October 22, 2021

Lucky Life

Arts Fanatics

Retrospective of Michael Richards Showcases Rigor, Promise of Artist Who Died in Sept. 11 Terrorist Attack on World Trade Center

8 min read

 

A RESIN AND STEEL SCULPTURE standing seven-and-a-half feet tall on a central platform anchors the first museum retrospective of Michael Richards (1963-2001). A seminal work from his series about the Tuskegee Airmen, “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” (1999), depicts a Black male figure wearing a Tuskegee Airman suit with 18 miniature US P-51 Mustang planes puncturing his torso. Richards used his own body to cast the work. Painted gold, the sculpture references the patron saint of soldiers and athletes who was pierced with arrows and martyred for protecting Christians, rather than subjecting them to prison.

“Michael Richards: Are You Down?” is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art North (MOCA) Miami. The exhibition features sculptures and drawings made during the last decade of the artist’s life. Richards was an emerging contemporary artist with promising prospects when he died on Sept. 11, 2001. He was 38.

An exceptional sculptor and skilled draftsmen, his artistic voice was poetic and provocative. In his artist statement he said his 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 that is structured to deny them access.”

Richards also invoked religious and ritual figures in his work and stories from Greek mythology and African, African American, Jamaican, and Judeo-Christian traditions. Direct references to the Tuskegee Airmen are ever-present. The pioneering Army Air Force pilots faced the indignity of segregation in the military despite their accomplishments and service to their country during World War II.

Aviation and flight are recurrent themes and ultimately factored into the untimely death of Richards. The exhibition summary describes the artist’s focus on air flight as an “exploration of freedom and escape, ascendance and descent. His artwork gestures towards both repression and reprieve from social injustices, and the simultaneous possibilities of uplift and downfall, often in the context of the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people.”

His artwork gestures towards both repression and reprieve from social injustices, and the simultaneous possibilities of uplift and downfall, often in the context of the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people.”


Michael Richards | Photo by Frank Stewart

 

The New York artist was one of 15 selected to participate in the World Views residency program hosted by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), in partnership with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The residency provided artists with 24-hour access to shared studios in Tower One of the World Trade Center.

Richards often worked overnight on the 92nd floor of the building. He did so on the night of Sept. 10, 2001, and was still working the next morning when the first plane hit the North Tower. Richards was one of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the World Trade Center terrorist attack on Sept. 11 and the only artist participating in the World View residency to perish that day.

The last project Richards worked on was the series paying homage to the Tuskegee Airmen. Artist Jeff Konigsberg, who shared studio space with Richards, said when Richards died was working on an airman sculpture that involved a meteor and flames.

Christine Y. Kim and Franklin Sirmans co-wrote “Michael Richards: 1963-2001,” a memorial tribute to artist. Their words were published in New York University’s Calabash: a Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters (Fall 2002) and Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art (Fall/Winter 2002).

His “art works took on sensitive themes with formal rigor to create images whose resonance and vitality will continue to amuse, provoke, and communicate. As a Jamaican American raised in Kingston, Michael found sustenance in the poetic ambiguity of all human experience.” Kim and Sirmans wrote.

“While Michael’s work has employed culturally loaded symbols such as hair, tar, feathers, rubber, and mirrors, his primary medium was bronze. Often employing molds of his own body the sculptures provoke questions regarding the ways in which subtle signifiers affect our place within society.”

His “art works took on sensitive themes with formal rigor to create images whose resonance and vitality will continue to amuse, provoke, and communicate. As a Jamaican American raised in Kingston, Michael found sustenance in the poetic ambiguity of all human experience.” — Christine Y. Kim and Franklin Sirmans


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). Shown in foreground, “Are You Down?” 2000 (resin, metal, tar, three elements: 48 x 60 x 60 inches each). | Photo by Oriol Tarridas Photography

 

RICHARDS WAS BORN IN BROOKLYN, N.Y., grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, and returned to the United States for college. He earned a BA from Queens College (1985) and an MA from New York University (1991) and went on to participate in several prestigious artist programs.

He attended the Whitney Independent Study Program (1992–93) and was in residence at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, N.Y., in 1997.

Those opportunities bookended his time at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where he was an artist-in-residence from 1995-96. Chakaia Booker, who is recognized for her abstract sculptures made from recycled tires, and Detroit figurative artist Richard Lewis, were members of the same cohort.

Jorge Daniel Veneciano curated their artist-in-residence exhibition “To Carry Me Home: Artists-In-Residence 1995-1996.” In the exhibition brochure, Veneciano wrote that Richards’ work was “a form of flight away from what is repressive, and a form of flight toward what is redeeming.”

Several years after his residency at the Studio Museum, “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” was included in “Passages: Contemporary Art in Transition,” a group exhibition curated by Deirdre Scott at the Studio Museum in 1999-2000. When Richards died the next year, the Studio Museum hosted his memorial service on Sept. 21, 2001.

In addition to his base in New York, Richards also had a connection to Miami. From 1997–2000, he was an artist-in-residence at Miami’s ArtCenter/South Florida (now Oolite Arts). Each year, he spent the three winter months making work. During that time, he produced “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian.”

“Are You Down?” (2000) the work for which the MOCA exhibition is titled, was conceived in the same period. Richards received the Franconia Sculpture Park/Jerome Fellowship in 2000. A bronze version of “Are You Down” is now on permanent display at the Shafer, Minn., sculpture park.

The largest exhibition of his work to date, “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” presents key bodies of work the artist made from 1990 to 2000. Sculptures and drawings are on view with documentation of early site-specific installations, images of works that no longer exist, and other ephemera, including remembrances of Richards from fellow artists and curators.

Kim and Sirmans concluded their tribute to Richards with the following words: “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.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). Shown, At center, | Photo by Daniel Bock

 

“Michael Richards: Are You Down?” curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art North (MOCA) Miami, from April 21-Oct. 10, 2021

IN CONVERSATION On Sept. 14, 2021, Dawn Dale, Michael Richards’ cousin who has stored and cared for the artist’s artworks for two decades, and co-curators Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin will be in conversation with filmmaker, visual artist, and curator Tiona Nekkia McClodden the work of stewarding artists’ legacies

 


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). | Photo by Daniel Bock

 


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). Shown, At left, Untitled (Free F’All), 1997 (fiberglass, resin, iron with oxide). At right, “The Great Black Airmen,” 1996 (wax, plaster, hair, and steel; Dimensions variable, each element about 1 foot square, about 5 feet high, full install about 9-10 feet wide, about 4 feet deep). | Photo by Daniel Bock

 


MICHAEL RICHARDS, “The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee),” 1996 (wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze, on mirrored platform, Base: 45 x 41 x 45 inches, Torso: 12 x 40 x 56 inches). | Photo by Oriol Tarridas Photography

 


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). | Photo by Oriol Tarridas Photography

 


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). | Photo by Daniel Bock

 


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). | Photo by Daniel Bock

 


MICHAEL RICHARDS, Detail of “A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo,” 1994 (resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer; Five elements, dimensions variable). | Photo by Daniel Bock

 


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). | Photo by Oriol Tarridas Photography

 


From left, Installation view of MICHAEL RICHARDS, “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian,” 1999 (resin and steel, 90 x 36 x 24 inches); and Untitled (Free F’All), 1997 (fiberglass, resin, iron with oxide). | Photo by Daniel Bock

 


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). Photo by Daniel Bock

 


Michael Richards in Miami Beach, 1999. | Photo by Keith Holmes, Courtesy of Carolyn Swiszcz

 


MICHAEL RICHARDS, Installation view of “Swing Lo’,” 1996 (steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, 50 x 52 x 64 inches). | Photo by Oriol Tarridas Photography

 


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). Shown, At left, “Swing Lo’,” 1996 (steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, 50 x 52 x 64 inches); At right, “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head),” 1994 (resin, mirrors, lights; Dimensions variable, About 6 x 6 feet square on the floor, about 10 feet high on the wall). | Photo by Oriol Tarridas Photography

 


MICHAEL RICHARDS, Detail of “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head),” 1994 (resin, mirrors, lights; Dimensions variable, About 6 x 6 feet square on the floor, about 10 feet high on the wall). | Photo by Oriol Tarridas Photography

 


Installation view of “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (April 21-Oct. 10, 2021). | Photo by Daniel Bock

 


MICHAEL RICHARDS, Detail of “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian,” 1999 (resin and steel, 90 x 36 x 24 inches). | Photo by Daniel Bock

 

FIND MORE At the end of each cycle of the LMCC World Views residency, the studios were opened to the public. With the studios destroyed on Sept. 11, the New Museum hosted “World Views: Open Studio Exhibition,” showcasing work by the 15 artists, including Michael Richards. The New York Times reviewed the show

FIND MORE Muhammad Ali’s famous 1968 Esquire cover, in which his torso is pierced with arrows, also references St. Sebastian

 

BOOKSHELF
“Passages: Contemporary Art in Transition” documents the Studio Museum in Harlem exhibition that was curated by Deirdre Scott and featured the work of Michael Richards.

 

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