September is National Disaster Preparedness Month, and so we share with you an article that appeared in The Artist’s Magazine earlier this year. Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the lives of many New York City artists—but the Cultural Recovery Center stepped in to help.
By Jerry N. Weiss
When Hurricane Sandy roared through the northeastern United States last fall, she visited uncommon misery on millions. Even so, the destruction was selective—dependent on the happenstance of geography. Residents who lived just a few miles inland suffered downed trees and lost power while those who lived near the ocean had a far rougher time of it. It took a post-storm drive along the shoreline for me to begin to comprehend the extent of the damage. A resumption of my teaching schedule in New York City sharpened the point. In the week after the hurricane, the Art Students League was closed, owing to a wayward construction crane that teetered precariously above West 57th Street.
Arriving at the League after its belated reopening, I sought out a friend, Ronnie Landfield, who has taught there since 1994. Landfield is one of the premier abstract expressionists in the country and a painter with an extensive knowledge of art history. He’s created a body of work that draws inspiration from the natural world, then interprets it in broad washes of shimmering color. When he had a solo exhibition at the Butler Institute of American Art in 2007, the museum’s director, Louis Zona, wrote, “Ronnie Landfield is, pure and simple, one of the best painters in America.”
I ran into Ronnie outside his classroom, nearly two weeks after the storm, and was totally unprepared for what I learned. He and his wife, Jenny, were essentially homeless, forced to shuttle between the apartments of friends and family. For more than 40 years, Landfield had lived and painted in a building located in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, near the Hudson River; when Sandy’s storm surge hit, his street was inundated. The river rose as high as 28 inches, and by 7:30 on the evening of October 29, the water had entered his ground-floor studio. Three hours later the Hudson subsided and the water went out with the tide. (Landfield wasn’t alone—the nearby landmark artists’ community of Westbeth was flooded for days, destroying the better part of some artists’ careers. Similar fates befell the basement storage facilities of galleries in Manhattan’s Chelsea art district.)
What followed was incredibly daunting, all the more so because Landfield’s building was without electricity. Landfield, his family, and several of his students carried 150 canvases, many of which had been rolled up in his studio, to an empty space on the building’s third floor. Seventy other paintings were transported to his son’s studio in Brooklyn. Once in a dry place, the paintings were sprayed front and back with Lysol and a solution of 70 percent ethyl alcohol and 30 percent water, then laid flat on the floor, face up, to continue drying. Landfield continues to keep stretcher strips, canvases and drawings under observation for any signs of mold.
When we sat down and talked a month after the hurricane, Landfield was weary but also reconciled to the possibility of losses, especially of written records and works on paper. Fortunately, because he uses acrylic paint, and acrylics aren’t water soluble once they’ve dried, most of his paintings had suffered no meaningful damage from the river’s infiltration—but there was as yet uncertainty about what would happen next. “Is this going to be the rest of my life?” he asked me, acknowledging the primary issue of securing shelter and the secondary concern that he wouldn’t be painting again any time soon.
Before long, friends offered help; a conservator volunteered his services, and a colleague tendered the use of his living space through the winter months. In December, the American Institute for Conservation Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT) opened a temporary Cultural Recovery Center in Brooklyn to assess and restore works by Landfield and other artists. In the midst of the catastrophe, Landfield gleaned moments of quiet revelation: canvases were unrolled, sometimes for the first time in decades, to reveal images he’d painted in his youth, some long forgotten.
Much of Landfield’s work is of immense scale, and his pieces have become increasingly contemplative in effect, characterized by a lush and subtle lyricism. Years ago a museum director wrote that Landfield led the “movement away from the geometric, hard-edge and minimal toward more lyrical, sensuous, romantic abstractions in colors which were softer and more vibrant.” The artist himself once explained, “Spirituality and feeling are the basic subjects of my work. They are depictions of intuitive expressions using color as language and the landscape (God’s earth) as a metaphor for the arena of life.”
Ronnie Landfield’s paintings, many of which are in the permanent collections of this country’s major museums, suggest a transcendent state. They, and the artist who made them, will transcend this, too.
Contributing editor Jerry N. Weiss is an artist as well as a writer. He teaches at the Art Students League of New York; visit his website at www.jerrynweiss.com.