It is that day again when our hearts are heavy remembering all who perished on that sun-filled September morning in 2001. These last few weeks, I have worked with Rosalind Solomon to present her latest show in New York and all the time I have thought about working with Michael Richards on her show at the Grey Art Gallery, 25 years ago - so many lifetimes ago in a world transformed by the attack on the World Trade Center.
Sculptor Michael Rolando Richards died in the attack on September 11, 2001. At the time, he was enjoying a fellowship with World Views, an artist-in-residence program sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. He had been hard at work on his project, The Tuskegee Airmen, dedicated to the memory of the African-American air force who were segregated during World War II.
Michael Richards (American, 1963-2001). Untitled, 1997.
Fiberglass and resin with iron oxide. 72 x 24 x 19 in. (182.9 x 61 x 48.3 cm).
Contemporary Art. Anonymous gift in honor of Michael Richards.
Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum
Michael had attended an opening at the Grey Art Gallery on September 10, 2001 and then decided to head for his WTC studio on the 92nd floor in Manhattan to work. Living in Rosedale, Queens at the time, he skipped the long commute home in favor of staying overnight in order to continue working into the wee hours of the morning. When the planes struck at 8:45 a.m., he might have been getting ready to go to work at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where he was a freelance preparator.
That Richards was killed by an airplane piercing the body of a tall, trim tower seems eerily coincidental and almost mystical. Richards' well-known sculpture Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian,1999, features the artist's own tall, trim body as the full-length male figure standing straight and lifted off the floor by a slender pole. The gold resin body, clad in a military uniform, bears numerous small airplanes driven into the torso, their noses piercing the surface like the arrows buried into St. Sebastian's flesh as he became a martyr to his Christian faith.
The Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999
Michael Richards' faith was in humankind. He truly believed that our better angels would prevail - even in the face of political turmoil, bigotry, racism and injustice. Curator Jorge Daniel Veneciano, who organized Richards' exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1996, pointed out that the artist's reference to flight worked on two levels: the flight away from repression and the flight toward redemption.
In a 1997 untitled sculpture of a male figure carrying a parachute pack on his back, the artist seems to speak of that dual experience. Here a Tuskegee Airman prepares for flight, focused on the mission and his survival. He willingly accepts the risk while he relies on his experience, skill and a parachute (a metaphor for community of support?) to see him through. And yet, there is exhaustion in these faces and bodies. Their patriotism may take them physically into the skies, but their souls remain grounded in despair. When will tolerance replace hatred and war?
Richards' life hardly touched Tuskegee, Alabama. Born in Brooklyn on August 2, 1963 to a Costa Rican mother and Jamaican father, Michael Richards lived in Kingston, Jamaica during his childhood. He graduated with honors from Excelsior High School and then returned to New York to pursue his undergraduate degree at Queens College, which he completed with distinction in 1985. He went on to earn a Master's Degree in Arts from New York University in 1991. While at NYU, Richards worked as a preparator at the university's Grey Art Gallery.
In 1993, Richards participated in the highly-coveted Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, followed by an Artists-in-the-Marketplace Program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in 1994.
From 1995 to 1996, he participated in the Artist-in-Residence program at the Studio Museum of Harlem and The Space Program, run by The Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In 2000, Richards received the Franconia Sculpture Park/Jerome Fellowship. Today, his project for the part Are You Down? is on display in this Minnesota park and has become the Michael Richards Memorial. It consists of three airmen (cast from Richards' body) sitting in a circle surrounding a target, facing outward. Originally created in fiberglass, Franconia hopes to raise enough money to cast the work in bronze in order to preserve the work in perpetuity. A film about the project can be found here.
The Tuskegee Airmen series highlights a squadron of African-American pilots in World War II--formally called the 332nd Fighter Group in the U.S. Army Air Corps--who were segregated from the other Army units. Despite this racist slight, the squadron excelled in its service to this country. Some sources have said that no airmen lost their lives on a mission during the war. This assertion has been challenged since 2006. However, in Richards' day, the reputation of the Tuskegee Airmen remained almost mythic--as Richards' works tend to be.
The name Tuskegee also brings up the association with the notorious syphilis experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972. Infecting African-American sharecroppers, the scientists wanted to observe this horribly destructive disease. Another example of racism in the United States, this experiment withheld penicillin (which became available in 1929) from its subjects. During the course of this experiment the wives and children of the subjects were infected, too.
Clearly, Tuskegee resonated with Michael Richards for a number reasons.
At the time of his death, Richards was working on Fallen Angel, a life-size piece based on his own torso that was meant to be positioned on the floor. Wings were attached to the back with one wing broken off and left on the floor. Today it serves as a metaphor for the artist’s life and death.
Executive Director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in 2001, Liz Thompson noted that "He was so promising. He was on a tear." So true.
Today, we remember him for all that he was and all that he was meant to be. And we mourn the loss of a great artist and equally wonderful friend. A memorial was held at the Studio Museum of Harlem on September 23, 2001.
Known Extant Works:
- Untitled (from Tuskegee Airmen), 1997, Booklyn Museum, NY
- Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999.
- Are You Down?, 2000, Franconia Sculpture Park, MN
- Grey Art Gallery, New York University , New York
- Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
- Aldrich Contemporary Museum, Ridgefield, CT
- Studio Museum of Harlem, New York
- Bronx Museum of Arts, New York
- Miami Art Center, Miami, Florida
- Franconia Sculpture Park, Franconia, Minnesota
- Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, New York
- North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC
- Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL
- The Debeyard Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Artists' Space, New York
We still miss you, Michael.
Artist Todd Stone Remembers:
Todd Stone, 4 Raising, 2012
How can we adequate commemorate in art over 3,000 people who perished on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center towers, Shanksville, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, plus those who died or live with chronic ailments because they worked at Ground Zero? Todd Stone answered this question 11 years ago as he witnessed the attacks on the WTC towers from his studio in Lower Manhattan. He recorded what he saw and he continues to record the rebirth of the site. Recently he sent me a new image, 4 Raising, which interprets the shiny resilient surface and spirit of this new building at 150 Greenwich Street.
Upon completion, the buildings at the former WTC should look like this:
A digital illustration of 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 WTC
To learn more about Todd Stone's September 11th series Witness and Downtown Rising, please visit his website: www.toddstone.com and read my review of his 2011 exhibition at 7 World Trade Center, which included poetry readings and other commemorative events. A film of the events on August 27, 2011 entitled Witness Downtown Rising Renga premiered in March 2012.