“Chelsea’s become too clean. We need something different.”
Solange Umutoni is not talking about the floodlit circus that used to be 27th Street. Nor is she referring to its formerly notorious nightclubs—places like Cain and Bungalow 8—where the most illicit vice is now cigarette-smoking.
Ms. Umutoni talking about art. It’s December 4, 2006, and we’re sitting on a carefully mismatched sofa in the CVZ Contemporary Gallery, where the launch party for “Through the Looking Glass” is in full swing. Like everyone else I will talk to that evening, Ms. Umutoni—herself an artist—is explaining exactly why gallery owner Carlo von Zeitschel is so important to New York’s art scene. Yaya Yaskerovitch, an Israeli native who’s been in New York for six years, agrees from an armchair nearby. “There’s something a little bit fresh here,” he says.
The same could be said for the party underway in Mr. von Zeitschel’s sprawling Soho loft, which doubles as his home. While the usual gang is all here–the typical Double Seven characters flitting about the room–the pretension factor is oddly nil.
A conscientious host, Carlo von Zeitschel warmly greets every guest, darting across the room in his charmingly chaotic manner. Fabian Basabe chats with Olivia Palermo at the bar, Genevieve Jones smiles her way across the dance floor, Hugo Hewitt waves hello to Maia Goss, and John de Neufville gives business advice to a pal. Away from the velvet ropes, everyone is a friend.
The guests are young, beautiful and well connected, and they are enjoying a New York moment that rarely occurs these days.
The actress Leelee Sobieski, a friend of Mr. von Zeitschel’s from Brown University, credits his ability to bring together an “eclectic mix of people, tastes and art.” She believes this talent is part of why collectors respond so well to CVZ Contemporary’s art. “Carlo’s got his finger on the young pulse.”
It is a small part of what CVZ set out to accomplish. In his mission statement on the gallery’s website, von Zeitschel states his intention to
…recreate a contemporary adaptation of a nineteenth century Parisian salon, where people can come and congregate, surrounded by beautiful things…
A beautiful dream, but hardly easy to achieve in a town where social climbing is a bloodsport. The secret to his success is sincerity.
Creating CVZ Contemporary was not an excuse to throw a party. In fact, the frivolity of the evening belies the depth of von Zeitschel’s aspiration. The homey couches and worn foosball table are not there out of hipster irony. And the guests’ ease in exploring the cavernous space and its art is no happy coincidence.
It is a revolt against art world elitism.
In his earnest, rambling mission statement von Zietschel laments the commercialization of art and exclusionism of its gatekeepers:
Many galleries these days have been making a living by promoting a sort of exclusionary politics that serves the sole purpose of creating an unnecessarily inflated aura and mystique around the product they deal in, and massage the voracious egos of those that belong to the inner circle of what now has regrettably become an industry.
It’s honest, but it’s paradoxical. Carlo von Zeitschel is a German baron, an Italian viscount, and the descendant of Kaiser Wilhelm, but decries the very type of lofty circles to which he has a birthright. Or perhaps he knows better than anyone the nature of the beast.
Von Zeitschel takes his thesis beyond the art scene’s abstract barriers to participation, and applies it to the physical dimension of the world. In short, he hates white walls. Or in the least, he is bewildered by the longstanding gallery convention. He writes,
I don’t know who it is who decided that art must only be shown in these desolate barren white rooms, but I do pray to God that the people who acquire it do not live in frigid empty white houses
And this is the reason for the signs of human life among the frames and canvases at CVZ Contemporary. This explains the comfortable, lovingly arranged furniture, the room’s organic feel, the DJ against the wall. The gallery is a love letter to art. Von Zeitschel grandly proclaims art to be a testament to “mankind’s heroic triumph over the adversities that have forever surrounded him.” Here, art is not a business.
Of course, he doesn’t need the money. But how else could such unabashed idealism be realized? There is no bottom line at CVZ. There is simply the goal to “showcase the work of talented emerging artists in an ambiance worthy of their virtuous intent.”
At the show, I speak to one of these emerging artists: Ohad Maiman, a good friend of von Zeitschel and one of nine photographers in the show. He is a passionate believer and agent in CVZ’s “social-artistic movement.” Maiman talks to me excitedly about cultivating a “resurgence of Bauhaus.”
And why not? Might New York be ready to do something meaningful again, to renounce its Gawker-fueled cynicism and velvet rope mania and be part of something real?
Nearby, photographer Diego Fuga, who is dressed like a Barcelonan Jack Sparrow, vaults through the throng. It is his first exhibition. Mr. Fuga, originally from Milan, got his start in fashion, but tonight, private collectors are interested. I ask how he feels about creating for both audiences. “At the end of the day it’s not important who I made it for. It’s the fact that I made it, and that someone likes it,” he tells me. Mr. Fuga flies off to pose with the lovely Giada Ripa di Meana, a fellow exhibitor and friend.
Later on, Fabian Basabe praises Carlo von Zeitschel, whom he warmly describes as a “profound intellectual.”
“He’s too young, too beautiful and too brilliant,” says Mr. Basabe, “Luckily, he’s making all the right decisions.”
In the background, Ms. Sobieski dances like no one’s watching.