Because I am a writer, this confession may not shock you, but here it is anyway: I am extremely picky about pens. I silently judge people when they use dull, crappy ones, and I admire those who clearly take pride in their writing utensils. I am in fact so picky about pens that I only buy a certain kind, in packs from a store that I otherwise never visit, for more money than I tell myself one should logically spend on pens.

So, naturally, I notice the pens at the front desks of galleries — how they feel in my hand, how they roll on the paper when I sign my name in the guest book. These pens are the galleries’ first foot forward, their way of presenting themselves to the world … or at least to me: a woman obsessed with stationery who also happens to be an art critic.

Join me, then, as I wander the streets of Chelsea and bring you the first in an as-yet-only-theoretical series of gallery pen reviews.

Andrew Edlin Gallery

Pen at Edlin Gallery

Pen at Andrew Edlin Gallery

This gallery mostly focuses on “outsider” and self-taught artists, and so I hoped its pen might have some unique or unusual qualities, like being homemade. It doesn’t. In fact, it’s sort of the opposite of special: your classic black, inky gel pen that rolls smoothly and writes well. The importance of use value shouldn’t be overlooked, of course, but as far as pens go this one is pretty boring. Probably the most exciting thing about it is that all of its identifying features have been rubbed off, giving it the mysterious air of a favorite utensil used compulsively for a project that no one except the maker has ever seen.

Zieher Smith & Horton


Pen at Zieher Smith & Horton

Well, this is unexpected. The gallery whose name sounds painfully like that of a law firm has a purple pen up front — with a yellow stick, no less! Zieher Smith & Horton gets major points for having, by my completely unofficial estimation, the most colorful pen in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, it’s also sort of a shitty pen — your standard ballpoint that requires you to flex your arm muscles and press fairly hard to get anything going. Like so much contemporary art, this pen jumps out at you and makes you notice it, only to disappoint on closer inspection.

Jack Shainman Gallery, 20th Street

Pen at Jack Shainman Gallery

Pen at Jack Shainman Gallery

Jack Shainman Gallery uses a pen from Staples. Let’s all take a moment to let that sink in, because I found it pretty shocking upon discovery. I’ve always seen Shainman as the cool kid on the block, but the kind of cool kid who’s approachable rather than conceited; the gallery threw the only fun party I’ve ever attended during Art Basel Miami Beach. Notably, it was a party without a list, and maybe that gets to the heart of it: there’s a subtle message of accessibility and populism happening here, which is reinforced by the branded but pretty damn basic pen from Staples. It says: you too can have a gallery with a guest book up front. The chain is an odd, slightly pretentious choice, though, because let’s be real — who wants to steal this pen?

David Zwirner Gallery, 20th Street

Pen at David Zwirner

Pen at David Zwirner Gallery

Every time I visit David Zwirner’s newest space in Chelsea — which boasts 30,000 square feet over five floors — I can’t help but think it looks like a boutique hotel. Which is to say it doesn’t have much character, but it’s certainly very nice. And considering this is a man who’s been on ArtReview‘s Power 100 for more than a decade straight, he certainly knows from nice things. The pen here is no exception; it’s got just the right touch, flowing well but not too heavily. Not only that, but Zwirner’s 20th Street space was the first commercial art gallery to receive LEED certification, and this is a BeGreen pen, made from almost 90% recycled content. Leave it to Zwirner to show up everyone else on the block.

Leslie Tonkonow Gallery

Pen at Leslie Tonkonow Gallery

Pen at Leslie Tonkonow Gallery

I have to admit: I expected more from you, Leslie Tonkonow. You’ve got a strong gallery program, representing an almost equal number of men and women artists, including such standouts as Agnes Denes, Laurel Nakadate, and Saya Woolfalk. But this pen did not roll out smoothly like one of your exhibitions — despite being a rolling ball pen. This, I suspect, is one of those pens that looks nice, that’s supposed to make people think you’ve spent time and money investing in a quality utensil, when in truth it doesn’t actually function very well. You’re better than this, Leslie Tonkonow, and we both know it.

PPOW Gallery

Pen at PPOW Gallery

Pen at PPOW Gallery

The ordinariness of this pen belies its awesomeness. It’s just a Pilot G2 retractable gel ink roller, one of the most popular nice-without-being-too-nice pens on the market — but there’s a reason for that: it writes really well. This pen is tried and true, and you can say the same of PPOW, the gallery whose guest book it sits on: been around since before I was born, weathered three different neighborhoods, and still mounting consistently great shows.

Note: Is this the same pen as Andrew Edlin’s? Does context change everything? Am I the most inconsistent critic ever? Maybe.

Driscoll Babcock Galleries


Pen at Driscoll Babcock Galleries

The uni-ball Vision rollerball is as ubiquitous as the Pilot G2, but it’s definitely a step up: more inky, more luxurious, a smoother flow. Although it’s not exactly an original choice — if you wanna surprise me, shell out for the uni-ball Vision Elite Designer Series, or a brand I’ve never heard of — it certainly writes the best of all the pens I encountered on this mission to Chelsea. Fitting that the gallery that bills itself as New York’s oldest and focuses largely on historical, modern work also has the nicest pen. I guess the classics are the classics for a reason.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

12 replies on “Judging Galleries by Their Pens: Chelsea Edition”

  1. “The uni-ball Vision rollerball is as ubiquitous as the Pilot G2, but it’s definitely a step up: more inky, more luxurious, a smoother flow.”
    As an artist I find the Pilot G2 superior to Vision which seems bit ‘sticky’. Clear article. Signed book last day of Neel show at Zwirner and found it went well. Funny book placement on second floor given the stack of bodies that group around the desk. Side note is that Neel had a strong sense of line. Good free hand work isn’t easy, hence not very popular these days. Likely why so much contracted, digital, photo, tool based presentations coming out from the academies.
    Just seeing full pages of signatures in the book is an art experience at those kind of phoned in shows. More soul than what’s in the gallery. Now I feel less guilty about carrying my own kind of pen.

  2. I’d like to point out that I have a thing called “familial tremor” which may or may not turn into PD at a later time.
    That said, my handwriting looks like shit.
    So, I don’t care about what pen you use and maybe you should get a life!

  3. No reason they should shell out for expensive pens. People like myself inadvertently walk away with them. Imagine how many would disappear if they were really nice, like the TUL pens, for example.

  4. i’m confused, you are critical of others pens, but you yourself still use a disposable pen? why haven’t you switched over to fountain pens? save up $30 and go buy yourself a lamy safari, its a good entry level fountain pen.

    1. People say this about the Safari, but in spite of liking very much how they look, none of the three I’ve owned over the past 30 years or so has worked worth a damn. Lots of skipping, with several different inks. I recently purchased a $15 Pilot fountain pen to replace a pen that I had to retire after decades of service. It works amazingly well.

      1. oh interesting, its rare i ever hear people complain about how they work. normally the big complaints are that its ugly or the triangle grip is uncomfortable. was the nib out of alignment on yours?

        i am more of a vintage pen guy, i have a couple modern pens, but the only modern pen i recommend is the safari. i have had 4 of them and they have all worked great. even when i leave them inked up for over a month they will write just fine as soon as i uncap them.

        1. It may be the ink I use (J. Herbin), but I just have had bad luck with all of the Safaris I’ve tried. That could be because I like my pens EF/XF, and such do have a tendency toward flow problems. These are pens that I bought in person (Chicago’s old Flax store, many years ago) and on-line (eBay) and none have been better than “very poor.”

          My preference tends to run to my old MontBlanc 144 (retired now, after 29 years of use) and to the Sheaffer inlaid-nib models of the ’70s. But the new Pilot is a revelation! Much less expensive than the MB or even the eBay’d Sheaffers, with a nice feel and a very fine line.

          1. extra fine nibs can be really finicky because of their reduced ink flow. i tend to prefer much broader nibs myself because i like the smoothness of the writing experience that a big nib provides, at the moment i am using a 1.9 mm stub. but i am also a big fan of flexible nibs. for sketching you cannot get a better tool than a good vintage flex nibed pen.

            the pilot metropolitan is also a good pen. and its definitely true that you don’t have to spend a lot to get a good writing experience. the vintage MontBlanc’s were solid pens, but these days it seems like they are more of a status symbol than a writing utensil.

            i am also curious about the flax store in chicago. do you know if it was associated with the flax in san francisco or the flax in orlando? the two brothers both used the family name to open art stores on either side of the country.

          2. I don’t know; it was many years ago, and it was a full-service art supply store with a very nice pen counter. That’s about all I can tell you about it. My spouse got my MB 144 there–you’re right that the newer ones tend to be primarily status symbols. Heck, even the 144 was that, but the designs on many of the newer models lack any subtlety whatsoever.

            Yes, the Pilot Metropolitan is the one I’m using. It just seems to be at the sweet spot for writing instruments, yet not so sweet that I would be heartbroken to lose it (as you may notice from my 29-year run with the 144, though, I’m not the sort to lose pens).

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