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11.15.2012
Sandy Turns Westbeth into Wetsbeth
Famed live/work artists' space flooded, destroying important works of art and design.
The courtyard inside the Richard Meier-designed Westbeth, 1967-1970.
Courtesy Richard Meier & Partners

Yesterday was the last day that artists in Westbeth Artists Housing—many of whom have lived and worked there for several decades—could retrieve their work from their flood-soaked art studios and storage spaces. Whatever artworks, materials, and archives, which had included works by Isamu Noguchi and Richard Meier, remained in the wet and mold-ridden basement by the end of Wednesday were hauled out and considered trash. As a crew of volunteers in protective gear cleared out the rooms, a couple of artists sorted through the clutter to find years of work damaged by the surge of water that filled the basement during Hurricane Sandy.

“I lost at least 30 pieces,” said sculptor Dave Seccombe. “I don’t know what to say. It is just a mess.”

 
Many important works of art and architecture were damaged in flooding at Westbeth.
Nicole Anderson / AN
 

In the courtyard of the building, renovated by Richard Meier in the late 1960s, artists dried out their canvases and textile work in the sun. Conservation groups came by to advise artists on how to salvage and preserve their remaining artwork. Safety issues, however, have forced building management to expedite the clean-up process, and as a result, a fair amount of unclaimed work was discarded.

“They are weighing people’s art with safety and health,” said George Cominskie, President of Westbeth Artists Council.

Carl Stein of Elemental Architecture is the architect for the building (and worked with Meier in the ‘60s when he was a student) and said that among the work that was lost was of Richard Meier prints, known as as-builts, from the original project. But luckily, Executive Director Steve Neil scanned many of the prints a few years ago and Richard Meier & Partner Architects archived the originals.

Textiles by Susan Berger dry after the flood.
Nicole Anderson / AN
 

“We did have many of them, and, at Carl Stein's strong and repeated urging had them digitized a couple of years ago,” said Neil. “Since then, a few rolls have turned up that we didn't know about and which may have been lost in the flood, but I would estimate we have three-quarters of the drawings at least. They have been a lifesaver, as you might imagine.”

The archivist at Richard Meier & Partner Architects estimates the value of the 73 prints donated to Westbeth, which includes 22 prints of architectural and structural drawings and 51 sepias of electrical drawings, at $15,000.

Stein points out that while the financial loss of the prints is nominal, the “importance as informational tools was very significant.”

 
Two of the noguchi-designed sets that were damaged in the flooding at Westbeth.
Courtesy Something in the way and Noguchi Museum
 

The Martha Graham Dance Company just moved to Westbeth this summer and was not as fortunate. All of the costumes, sets, and production materials, dating back to 1926, were submerged in 10 feet of water--including iconic, original sets designed by Isamu Noguchi, which were considered groundbreaking modernist theatrical designs, as well as costumes by Halston, Oscar de la Renta, and Calvin Klein. The company estimates a loss of around $4 million, but the flood insurance will only cover $30,000.

“For those of us who have been in those costumes and danced on those sets, it is like losing a loved one,” said artistic director Janet Eilber. “The upside is Noguchi made those sets to be used. He would say ‘art should be useful.’”

The company has moved all the boxes of sets and costumes to a storage space in Yonkers, and with the help of conservators from the Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian, is figuring out what can be saved.

“The dance world deals with how ephemeral dance is. It isn’t like a painting you can store,” Eilber said. “We’re sort of lucky in this case that dance is not tangible and the dances are safe and ready to be performed.”

Nicole Anderson