Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian
Truth to Power
These are the photographs and/or descriptions of the remaining works left behind by the late Michael Richards, an artist and sculptor who perished in the 9/11 attacks that brought him and thousands of others down with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Let Me Entertain You, 1993, Mixed media installation with video, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Michael Richards Estate
“The installation takes the form of a historical dressing room of famous performer Bert Williams … A video of the artist applying blackface is projected unto the mirror. On the left wall of the room are four mirrors, printed with photographs of the artist, on which text is silk-screened questioning the degree of blackness reflected: ‘Black, ‘Blacken,’ ‘Black Enough For You.’”
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head), 1994, Resin, mirrors, lights, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park and the Michael Richards Estate
“Richards references the biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder, which describes Jacob dreaming of a ladder that connects earth to heaven, on which angels ascend and descend. Yet, in this sculpture, the text and disembodied feet and heads reveal a complex and pessimistic interpretation, or possible consequence, of this dream. Climbing Jacob’s Ladder highlights the tension between faith and failure; of looking to the heavens with a longing for ascension and the letdown of earthbound realities.”
Escape Plan 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch), 1996, Wax, resin, paper, metal, rubber, lights, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
This piece “consists of five downed airplane sculptures caught in thick barbed wire. In an artist statement discussing the iconography of his practice, Richards noted, ‘Planes and other vehicles of escape are always caught in traps, or crashed, abandoned signs of hope and promise.’ ”
“Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories of Brer Rabbit were a touchstone for Richards and the reference appears throughout the titles of Richards’ work. In one of these stories, Brer Fox thinks he has thwarted his rival Brer Rabbit by throwing him into the prickly shrubs of a briar patch, only for Brer Rabbit to escape because he was ‘born and bred in the briar patch.’ Richards turned to Uncle Remus folklore as narratives and metaphors for negotiations of historical and contemporary racial politics.”
Swing Lo’, 1996, Steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park
“Swing Lo’ consists of a large, rusted chariot outfitted with neon lights and one wheel (a seconds wheel is purposefully, but mysteriously, missing). When installed, the chariot played reggae music from a booming sound system. The work conflates the biblical chariot with the visual vernacular of a souped-up lowrider car, retrofit with lights and stereo. Richards often merged worlds in this way, bringing together spiritual and literary references with popular culture to complicate the themes of his work. Richards’ recurring interest was in both the everyday and the transcendent, and how bringing them into conversation with each other opened up to a plurality of representation and interpretation.”
“Along with a nod to lowrider cars, the title Swing Lo’ more directly references the American negro spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an old spiritual, the voice of reason — preaching tolerance and understanding. But at the same time, holding a “mirror” up to life’s inequities and how we have been treated by those who have exploited race and economic equality for their own purposes.
The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee), 1996, Wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
“In describing the stakes of this work, Richards said, “[The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee)] is in the form of a public monument. You see these bronze monuments in the park and you just walk past them, yet they’re supposed to be the highest honor in our society. They’re commemorating some great deed or person. But I have to question is that really what we’re fighting for — a piece of bronze in a public park that no one notices or cares about? The whole heroic ideal of glory that you’re fighting for seems rather empty and banal when it comes down to that. With this installation it gets ambiguous because ‘Tuskegee’ is inscribed on the base. People assume it’s referring to the Tuskegee airmen, but it’s also about the Tuskegee experiments. At the same time and place that the Tuskegee airmen were getting their training, black men were being used in experiments to see how syphilis would progress through their bodies. So therefore it’s a destroyed and neglected monument. But it’s also one in which, the viewer, in order to see the hidden tar field inside, has to bow down to the monument. It’s a sexualized and an allegorical work in relation to all of these things.’ ”
Untitled (Air Lift), 1997, Super hold hair gel, plastic, wax, pigment, and plexiglass, Installation image courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts
Free F’All, 1997, Resin, steel, mirror, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum of Harlem
“Richards created Free F’All during his fellowship with Socrates Sculpture Park in 1997. A life-size Tuskegee Airmen figure stands atop a tiny landing, 16 feet in the air, with a bucket below him, evoking the image of a dicing board and pool, yet Richards’ figure instead has a much smaller space for positioning his potential leap, perhaps alluding to the limited and constricting options for African-Americans in the face of ongoing oppression. Richards’ figures and bodyparts were often pierced and the airman in Free F’All is riddled with nails. Specifically a reference to [Congolese] nkisi nkondi medicinal power figures, this visual allusion highlights Richards’ exploration not only of race in contemporary America, but also of African ancestry, tradition, and religion.”
[Untitled] (Free F’All), 1997, fiberglass and resin with iron oxide, Brooklyn Museum, Anonymous gift in honor of Michael Richards, 2007 © Estate of Michael Richards, Installation image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum
Map Head, 1999, Urethane, resin, transfer, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
N’Kisi Nigga, 1999, Urethane, metal, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
“Throughout his career, Richards used his own body to cast his sculptures, including the disembodied heads for sculptures like N’Kisi Nigga and Map Head. Nkisi nkondi sculptures were an important reference for the piercing that was a hallmark of Richards’ sculptures. These Congolese power figures were used to protect a community and embodied defensive power. The nails and blades that often punctured the sculptures activated the spirits made accessible in the figures. Invoking the name of the N’Kisi figures and pairing it with the multiple inflections of the word Nigga, ranging from derogatory to the reclaimed, familiar, and colloquial, the title of Richards’ sculpture N’Kisi Nigga is a complex comment on the relationship between contemporary American racial politics and African heritage.”
Tar and Feather, 1999, Bonded bronze, tar, metal, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park
“Tar and Feather is a poetic balancing act of lightness and weight. Five cast bronze sets of wings hang precariously from monofilament, encircling an overfull bucket of tar and a resulting puddle of tar on the floor.”
“Richards was consistently interested in the complexity of charged materials throughout his practice. While the sculpture’s wings, feathers, and flight speak to the possibilities of escape and uplift for Richards, on the flipside, the tar, and its racial connotations, reflect the ways in which black people can be struck or inhibited by systemic racial prejudice. As with Tar and Feather, Richards’ work purposefully navigated and mined this tension in both material and concept.”
Are You Down?, 2000, fiberglass, bonded bronze, resin, concrete, black beauty sand, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park
“Richards created his largest work, Are You Down?, in 2000, as part of a Jerome Fellowship at Franconia Sculpture Park, just outside of Minneapolis, MN.”
“John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO & Co-founder of Franconia Sculpture Park, describes the piece: ‘Are You Down? was created and is sited … outside the rural town of Shafer, Minnesota …. The original sculpture was cast in resin/fiberglass — cast into bronze, as a memorial, in 2012 & is the only permanent sculpture at Franconia. Are You Down? is a tableau of three life-sized human figures. Three parachutists fallen from the sky, they sit disconsolate on the ground in a mass of heavy black sand. Backs turned to one another, the figures form a triangle about fifteen feet on a side. Within the triangle of the figures is a large bulls-eye flat on the ground, the target where the men had aimed to land. Their heads clad in leather hat aviator helmets, their shirts torn from the drop, the figures represent three downs aviators from the storied, all-black Tuskegee Airmen Squadron of the Second World War, men whose images Richards (using himself as his model) returned to in his work obsessively, again and again. They speak not so much of the exhilaration of flight as of dreams of freedom crashed to Earth.’ ”
“In speaking to the pilot imagery in his practice, particularly the Tuskegee Airmen, Richards noted, ‘The pilots serve as a symbol of failed transcendence, and lost faith, escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators seeking home.’ ”
Fly Away O’ Glory, 1995, Resin bronze, feathers, motors, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
“Fly Away O’ Glory consists of an arrangement of seven pairs of metallic bronze, muscular cast arms, with hands extended, each holding one feather that spins vigorously via motor power. Richards often used motors and kinetic elements to give his artworks literal motion and drive. With its spinning feathers and disembodied forearms, this work calls to mind the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with wax wings that melted, causing him to fall to his death in the sea. In this work and others, Richards explores the opposing forces of uplift and downfall inherent in flight: the transcendent potential of wings and elevation and the inherently opposing risk of crashing and peril.”
“Grounded and flailing, the spinning feathers of Fly Away O’ Glory, despite their efforts, cannot lift and elevate the forearms of the sculpture. The unresolved, Sisyphean kinetic energy of this floor-bound sculpture speaks to the difficulty, maybe even impossibility of taking off and reaching great heights in a system and society that is structured to silence marginalized voices and repress their success.”
Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), 1998, Hair, latex, and glass, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Planes plummeting from the ceiling above into a mirrored abyss — again, Michael’s prescience was captured by his ultimate realization of the existing 9/11 Memorial, built on the exact spot where the North and South Towers once stood: two rectangular-shaped pools of water, open spaces, with middle squares of water pouring into a hole.
“In this impactful sculpture, 50 small airplanes wrapped in hair spiral downwards, from a cloud of hair in the ceiling, towards a mirrored bull’s-eye target on the floor. Richards often used hair in his sculptures, noting ‘I use hair and skin in an investigative way to raise questions of duality about race and social issues …. I just thought this is a perfect material in terms of its metaphorical content and reference to my own concerns about climbing the social ladder and how people judge me for my hair.’ ”
“The work’s title His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me quotes the religious hymns of Civilla Martin. The hymn is about value, hope, and faith in the face of hardship, and the care of the creator to all aspects of the world, including creatures as small as sparrows. Richards often included biblical references, from Jacob to St. Sebastian, in his works. In Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), with airplanes as small as sparrows nose-diving toward a mirror that reflects their downward flight back upward, a sense of faith and fate are confounded and Richards’ interest in flight with its transcendent and devastating possibilities comes to the fore.”
A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
“A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo features five bust-like plaster heads and pedestals. Four of the heads rest atop small bases and bear images of white police officers in confrontational postures outfitted in riot gear. The images themselves were cut from newspapers and applied via a photo transfer method. Plaques are adhered to the pedestals for each of these four busts reading, ‘When I was young I wanted to be a policeman.’ The fifth and central disembodied head spins via a motor, and has an image of Rodney King’s face in the middle of the forehead, with a plaque on the pedestal reading the titular phrase, ‘A loss of faith brings vertigo.’ ”
“Rodney King was a taxi driver who brutally beaten by police officers after a high-speed chase in Los Angeles in 1991. King found himself at the center of a furor around racial injustice and police violence as video footage of the four police officers repeatedly striking him gained international attention. The police officers were eventually acquitted of charges, which is considered to be the main cause leading to the 1992 Los Angeles riots in which 53 people were killed and thousands injured.”
“With King at the center, the narrative of Richards’ sculpture is one of a loss of faith in the police and the dissolution of any implicit relationship to safety and protection. The antagonistic stances and actions of the white police officers depicted, juxtaposed with the presence of King’s slowly rotating face, has an effect of total disorientation. During our contemporary moment, in the face of recurring police brutality, the continued murders of black men at the hands of police officers, and the responsive Black Lives Matter movement, A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo continues to have urgent and pressing resonance two decades after its creation.”
Travel Kit, 1999, Bonded bronze, hair, and wood, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
“Travel Kit is one of the most surreal of Richards’ sculptures. While a standard travel kit contains toiletries or other every day items, Richards inflects his version with a tinge of the grotesque. Seven fingers extend from each of two hairbrushes entangled in tufts of hair, providing an otherworldly take on primping. For Richards, ‘The suitcases [in my work] function as carrier of memories, containers of longing and desire for a lost home.’ Richards was born in Brooklyn, yet grew up in Kingston, Jamaica before moving back to the United States to attend Queens College; his international upbringing provided him with an incisive perspective on America, particularly pertaining to social and racial inequities.”
Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian
“Michael was riffing on Saint Sebastian, the early Christian saint and martyr who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows by the Roman Empire. There were multiple historical narratives interwoven in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian other than the early Christian martyr depicted in psalms:118 or Christian paintings. Some popular culture references include the film King Kong (1933) and Muhammad Ali’s infamous Esquire Magazine cover (1968). The Tar Baby reference comes from the character by the same name in the Uncle Remus stories (1881) written by Joel Chandler Harris, made up of Black stereotypes in the 1800s; Tar Baby literary being made up of tar and turpentine.”
“I remember Michael speaking about the complexity of these themes running through the piece. Concepts of isolation, sacrifice and transformation were key elements in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian. The discrimination and racism the original Tuskegee airmen had to struggle with and overcome as it came from their own U.S. Government was only the beginning of their battle during World War II. This complex and contradictory part of America’s history was crucial in the development of Michael’s piece. Interestingly enough, today most search engines describe this piece as ‘St. Sebastian’ and exclude ‘Tar Baby Vs.’ and there is a lack of critical attention paid to the American built Mustang fighter planes attacking their own pilot. I know Michael would have scoffed at the misrepresentation of his work because he was very particular about media-history and its representation of people of color.”
“He decided Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian was too expensive to make in bronze plus he lacked the proper facilities. Michael spent weeks making the life-size clay figure based on himself and in the process later taught me how to make a rubber mold. He didn’t complete the piece in Miami but worked on it in parts from 1997 through 1999 and exhibited first in Miami at the Caveat Emptor exhibition at Ambrosino Gallery, Coral Gables, FL. Genaro Ambrosino (Director) admired Michael’s work and was a close friend. Ambrosino Gallery would eventually give Michael his first one-person show in Miami on September 16, 2000. The exhibition was a coming home of sorts for Michael after finishing his CAVA residency in South Beach the year before.”
Say It Loud!
And these are the voices of those who knew and worked with Michael, along with Michael’s own special words:
Sam Seawright, Artist: “For Michael making art and getting his message to a diverse audience was essential to his being, and a vital component of his core beliefs. One beautiful lesson I learned from Michael was the importance of overcoming prejudices, lack of funds, false perceptions and misguided criticisms and to make art at all costs, in the end the art speaks for itself. He was able to practice in the studio the lessons he learned from the hardships persevered in his personal life. He preached compassion and understanding with his art and practiced generosity of spirit in his life.”
John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO and Co-founder, Franconia Sculpture Park: “Of the many blameless people annihilated that day in 2001, few can have meditated quite as much as this man did upon the quick rise and quicker fall of hope: a Jamaican, an immigrant, a black man, Richards knew something about the loneliness of exile, and the feeling of exclusion from others’ realities. It is no presumption to imagine Michael, at times, had nothing to go on but his rage against an identity projected on him by apartheid.”
Carolyn Swiszcz, Artist: “I would describe Michael as soft-spoke (but not shy), confident (but not overbearing), and sophisticated (but not pretentious). He had a knack for charming pretty much everybody he met. It seemed to me that he didn’t suffer from the kind of prickly bad moods I struggled with, or maybe he was just much better at managing them. What stays with me most, almost twenty years later, is his smile. He shared ut often. I can easily envision it spreading across his face in response to a joke or in an attempt to express a sympathy.”
Wendell Walker, Deputy Director for Operations, Exhibitions, and Design, Museum of the Moving Image: “The fantasy of flight was a frequent topic between us during our early days together at the Grey [Art Gallery]. We shared dreams of flying — both beautiful and frightening ones — that we both had as children, and I cherish those conversations even though they now haunt me. I feel those dreams represent such a critical part of Michael’s work and life, and I feel strangely reassured that, on that horrible day, he decided to fly.”
Marysol Nieves, Vice President, Specialist, Latin American Art, Christie’s Former Senior Curator, The Bronx Museum of the Arts: “The impressive body of work Michael Richards produced during his brief, yet prolific career reflects the discourse on identity, racial and gender politics that was so pervasive in the landscape of contemporary art during [the] 1990s. yet his work eschewed many of the tropes often associated with identity based art by tackling the complexities of, and at times painful histories implicit in the investigation of such notion as blackness, masculinity, and power.”
Dread Scott, Artist: “As much as I will remember Michael as an incredible brilliant artist and some of his unrealized projects, I really remember him as a fried and the simple things that make up friendship. What I remember most is him frequently greeting me in intentionally thick patois saying: ‘Whayousay Dread?’”
Jorge Daniel Veneciano, Executive Director, El Museo del Barrio, former Curator of Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem: “Michael was a poetic soul. Somewhat quiet, with a bemused, all-knowing smile. He had a keen sense of irony. It suffused his work, sharpened his artistic wit. A poetic sensibility for human contradictions deepened the aesthetic value of his work… His interest in metaphors of flight adds a confounding layer of irony to his life and passing. Like Icarus, perhaps he flew too close to the sun — too close to the truth. And the dark poetry of the universe answered in an unforgiving way. Yet Michael’s work prevails as a living, lasting retort to the unmoved universe.”
Genaro Ambrosino-D’Amico, former owner, Ambrosino Gallery: “You know when sometimes you meet someone and you think, ‘Wow, he’s so cool! I want to be his friend’? That’s how Michael was. He was handsome, he dressed well, had a killer smile. He was loving and warm and made sure that you knew that you could count on him. He was smart, street and book smart. He could talk politics, art, music, history and popular culture with the same ease and knowledge, and always with a consistency that made you agree with him, even when you really didn’t! But one thing above all I loved of Michael, and makes me miss him most. He was fair, he was just. And you can’t say that of many people. That’s why he was so ‘cool.’”
Michael Richards, Artist Statement:
“— Does the glass ceiling which excludes also reflect the desire to belong?
“My current body of work investigates the tension between assimilation and exclusion. By focusing on issues of identity and identification, I attempt to examine the feelings of doubt and discomfort which face blacks who wish to succeed in a system which is structured to deny them access.
“How do systems of representation, and the portrayal of success both seduce and repel? I wish primarily to give voice to the psychic spaces in which exist both hope and frustration, faith and failure, and the compromises which must be negotiated in order to survive.
“Though the issues which inform the work may be seen as primarily political, I use language of metaphor to express them. The use of feathers and tar, mirrors and ladders, the concept of flight both as freedom and surrender, all attempt to open a metaphorical space into which the viewer can be seduced.
“This space allows for an examination of the psychic conflict which results from the desire to both belong to and resist a society which denies blackness even as it affirms.
“In attempting to make this pain and alienation concrete, I use my body, the primary locus of experience, as a die from which to make casts. These function as surrogates, and as an entry into the work.”
The End Game
We look in vain for clarity to horrific events, and for meaning to our lives. Michael Richards discovered both fairly early in his career. I cannot help but think of the Winged exhibition, a spare memento of the artist’s state of mind, as an austere expression of his Spartan lifestyle.
Here, one may presume that Michael found closure in enclosed surroundings. His surviving works, as few in number as they were, have been arranged in predetermined patterns. We are left with a mere handful of artifacts, objects conceived and sculpted in cogent thought, in the hope of achieving a higher purpose and in demonstrating to the observer the many injustices that Michael witnessed around him.
What would Michael have said about the Black Lives Matter movement? About the murders that’s gripped the city of Chicago? About the NFL protests by quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers? How would he have reacted to the treatment of young black men — which he, too, happened to be one — to the violence around them?
These are the true tragedies of Michael Richards’ death; the art and political world were deprived of his powerful, reasoned voice. The exhibition of his remaining work, at the Art Center at Governor’s Island, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, offers, if nothing else, a singular vision of what it was like to live as a talented black artist in a racially and economically divided America.
Unlike the noise and strife that surrounded him, amid the tumult of world affairs — the so-called “body politic,” and the use of his own body to portray that very politic, spiraling out of control — Michael’s voice was one of calm and reason. To paraphrase a line from the poem “Invictus,” he was the master of his fate; he was the captain of his soul. He commandeered a measured, more pensive response to the world’s problems. He gave thought to his actions, yet put action into his thoughts.
I see a severed head (his own, if such as thing were possible) encased in a football helmet, the American flag draped around the lifeless body of a football player, kneeling before us. In my mind’s eye, I see the artist’s “statement” — it is Michael himself.
With gratitude 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 © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
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