“I think nobody believed something like that could happen,” said artist Nancy Goldring. Vibrant and incredibly young looking at 68, Goldring was talking about Hurricane Sandy and the enormous flooding it caused. We were sitting in her spacious 11th-floor apartment in Westbeth, an artists’ housing community that towers over the West Side Highway. Designed by Richard Meier, Westbeth was the first artist’s colony to receive federal funds. It opened its doors in 1970, welcoming all kinds of creative types — artists, dancers, filmmakers, and musicians. Goldring, who makes elaborate photo-projection pieces through a process that involves drawing, slide projection, and photography, moved in in 1972.
As part of Meier’s plan, Westbeth was designed with 78,000 square feet of studio space in its basement. The studios cost money, and there aren’t enough for everyone in the building. Goldring snagged a space in 1982. For the past thirty years, she kept her equipment, which was custom designed and hand-crafted over years of refining her process, as well as her past work down there. Then, in October, Hurricane Sandy hit — and destroyed nearly all of it. “Just like that,” Goldring said. “Boom.”
“This was untried. Water has entered the basement before, but you know all of Martha Graham’s sets and costumes …” she continued, referring to the $4 million in losses sustained by the dance company, which had just moved into a Westbeth basement studio this summer. “You know, that’s what you read about, but the artist prints and sculptures and equipment … there’s one woman who not only stored her paintings, but she stored all of the documentation. So she’s decimated.”
Because Westbeth sits nearly on the water, the storm hit the complex early. Lights and power went out on Monday night, October 29, and Goldring said that when she turned off her reading light that evening, “I have never seen such darkness in my life.” She left for a friend’s place uptown the following afternoon, but returned over the next few days to check on her neighbors and on the state of the basement. Management, however, barred anyone from going down there, even threatening one person with arrest.
Finally, four days later, artists were given permission to enter the basement and salvage what they could. Wearing a respirator, suit, and gloves, Goldring and others descended to find the basement — and their studios — ravaged and destroyed. A cinderblock wall had fallen into her studio, her flat files were “impregnated with this filthy, contaminated water,” loose wires were covered in water, and there was a horrible stench. “I took what I thought were precautions” in advance of the storm, Goldring said, including wrapping and double-sealing her work in plastic and placing it on very high elevated racks. But there was barely anything that could be saved. She brought up 120 large, framed pieces, defitted all of them, and threw away 92.
Goldring estimates her losses at $59,000, which doesn’t include the overwhelming emotional trauma of losing essentially a life’s worth of work. Plus there were other things, smaller objects with sentimental value, stored in the basement and now gone: artwork from an ex-boyfriend, posters from her first big exhibitions. “I just think, more than anything, what one has to do is just think about what you do now,” she said. “I mean, I really am not into mourning. Once I realized it was gone, it was sort of like, the weirdest kind of divorce. That’s what it feels like. I was just dizzy all the time.”
She did manage to save a few pieces, cibachromes and drawings — a number of them, in an eerie coincidence, from a series titled At Sea. In the wake of the storm, the Museum of Modern Art sent conservators down to Westbeth for nearly a week to help artists figure out how to treat their work, and on their recommendation, Goldring washed pieces with alcohol and has been checking regularly for signs of mold.
Many of them look fine at first glance; you wouldn’t realize that a flood had ravaged them. But when you look closer, you see the patches of pockmarks and areas of rust-colored stains that have settled in forever, and you realize the pieces have lost their commercial and aesthetic value as meticulously crafted works of art. They’re relics now, artifacts from Superstorm Sandy.
Although it seems like a cliche to say it, Goldring has a remarkably positive attitude about an event that one could safely call horrible. She doesn’t want to spend her time trying to save work that will never look perfect, she said, so she’s focusing on what’s yet to come, the art she has yet to make. And although her work wasn’t able to get out in time, she’s thankful that she was. The building, she told me, “is filled with octogenarians,” and many of them were stuck alone in their apartments in the days and weeks that followed the storm. Although neighbors and volunteers helped and cared for them, the art world conversation and the media spotlight have largely passed over them. “It’s weird, these are all artists with substantial careers, and they’re just old now, and not part of the ‘conversation’ — aren’t on the internet, maybe don’t have websites. Do you know what I mean? It’s really heartbreaking for me to see.”