The artwork was destroyed by the climate change of which the artist had long warned.
“Important,” artist Robyn O’Neil tweeted last Wednesday. “Remember that piece I worked on for 2 years? HELL. The one that almost killed me? Well, it got ruined in the hurricane. So if I kind of disappear and don’t respond to things for a while, please understand. Can’t quite get my head around this.”
HELL was O’Neil’s latest magnum opus, a roughly seven-feet-by-fourteen-feet triptych born from pencil and 35,000 separate collage elements. According to Susan Inglett Gallery, the piece included 65,000 figures. O’Neil’s oeuvre is rich with such ambitious, large-scale graphite works: Earlier this year the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth acquired her These Final Hours Embrace At Last; This Is Our Ending, This Is Our Past (2007). (O’Neil came onto Episode No. 38 of The Modern Art Notes Podcast to talk about that piece.) Her masterpiece may be the 12-foot-wide Staring into the blankness, they fell in order to begin (2008, below). Her work is also in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the MFA Houston.
Many of O’Neil’s massive drawings play with the paradox of weather: It’s beautiful, dramatic and it fascinates us, but its power makes us small and can even destroy us. O’Neil has long been fascinated by weather and by the way artists have engaged it. “I think it was the mere mention of wind in Courbet’s painting [The Gust of Wind at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston] that did it for me,” O’Neil told me in 2008. “I was reading a fabulous book called “Defining the Wind” by Scott Huler. It’s basically a long essay on how the Beaufort Scale, and wind in general, is poetry. Such a great sentiment. I also loved the quote in the beginning from Hemingway (writing to John Dos Passos): ‘Remember to get the weather in your goddamned book — weather is very important.’ I couldn’t agree more.”
O’Neil’s work has never been explicitly about climate change per se, but climate change surrounded the work like fog, an obvious explanation for the extraordinary power of the natural forces O’Neil portrayed again and again. Ironically, HELL feels like a bookend, the termination of that work, a piece that serves up our Boschian reward for ignoring the danger.
And now HELL is gone, extant only as a JPEG’d memory, a victim of a late-season hurricane that may be related to the changes in weather wrought by climate change. Even worse: HELL is just one of hundreds — thousands? — of artworks stored in New York galleries and studios that were destroyed or damaged by water that Sandy pushed into Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Every day for the last week the New York art media has had new photographs and stories documenting the destruction of contemporary cultural heritage — and not just artworks, but archives too. More than a week after Sandy hit New York, it’s become clear that Sandy has created what will eventually be considered empty spots in art history.
Whether art was destroyed in war or by weather or by fire, ‘lost’ art and archival material is something with which art history is accustomed to dealing. For example: You can’t flip through a monograph about Gustav Klimt without wincing when you get to the black-and-white pictures of the University paintings, the major murals destroyed at the end of World War II, or Leda, probably the most sexually suggestive painting of early modernism. Today they exist only as photographs.
But at least a representation of them exists in some form, however comparatively minor, at least we can see something of what they looked like, at least we have a thin window into understanding how they were impacted by the art that came before and how they impacted the art that came next. Something is better than a void.
Which brings us to the post-Sandy recovery. While many artworks and much archival material has been destroyed by Sandy, the technology to save materials related to them exists: Here’s hoping someone — the New York Foundation for the Arts? The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts? — provides funding to start a digital archive that will preserve whatever we can of art and archival material destroyed by Sandy. It could be something as simple and as low-cost as a crowd-sourced wiki. Or it could be as lavishly produced as the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art.
Either way, it won’t be long before critics and historians find it mighty useful. And while it’s no substitute for actual artwork, perhaps such an archive would provide some solace to artists who fear Sandy destroyed the future memories of their work.