Exhibition — Prime Matter

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Teck­n­ingsmuseet (Draw­ing Museum)

19 sept 2015 — 10 jan 2016

curated by Christo­pher Schade, Zoe Pet­ti­john Schade, Madlen Herrström

Weathering the Storm: Hurricane Sandy’s Impact at Westbeth (Part 1) (Hyperallergic)

Nancy Goldring with one of her damaged but salvaged artworks (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

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 inWest­beth, 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.

The entrance to Westbeth

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.

Nancy Goldring's studio after the storm

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.”

A close-up on the damage to one of Goldring's pieces (click to enlarge)

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.

Pockmarks catching the light on one of Goldring's salvaged cibachromes

Water stains on one of Goldring's drawings

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.”