NEW YORKERS LIKE to say they’re tough. They have to be. Some say that’s why big stuff happens there—because the citizens can take it. And come out better for it.
Consider the humbled art dealers of Chelsea. Just a week after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc throughout the neighborhood, several were ready to open their doors again. They were the lucky ones: Matthew Marks and David Zwirner, who had the resources to speed recovery, and those above street level or outside the flood zone, who just had to wait for electricity to be restored.
The Drawing Center was in the latter group, and the first to put a postponed event back on the calendar. Following a ten-million-dollar renovation, the Center’s November 5th benefit gala unveiled its newly expanded SoHo quarters and previewed three exhibitions, which it now has room to show. On the main floor was “Guillermo Kuitca: Diarios” and “José Antonio Suárez Londoño: The Yearbooks.” Kuitca was showing canvases he had discarded over the past couple of decades and then given a second chance, draping them over a round table and notating the facts of his life in pencil and crayon—flight information, exhibition schedules, expenses, dog names. “This is the most personal work I’ve ever done,” he said. The basement Lab gallery had “In Deed: Certificates of Authenticity in Art,” a fascinating archive of the documents that have made hard-core Conceptual works collectible. “If we’d taken on water during the hurricane,” said director Brett Littman, “I’d have to raise another ten million dollars now.”
As would prove the rule at every reception last week, all conversation began with tales of the flood: horror stories of artists whose Red Hook or Gowanus studios had drowned their work; success stories of galleries whose tireless staffs dried out spaces and rescued artworks; expressions of relief from those who only had to cope with the blackout. “I had to work by daylight,” said Will Cotton. “A new experience for me.”
The new face at dinner, held at David Burke Kitchen, belonged to Suárez Londoño. “He’s a force in Colombia,” said curator Claire Gilman, the first to bring the artist’s work to New York. I wondered what took so long. “I live in a hole,” he said, laughing. “No computer, no Internet, no smartphone.”
Presumably he does have a television, which is what everyone was watching on Tuesday night, when President Obama was reelected—all that needed to happen then. Relief was short-lived, thanks to the nor’easter that arrived on Wednesday with an unseasonable snowstorm. It visited more grief on thousands of outer-borough residents made homeless by the hurricane, and further emptied the still-quiet streets of Chelsea, where two galleries went ahead with welcome openings. “The water stopped next door,” Pace Gallery’s Marc Glimcher explained at the reception for his postponed Michal Rovner and Edward Kienholz shows, while Johannes Vogt celebrated the relocation of his gallery in a still-heatless building on West Twenty-Sixth Street. And people came out—not a lot of people, but those who could, did.
Weathervane collectors Phil and Shelley Aarons joined about two dozen other intrepid guests attending a private champagne reception for elegant exhibitions by Travis Boyer and two even younger artists that Boyer selected, A. K. Burns and G. T. Pellizzi. “I’m his aunt!” said the snowy-haired Christophe de Menil of Pellizzi. “I was afraid the show would look too polished,” Boyer confessed during dinner at the Hotel Americano. It was also the scene of David Nolan’s Thursday fete for the eighty-eight-year-old Richard Artschwager’s show of recent pastels, “The Desert,” at Nolan’s above-the-flood-line gallery. “We’ve come together to honor the great Richard Artschwager and his best work ever!” Nolan said in his toast. Looking right at Jennifer Gross, curator of the artist’s current retrospective at the Whitney Museum, he joked, “It’s a really fresh, exciting show—even better than the Whitney’s!” She took it in stride. “I don’t know about that,” she said later. “But it’s lovely.”
The same evening, Elizabeth Dee and James Cohan also reopened, with works by Mark Barrow and Adrian Piper (at Dee) and Trenton Doyle Hancock (at Cohan). Both were fortunate enough to escape damage from the storm. “It’s mysterious,” said Dee, whose gallery is located close to the Hudson River. She confessed to feeling a bit guilty to be opening when so many others were still suffering. “But I thought it would make an optimistic statement if we went forward,” she added. Indeed, more people attended both receptions than had been out the night before, but Chelsea still looked more like it did in 1995, when galleries were few, openings felt like exclusive affairs at remote outposts, and dealers were thought to be pioneers.
One of those early settlers was Matthew Marks, who hosted an opening of works by Charles Ray at his West Twenty-Second Street gallery on Friday. Of course, it’s not unusual for a gallery to put up new walls or reconfigure a space for a new show, particularly at Marks, and his crew had been ready to go. So were critics Peter Schjeldahl and Roberta Smith. They joined the universal marvel over Ray’s three stunning new sculptures, seamless figures carved from single blocks of stainless steel with seemingly delicate features, though together they weigh nearly nine thousand pounds.
The crowd at David Zwirner was close to normal levels for its partial reopening, with Diana Thater’s Chernobyl, a multichannel projection of images from a previous disaster site, scaled up to the dimensions of the room. The show had originally been scheduled for January, but Zwirner rushed it into place while the rest of his nearly full-block gallery was undergoing reconstruction and works by Luc Tuymans and Francis Alÿs that had been delivered before the storm were being restored. A high-spirited party at Pravda for Thater, Zwirner’s sixty employees, and friends (Lucy Mitchell-Innes, Tim Nye, Jane Lombard, Cecilia Alemani, Paul Morris) celebrated the gallery’s return.
Everyone had a story. One of Zwirner’s was about the fishing waders he’d bought in Montauk but never used—until the night of the storm, when he needed them to get into his flooded gallery. “I didn’t have to do anything,” said the gallery’s architect, Annabelle Selldorf, when asked about the restorations. “They did it all.”
The countdown to full recovery continued on Saturday, with openings for Goshka Macuga at Andrew Kreps, Jeremy Deller and Alex Katz at Gavin Brown, and Edgar Arceneaux at Maccarone. At this point, people were less compelled to talk about the storm than the relief effort that many in the art world joined to help feed and supply people in Queens and Staten Island who were still out in the cold. “I was happy to help pay for the bus and the goods that Klaus Biesenbach took out to the Rockaways,” said collector Beth Swofford.
“It’s been an extraordinary couple of weeks,” Brown began his toast at dinner. Reading from prepared notes obviously written from the heart, he gave an inspired, three-and-a-half-minute history of our planet, including the “random brutality” of the hurricane and the transformation of the first humans from naked to clothed, before moving on to the artists at hand—Deller’s sensitive films of people “on the margins of humanity” and Katz’s excellent portraits of women. “I look at them and think of my mother,” Brown said. “I think of my daughters, my sister, and my friends. I think of my wife. And I see them all looking back with love.”
That’s what was going on in Chelsea last week. Sentiment rules, but so do optimism and faith. By the end of this month, almost every gallery will be back in the game. And odds are that the rest of us will love it more than before.