The Artist vs. the Technocrat: A $2 Million Parable

In 1974, Dorothea Rockburne, 42 and Canadian, was having fun with the beginnings of success as an artist in late midcentury Manhattan. Two years earlier she had acquired a Guggenheim fellowship, adopted by an exhibit at the influential Lisson Gallery in London and an look on the cowl of Artforum. Now the hardest years of motherhood and paycheck work behind her, she was making ready for a gaggle present at the Museum of Modern Art, when the downtown constructing the place she had lived and answered to her inventive impulses for 16 years, was bought.

The outgoing proprietor understood that as a single mom, Ms. Rockburne operated below sure monetary constraints, and he typically gave her the garments his personal daughter had outgrown. Conforming to a distinct mannequin of proprietorship, the new landlord arrived and promptly evicted everybody.

After a sequence of untenable locations, every of them darkish and depressing, she discovered a 6,200-square-foot loft in SoHo, the place I visited her on a stifling morning lately. Ms. Rockburne was at the heart of a battle, outdated and clear sufficient in its metaphoric valence to really feel biblical — a conflict between the dismissive habits of the omnipotent materialist class that has colonized downtown and the outdated bohemian values.

According to her lawsuit, Ms. Rockburne watched water pour for hours onto her artwork whereas ready for her neighbor’s plumber.Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

The hassle started round noon on Jan. 25, when Ms. Rockburne discovered water streaming in from the loft above hers, dripping into a big cupboard the place she saved plenty of her work. The origin was curious, as a result of the couple who had purchased the place a number of months earlier for $eight million by no means gave the impression to be there.

At 88, Ms. Rockburne is conscious of social media however she is hardly immersed in it, so it meant little or no to her that the new occupant of unit 3WR was a person named Dick Costolo and that for a number of years he served as the chief govt of Twitter. The flood occurred on a Monday, her assistant’s break day, which sophisticated issues. Alone, she couldn’t carry or climb the ladder that might have taken her to the high of the space for storing, the place a lot of the rescuing effort was required. “From midday on I watched helplessly as the water poured down over the cupboard and onto my early work,’’ Ms. Rockburne informed me. By the time her assistant was in a position to get to her, lots of the items have been already stained and disfigured.

In a grievance filed in State Supreme Court final week, Ms. Rockburne’s legal professionals preserve that the downside wouldn’t have been so extreme had the Costolos acted rapidly. Told at 1 p.m. that there was a leak coming from his unit, Mr. Costolo insisted on utilizing his personal plumber, the go well with claims, relatively than permit somebody the constructing may have supplied, somebody, Ms. Rockburne remarked, who would have been “finances.” As a consequence, the leak was not corrected till 6 that night.

In an effort to evaluate the extent of the injury, she instantly bought in contact with Adam Novak, a famend conservator of recent artwork, who finally decided that 176 items had been compromised by the flooding; a minimum of 25 of them have been past restore, in keeping with the lawsuit. As a consequence, Ms. Rockburne is suing the Costolos for slightly below $2 million, $576,000 of which might cowl the value of restoration for the salvageable work, and $1.three million for the items that have been destroyed.

Although the Costolos didn’t reply to requests for remark, an e mail from Mr. Costolo excerpted in the grievance explains pal had been staying in the loft and used the bathe in the visitor bed room, which had been dripping. A consultant for Chubb, the couple’s insurer, mentioned that the firm couldn’t touch upon an energetic declare.

Elements of “Gradient and Field,” a 1971 set up, broken from the leak. Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

As time plods alongside, her legal professionals preserve, art work that is perhaps fastened runs the threat of turning into irreparable. In a perfect world, Ms. Rockburne would have the items restored now and hope for reimbursement later. But, as she defined, she is with out the further half-million dollars that it might demand. Even together with her place in the firmament — items purchased over the years by MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Trust, and work presently on show at Dia Beacon and the Pompidou Center — her wealth resides largely in her actual property asset, one she was lucky sufficient to amass in 1979, with the assist of financial institution loans, when the constructing went co-op.

Obviously there are numerous artists of the identical interval who weren’t as fortunate, both by way of the recognition they acquired or the investments they have been in a position to make. And but it might be simpler to discover a billy goat on an expressway than find anybody in SoHo who nonetheless lives the method Ms. Rockburne does — in good consonance with inventive purity.

In place of a correct kitchen — as a substitute of the 60-inch Wolf vary with a companion set of wall ovens that you’d ordinarily discover in a loft of this measurement in the present day — she has a row of white home equipment that appear up to now from the second of her arrival. With the exception of a single small bed room and a grouping of furnishings coated both in bedspreads or drop cloths — I couldn’t inform — the house is solely given over to her work.

Not lengthy after I confirmed up, Ms. Rockburne walked me to the again of her studio, the place she had laid out a sequence of black-and-white determine drawings that had been broken. She had produced them in the early 1950s, when she was a scholar at Black Mountain College and her circle of buddies included Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. Much of her work is impressed by the love of arithmetic she developed whereas she was there, below the tutelage of the German theoretician Max Dehn. Ms. Rockburne continued to review equations her entire life. A decade in the past, in her late 70s, she bought a doctorate in math.

Over the a few years she has lived in her loft, she informed me, she and others in the constructing have spent tens of millions of dollars on infrastructure and repairs — fixing the roof, the elevator and so forth. When Ms. Rockburne first moved in, there was no warmth on the weekends. What is commonly forgotten in conversations about the space’s transition from a spot of artists to a spot of bankers and technocrats is that the painters and sculptors and dancers who got here first didn’t merely construct it as a model, they hammered and nailed SoHo to some extent of livability. On my method out, we spoke about the prospects for the lawsuit. “I don’t want to compromise on the amount,’’ Ms. Rockburne told me. “Not by a penny.”