One of the Municipal Art Society‘s exciting initiatives is the tour series offered every weekend in a variety of locations in New York City. This weekend I had the chance to go along on their tour of Chelsea Art Galleries and assess the tour for myself. Our guide was art historian Sylvia Laudien Meo, who teaches art history at Fairleigh Dickinson University and works as a gallery educator at the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA and the Jewish Museum. Sylvia led the group on a two hour tour of eight galleries, telling everyone about the artists featured in each one. As someone who writes about the arts on a regular basis, I can say that I was very impressed by Sylvia’s extensive knowledge and her ability to make the topic both interesting and accessible. Each time she leads the tour, she chooses a different group of galleries to visit based on what they’re exhibiting at the time. Here are the galleries she led us to this weekend:

1. On My Way Gone by Joianne Bittle at Churner and Churner

In the front window of the gallery sits Unconformity, Joianne Bittle’s interpretation of Plato’s cave with some stalagmites and stalactites posed in front of a mirror so when visitors walk in they see themselves reflected in this prehistoric scene. Bittle is a professional dioramist for the American Museum of Natural History, and her fascination with nature’s more colorful and chaotic forms is evident in her paintings as well as the installation. Unfortunately, the day of the tour was the last day of the exhibition, but you can learn more about Bittle on her website.

205 10th Avenue (at 22nd Street)

2. Sculpture by Jackson Pollock & Source by Tony Smith at Matthew Marks Gallery

On view until October 27th is an exhibition of small sculptures by Jackson Pollock (who knew he made sculptures?)and Tony Smith and one huge sculpture by Smith in an adjacent space (pictured below). Pollock and Smith were both born in 1912 and became close friends after meeting in the late 1940s, when Pollock was producing some of his greatest paintings. Smith was originally an architect, but eventually found his calling in sculpture. Smith’s  Source  was first exhibited at Documenta IV in Kassel, Germany in 1968, and this is the first time it’s been shown in New York. The monumental steel sculpture weighs over 12,000 pounds and is constructed in two parts that can be disassembled for transportation.

523 West 24th Street (at 10th Avenue)

3. Bernd and Hilla Becher at Sonnabend Gallery

Husband and wife Bernd and Hilla Becher began photographing industrial sites in Germany in the 1970s, when they met at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Over the years, they created an extensive collection of photography cataloguing industrial buildings throughout Europe and the United States, many of which were demolished. Their photographs are shown in grid formations, showing their methodological approach to documenting these sites.

536 West 22nd Street (between 10th & 11th Avenues)

4. Fairytale Chairs & New York Photographs by Ai Weiwei at Carolina Nitsch Project Room

Currently on view in the small Carolina Nitsch Project Room is a selection of the Qing Dynasty chairs from Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale for Documenta XII (2007) in Kassel, Germany. For the original project, Weiwei installed 1,001 Qing Dynasty chairs all around the city meant to become ‘stations of reflection’ that would get the viewers involved in a social and political commentary about China. The chairs have a personal significance for the artist, as one such chair was one of the few things his family was allowed to take with them when his father was exiled by the Communist party. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the work was the way Weiwei organized for 1,001 Chinese citizens to travel to Kassel, arranging everything from their passports and travel arrangements to their suitcases, which he designed himself. For many of them, it was a life-changing experience. Additionally, the gallery is showing a selection of Weiwei’s photographs from his early years in New York City. On view until November 3rd.

534 West 22nd Street (between 10th & 11th Avenues)

5. Concordia, Concordia by Thomas Hirschhorn at Gladstone Gallery

Concordia, Concordia is based on Hirschhorn’s interpretation of the sinking of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, which sunk off the coast of Italy in January 2012. After seeing photos of the wreck, Hirschhorn was inspired by the apocalyptic vision of the overturned ship with its abundance of luxury trappings piled on top of each other. In his artist’s statement, Hirschhorn says that he wanted to do something big, and “when making things Big, I do it myself, with my own hands, with my own materials, with my own visual vocabulary and with my own work.” He has definitely succeeded in making a big statement. The photo here doesn’t do it justice. Concordia, Concordia was the most impressive work I saw on the tour, and I highly recommend visiting the gallery to see the monumental scale of the exhibition for yourself. But hurry, it’s only on view until October 20th!

515 West 21st Street (between 10th & 11th Avenues)

6. The End of Civilisation by Douglas Gordon at Gagosian Gallery

Scottish artist Douglas Gordon was commissioned to create this major film installation for the London 2012 Festival. The film is projected on both sides of the screen and layered with sounds of a crackling fire. The burning of the piano symbolizes a downfall of high culture, which is especially significant as it occurs on the border between England and Scotland, which was once the end point of the Roman Empire. Yet, fire is also a symbol of hope and optimism, like the Olympic torch, which also inspired the work. Gordon has been awarded several prizes and has had work shown at MoMA, the Tate Britain, the National Galleries of Scotland, the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, and many others. He is undoubtedly one of the major contemporary artists to watch out for.

522 West 21st Street (between 10th & 11th Avenues)

7. The Distant Sound by Susan Philipsz at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

Susan Philipsz’s exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery takes its name from the 1910 German opera Der ferne Klang, which translates to The Distant Sound. The opera by Austrian composer Franz Schreker tells the story of a composer haunted by an etherial noise that he tries unsuccessfully to capture until he realizes on his deathbed that the sound has been around him all the time in the rhythmic texture of modern life. Schreker was one of the first composers to incorporate found sounds such as street noise into a musical composition. For this sound installation, Philipsz deconstructed bits of the score for the horns, strings and chimes, each of which is projected from its own speaker. Compared to the sounds, the photographs seem to recede into the background and serve more as a way to break up the starkness of the space than as visual objects of their own interest. Philipsz has been commissioned to create a permanent installation for Governor’s Island, which will open in 2013.

521 West 21st Street (between 10th & 11th Avenues)

8. Natural History by Adam Cvijanovic at Postmasters

Bringing the tour full circle, Natural History by Adam Cvijanovic draws on themes of nature and wildlife that would likely be seen at the American Museum of Natural History. Cvijanovic has created a trompe l’Å“il by using Flashe and latex paint on Tyvek, which he has mounted directly to the wall. In the background, we see the iconic American landscape and in the foreground we see the artist’s tools, including not only paints and ladders but also beer bottles and a pizza box. In the back of the gallery, a painting of a reindeer standing amidst a bunch of animal carcasses is juxtaposed with an equally large painting in which his usually realistic animals have been replaced by Bambi and his Disney-fied animal friends.

459 West 19th Street (between 9th & 10th Avenues)

The Municipal Art Society will be hosting another tour of Chelsea Art Galleries on November 24th at 11am. See more information about the tour and buy tickets here. I highly recommend this tour for visitors and New Yorkers alike, since it is constantly changing to reflect the latest work in the galleries featuring both local New York talent and some of the most important contemporary artists in the world.

Get in touch with the author @lauraitzkowitz