiat, “Untitled,” 2018, taxidermied frog; Justin Caguiat, “On the Marionette Theater,” 2018, gouache on linen; Justin Caguiat (with Shelby Jackson), “Obliteration of the Past in the Brightness of the Present Kinesthetic Empathy,” 2018, bread, plaster, latex, wire, Japanese Noh mask, iron bed frame and linen
TWO WORLD WARS may have depleted the salon as the fulcrum of European culture, but for the American art world, the idea of a living-room gathering had a significant impact on the postwar era. After Castelli created what might be considered the first modern gallery, the art business expanded considerably, spreading throughout downtown Manhattan in the ’60s and ’70s. Here, the line between where one lived and worked was blurred — many of the loft spaces that defined contemporary art at this time were places to sleep, create and sell. American dealers moved the salon from the drawing room and transformed it into a kind of public offering. Contemporary art — how it was made, how it was shown — was accessible and remained so until the first great art-world bloat of the 1980s.
These days, few dealers still sleep in the quarters above their galleries. But proprietors of venues like 15 Orient — a gallery inside a moody Victorian house in East Williamsburg in Brooklyn — still think of their space in the lineage of salon-style venues. Founded in 2016 by Paul Gondry, 27, whose father is the film director Michel Gondry, and the artist Shelby Jackson, 28, 15 Orient’s living-room gallery has a nonfunctioning fireplace and a large bay window. “We kind of insist on some shows being seen in natural light,” Jackson said, remarking that the room’s combination of elements creates “this quiet, domestic, almost morbid quality about the space.” Indeed, the gallery’s creaky floors pair well with much of the art it shows. One 2016 exhibition, “Puppet Show,” displayed puppets, some disconcerting — a fly hanging from a light fixture, a man with his head in what appeared to be a noose — strewn about the space, while a show from the artist Bradford Kessler featured a terrifying scarecrow of sorts, propped against the bay window.
Like many apartment galleries, 15 Orient is open only by appointment; you have to know about it to go there. Not unlike certain American underground music cultures, where attending a performance in a stranger’s basement is commonplace, part of the allure of these spaces is an intimacy that is often lacking in the larger art world. In addition to fostering a sense of community, apartment galleries can transmit the feeling that you’ve been let in on some kind of secret — that someone has let you into their private corner of the world.
This is true of Alyssa Davis’s eponymous West Village gallery. To get there, one must ascend to the 11th floor of a Cornelia Street building. The space provides dazzling views of the New York City skyline, though artists often want to cover the windows.
Although Davis, 29, has lived in the three-bedroom apartment, which she shares with two roommates, for over a decade, she didn’t stage her first exhibition there until November 2016. Before that, she had never worked in a gallery, though she created the art fabrication start-up Crucible New York in 2015 and has used her apartment for one-off events. But she wanted to open a real gallery — so she did. “When we had the first show, I’d never written a press release,” Davis said. “But that’s also something that’s very easy to learn and should just be intuitive.” She admitted to feeling discouraged that there is “so much bureaucracy” in most art institutions. “No,” she said, of her current situation, “you just do it.”