The City Never Sleeps
Having grown up and lived in New York for almost four decades, you would think that I had visited most of its myriad attractions. Not so! There are many such unfrequented hotspots in and around town, one of them being the little known Governors Island.
To get to this nearly inaccessible site, one must travel by subway to the tip of Lower Manhattan, where the East River meets the Hudson. From there, you wander aimlessly about until some kind soul leads you in the right direction.
“I’m going there,” said the young girl wearing a New York Harbor School T-shirt. “Follow me.” After a short stroll, my volunteer guide piped up again. “The ferry to Governors Island is right over there,” she pointed out to me, “in the building to your left.” That would be the Battery Maritime Building, right? I thanked the young girl, who disappeared inside a local coffee shop.
I waited at the terminal until the appointed 8 a.m. hour when the next ferry would be ready to launch. The boat ride itself lasted under a quarter of an hour, a pleasant enough trip with little if any turbulence — just the thing for this landlubber.
Disembarking from the ferry at Governor’s Island, the first view I had was of the bay and the newly rebuilt World Trade Center buildings. Looming silently in the distance behind me, they stood as a bulwark against a clear, cloudless sky — coincidentally, the same September sky that shone brightly over Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. Noisy helicopters, simultaneously taking off and landing from the busy heliport near the East River, broke through the stillness.
I approached the Arts Center entrance on foot, where I was greeted by an apportioned wall with the name of the exhibition, Michael Richards: Winged, in emboldened lettering. A variant of Matura MT Script Capitals, the title was displayed prominently to my left, with the figure of the artist’s Winged sculpture suspended directly ahead. Cast from Michael’s own forearms, it was “conjoined at the elbow,” and, as the written description indicated, “pierced with feathers, bringing together human anatomy and bird-like features to evocative effect.”
I stared intently at the bronze and metal object floating before me. With its outstretched arms, the work gave the appearance of bidding me to come forward and inspect the contents within. If I had stood underneath that welcoming embrace, the hands would have brushed lightly against my shoulders — reassuringly, I would imagine, in preparation for what I was about to see.
Though some of what I witnessed would cause me (and others like me) great pain, those extended hand figures — and ergo, Michael’s spirit — would still be there, guiding and comforting me along the way.
Roughly a year ago this past September, I wrote an article in memory of the late World Views artist Michael Richards. Michael had been working on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One (aka the North Tower) on the morning of September 11. He perished, along with thousands of other victims, when one of the hijacked planes crashed into the floors above his studio. Accordingly, whatever Michael had been working on had vanished along with him.
The manner in which he died was brought to poignant light when a work thought lost resurfaced in a cousin’s garage. This was the harrowing Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, displayed at North Carolina Museum of Art, from November 2003 to March 2004 and beyond, as part of their Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight exhibit (see the following link to my original article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/lost-navigator-michael-richards-a-story-of-redemption-through-art/).
Since viewing that same Defying Gravity exhibit, where the extraordinary figure of Michael dressed in a Tuskegee airman flight suit was being pierced by dozens of model airplanes, I had determined to learn the details of this remarkable artist’s life and his controversial art.
In one of those unforeseen circumstances, just prior to the start of Memorial Day Weekend I received an e-mail from Melissa Levin, Director of Cultural Programs for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which sponsored the World Views artists-in-residence program, inviting me to a reception for their Michael Richards: Winged exhibition on the afternoon of June 25.
The exhibition, to be held at the Arts Center (a former army warehouse) on Governors Island, for which Ms. Levin served as co-curator with her colleague Alex Fialho, was planned as a combination retrospective and commemoration. It was slated to include “a range of Richards’ work in sculpture and drawing, most of which has not been on public view for over 15 years, as well as documentation and ephemera of his art and life.”
While I was unable to attend the reception at that time, I made my desire known to both Melissa and Alex that I would like to pay a visit to their exhibition. This I managed to do towards the end of September 2016.
Obscure Objects of Desire
The term “ephemera,” as noted above, is normally associated with transitory matters — namely, objects of a short-lived, impermanent nature. In this instance, the so-called ephemera of Michael Richards’ life and art, gathered together in this impressive collection, transcended the dictionary meaning of the word. I realized, to my astonishment, that these works were not so much ephemera as they were the enduring artifacts of a socially-minded individual far ahead of his time.
More so than most artists, Michael spoke wholly and exclusively through his art. As such, he gave voice and substance to millions of unheard voices that have rung out through much of our nation’s history. Sadly, his own voice was silenced on September 11, 2001. Today, it speaks louder than ever, crying out anew from the remnants of Tower One, in the exhibition Michael Richards: Winged named in his honor.
The Arts Center in which Michael Richards’ remaining works were housed was large and spacious, albeit underutilized. It struck me as more empty than full; a hallowed dwelling providing safe haven for what was left of his Estate. The walls were lined with rows upon rows of photos and artist statements, along with epigrammatic descriptions of his work — some written by Michael himself — as well as reminiscences from those who knew and worked with him.
Amid the hall’s open spaces and echoey ambience, the exhibition as a whole expressed to me what was both moving and lacking in the display. For instance, why were there not more pieces physically present as part of the exhibition’s central theme, i.e., the celebration of the artist’s purpose in life? Why was there an uneasy sense of “incompleteness” about the whole affair, an unshakably deaden feeling of works still in progress?
True, many of Michael’s art pieces had found permanent residency in such places as the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Socrates Sculpture Park, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, in addition to Franconia Sculpture Park outside of Minneapolis, the Michael Richards Estate, and those of private collectors.
But instead of closure and acceptance; of moving away from the sins of the past so as to get on with one’s present and future existence, the majority of Michael’s surviving output, represented in whole or in part by photographic depictions, seemed dwarfed by comparison to the monumentally tragic events that surrounded them.
Once I left the exhibition hall, however, I had ample time to reflect on what I had seen. I must confess that, over the course of these past several months, my initial reaction has changed drastically from mild disappointment to sincere admiration for the thought and consideration that went into this pioneering effort.
How else could the terrible emptiness I felt inside when regarding Michael’s work, and the horrifying circumstances of his demise, have been accurately depicted? The sense of shock and outrage at what was done to him and to those around him has been tempered by the knowledge that Michael Richards’ life was dedicated to documenting the abuses of power and authority.
A potent, early expression (from 1990) of racial injustice can be found in a series of photographs of an installation entitled History: Meditating on the Middle Passage. Quoting from Michael’s artist statement, the installation consisted of “three life-sized boats built to resemble coffins.” These coffins were “positioned in a row evoking both funeral processions (and the political functions such gatherings serve in many black communities) and ship convoys used in the Middle Passage,” [to wit, the slave trade in which millions of blacks were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World].
“In each vessel are 100 glass slides silk-screened with the faces of black men. Each face,” the statement went on to explain, was “repeated in its own vessel to both reinstate and drain its identity. The slides are illuminated from within the boats/coffins, and 4 phrases are projected unto the walls corresponding to the cardinal points in the room.
“These phrases, ‘No Name,’ ‘No Face,’ ‘No Place,’ and ‘No Tongue,’ speak not only to a lost history and culture but to a process of transformation by which African-Americans were formed.” A chill ran down my spine as I moved in for a closer look. Yes, I pondered, this was how the ancestors of today’s African American communities were brought to these shores — if they survived the perilous ocean voyage, that is, with “survival” a dubious term, at best, considering the subsequent nature of their lives as slaves.
The next exhibit (via another photographic display), a mixed media installation entitled Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, came from 1991. It consisted of (and I quote) a “large ornate frame into which an 8mm movie loop of Al Jolson performing in blackface is projected.”
The son of a Jewish rabbi and cantor, Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson in present-day Lithuania) was a popular entertainer who starred in The Jazz Singer, the first “all talking, all singing” motion picture. The frame leads up to and is flanked by two rows of tarnished and damaged trophies “with their arms raised in a gesture of either victory or surrender. The pedestals on which the trophies stand are silk-screened [similar to those in the previous display, History: Mediating on the Middle Passage] with the legends, ‘Who Wins,’ and Who Loses.’
“On the wall opposite the frame projection, a mirror reflects the installation and the audience that enters the room. On the mirror are silk-screened three questions: ‘In Whose Name,’ ‘With Whose Face,’ and ‘In Whose Image.’ An audio loop of Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’ plays continuously in the room.”
Juxtaposed alongside History: Meditating on the Middle Passage, the exhibit paid belated tribute to the hundreds of unsung African American performers who came before and after Jolson. While taking nothing away from Jolson’s work, the installation questions the rationale for our having neglected the incredible range of talent that helped shape the American entertainment landscape, and (by implication), the sports industry as well.
In a similar vein, another unspeakably vile image came a year later, in 1992, with Same Old Song and Dance. Again, quoting from Michael Richards’ boldly assertive statement, “The piece was installed in two large windows which faced the street. Both windows were arranged as a theatrical tableaux united by a half-raised red velvet curtain, across the top of which ran the title in large white letters. In the left window, partially concealed by the curtain, four pairs of suspended legs dressed in tuxedo pants and patent shoes slowly rotated. In the right window, 12 disembodied black heads rotated slowly in the opposite direction. Audible from the sidewalk, the pop song ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ played continuously.
“The piece sought to examine the pervasive nature of racial violence in our society and the empty apologies offered in response. The theatrical setting addresses questions of the perception of racial violence in a society of spectacle, while the minstrel costumes evoke the historical battle of representation and the violence implicit in this struggle.”
The dangling feet of the dancers were a stark reminder of the horrors of Jim Crow and the illegal lynching of poor blacks during those God-awful times. How anyone could extract meaning from such hateful associations proves the truism that “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” This was about as intense a lesson as anyone was capable of absorbing.
End of Part One
(To be continued…)
With thanks to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes