Monday, September 11, 2006

9.11 pt. 3: Dear Michael

September 11, 2006

Michael Richards with a version of "Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian," Studio Museum, Harlem.

I asked to write about you because you were an artist who died in the line of artistic duty, if you will. You lived to create and you lived to express a point of view. I did not know you nor did I know your artwork until you were gone. However, your images of iconic African-American symbols speak to me, particularly your Tuskegee airmen/St. Sebastian sculptures. I think you did well to capture both the honor and the torment of being a Tuskegee airman: to be the first of the race trained in the role of fighter pilot and having the honor that entailed to defend the country; to be tortured by continued racism and to know somewhere in your soul that your country still hated you. Your St. Sebastian, though, could not protect you from the plague that took your life on that Tuesday morning. Your not being here makes the world of art a little less bright.

I am sorry but I fear I may not do you justice by my 2996 posting. As I've noted previously, I've slacked off a bit for mental reasons really unbeknowest to me at the time. I was going to contact one of the fellow artists that I happen to know with whom you worked at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's World Trade Center "Studio in the Sky" project, but then I became afraid that I would cause him mental anguish as he lost all of his paintings that day, plus a friend, too. So, I decided to find things that people said about you. So here goes:

One cannot help but notice the eerie connection between the imagery in Richards’ work and his tragic death. Though ever forward in his conceptual art practice, Michael found sustenance in the subjects of the past, most specifically the triumph and tragedy of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. A team of World War II air force pilots, as famous for their flying skills as they were infamous for their alma mater, where black men were subjected to being live experiments on syphilis, the airmen represented a crucial space for dialogue and thought that Michael continuously mined. He worked with the inexhaustible history of the Tuskegee airmen for almost the last ten years, including his most recent works.
While Michael’s untimely death is a grave tragedy to us all, his life and work will be preserved by museums and galleries, and treasured by friends, family and new viewers, and recorded in the history of American art for generations to come. --Christine Y. Kim, Assistant Curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and Franklin Sirmins, independent curator and critic, September 18, 2001.

It's unknown how much art was destroyed because much of it was owned by private companies and kept in their offices. There were also 14 with studios in the trade center. One of them, 38-year-old sculptor Michael Richards, died in the attack. He had spent the past eight years working on a series of pieces about the Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots of World War II.

Curator Franklin Sirmans, a friend of Richards, recalls the last time he saw the artist at an art opening just a couple of weeks before the attack. Richards was "running back downtown from the opening to get to his studio. He liked to be in the studio and making work." --NPR, "Lost Art," October 16, 2001
Studio Museum exhibit, 1995-96
The second work Michael installed in this show is a piece called "Winged". It is simply a cast of his two arms extended like wings, joined at the shoulders. Both arms are pierced with several featherlike daggers that enter at the topside of his arms and come out at the underside of his arms. This piece was suspended –– hung from the ceiling with monofiliment. About two weeks after this show opened; I got a call on a Saturday by a guard, telling me that the piece had fallen to the floor. The monofiliment snapped and Winged went crashing to the floor, shattering into a million pieces.

From the pile of broken parts, I kept one of his hands, and still have it in my office. Michael also worked as an art installer at various museums in the city. One woman, who worked with him at The Grey Art Gallery at NYU, spoke at the memorial service. She told us about the last conversation she had had with Michael, just three days before 9/11. She said it was one of those conversations about what you want from life – what you hope for. She told us that Michael said, emphatically, "I want to live hard. I want to love hard. I want to work hard, and then I want to die." --Memorial for Michael Richards by Anne Kovach (scroll down for full remarks).

The specter of death–anyone’s death, one’s own, Richards’s--is awful to behold. Words stick in the throat; it is unspeakable. How does a building give way and collapse? How does a human? Joists buckle, columns snap. Struck a massive blow, the head’s last thought is that it is thinking its last thought, the sphincter feels it, the knowledge moves like voltage down the spinal cord, vertebrae buckling as the information races past to break the ankles. In the inferno that ensues, a man-- two thousand eight hundred and twenty-four men and women--transmute into the mother carbon they were made from.

I didn’t know Michael Richards. I only know, from slight exposure to his work, a little of what it was like to be Michael Richards. We who still happen to be alive must let Richards know that his vision was real, that we saw it, and that we will preserve it. --Glenn Gordon, reflecting on Michael Richards and a work he created at the Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota

For many artists, Richards’ death has made him the symbol of the quintessential emerging artist … he went to all the right schools and did all the right things, and was just beginning to get the attention he deserved. “Michael was a generous, incredible artist,” says Moukhtar Kocache, LMCC director of visual and media arts. “I think his death widened the circle of people touched by the attacks … it affected New York’s whole cultural world.” --Crafts Scene by Heather Skelly.

In Kocache's assessment, "He's talking about men who were alienated and unacknowledged, using that for his own existential feelings as a black man, an artist, an immigrant [from Jamaica]. But these pieces also represent a generosity that is unacknowledged, tossed away. He's talking about someone's dislocation from culture."

That description casts light on certain new post-disaster dangers. Kocache, who happens to be Lebanese American, spent September 12 looking for Richards, making the now ritual trek that begins at Bellevue Hospital. In the middle of this search, he was verbally attacked on the street, spat on, called "a fucking Arab." A cop watched with his arms folded. "No one would come to my rescue," says Kocache. "I have never felt so alone."

Richards had composed an artistic statement, found in his computer and passed along by a friend. He notes that the Tuskegee airmen fought for democracy in the sky, but faced discrimination on the ground. They "serve as symbols of failed transcendence and loss of faith," wrote Richards, "escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators always seeking home. --"Lost Horizons by C. Carr, Village Voice, September 19 - 25, 2001.

I'll end it there, Dear Michael, and say to you, I wish I could have been more present in writing of you. I wish you were here to create more art.

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