Generators loudly buzzed and grim-faced crews were hard at work on Wednesday in Manhattan's West Chelsea neighborhood, home to hundreds of art galleries, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
"The art was floating," said Taylor Trabulus at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, on 24th Street, as she led a reporter through a darkened office by flashlight, pointing out the waist-high water mark on the walls and a soaking-wet William Kentridge work on paper resting atop a filing cabinet.
An insurance adjuster was on hand, telling Klagsbrun, "We'll come up with a plan."
"I have no words," said Tanja Grunert, of Klemens Gasser Tanja Grunert, after showing a reporter a basement gallery that is still completely flooded, with at least about 25 feet of water. Joa Baldinger's paintings were floating on top.
"Too bad we put that $18,000 sculpture in the basement," staffers dryly joked at Derek Eller Gallery, on 27th Street, as they looked into the basement by flashlight. Hundreds of works were stored in the basement, Eller said, which was flooded up to the ceiling.
"Who knows what will happen," Eller mused, "with works that were paid for but not picked up. They're not covered by our insurance any more. I don't know if they'll be covered by the buyers' insurance."
The Chelsea neighborhood is adjacent to the Hudson River. The storm surge hit the neighborhood hard, and for some, the recovery had not made much progress by this afternoon. Many dealers were hard at work moving their artworks out of their galleries and pumping water out of their basements with the help of generators.
No one was able to make even a preliminary estimate of their losses.
On many Chelsea streets, art handlers held up artworks for their colleagues to photograph in their water-damaged state. Gallery interiors were often too dark to shoot the photos, owing to lack of electricity below about 30th Street. Huge piles of trash had accumulated in front of every gallery building.
Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to agree that David Zwirner Gallery, on West 19th Street, had been hardest hit, but Zwirner declined to comment. "Not really in the mood right now," he said. "We're just trying to make sure the artwork is safe."
All around him, gallery employees were hard at work, some of them emptying entire filing cabinets into trash bags. A row of art handlers lifted works into a truck on the street outside. One of them, ironically, seemed to be a Gordon Matta-Clark photograph showing holes in the wall of a home, recalling the partially destroyed state of many of the surrounding galleries.
Many galleries farther north were dry. "We're untouched," said Maria Kucinski, of Cristin Tierney Gallery, on 29th Street. "It's a miracle."
"Cristin Tierney is one of the angels," said Ed Winkleman, of Winkleman Gallery, on 27th Street. "She's been offering storage space at her gallery. And the collector, Mark Pollock, has been coming around bringing sandwiches and water."
"It's really, really horrible," said Helene Winer, of Metro Pictures, while taking a break. She said that water was waist high in her gallery. "A lot of the artworks are wrapped in plastic, which got inundated with water and then served to hold the water in, like a bowl. So we're cutting the plastic open now on dozens of artworks, and water is just pouring out."
Winer, too, was quick to praise those in the neighborhood who offered help. "Marianne Boesky's husband brought pizzas yesterday. A real angel."
Others were reticent. "I don't know if I want to talk to anyone right now," said a weary-looking Andrea Rosen, carrying bags of groceries toward her gallery. "We're fine," she added.
Some demonstrated gallows humor. As a Dumpster arrived outside 303 Gallery, a staffer shouted, "That Dumpster is beautiful!" before shooing away a reporter with a cheerful "no comment."
Leo Koenig was standing outside his gallery Wednesday afternoon. A work crew had torn out soaked drywall near the floor and was working on replacing it while the gloomy sounds of Thom Yorke's 2006 solo album, The Eraser, played on a portable stereo inside.
"It was worse than I anticipated," Koenig said. "From previous storms, I figured we would get a foot maybe. But we got 28 inches of standing water. We were very protective of the art so almost no art was lost. I put together a crew right away and decided to go straight ahead with rebuilding as a therapeutic activity. We'll put on a show as soon as we can to show that life goes on. I'm sleeping in the gallery right now," he said, "keeping the doors open to try to mitigate the humidity, which is the number one enemy of art."
Koenig expressed his sympathies for fellow dealers who lost a good deal of art. "Walls can be replaced. Other things are irreplaceable, and that leaves a really bad taste."
Zach Feuer admitted that his show of Kate Levant's work was completely lost. "We hope to open our next show Dec. 1," he said, "and we're talking to Kate about displaying the remains of her work in some way." He showed a reporter the water mark on his walls, which was about 5 feet at the gallery entrance. "It's higher in the back," he said.
Marisa Newman was wearing a poncho while moving work around in her 22nd Street basement gallery, Newman Popiashvili.
"Ironically, Jaye Moon really wanted a certain critic to see her show, and I ran into him today," Newman said. "So he came in and I showed him around," she said, and began to cry.
She showed a reporter out. "We'll have a drink and laugh about this one day," she said.