The Arts Center at Governors Island, Building 110
Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays through September 25
Admission: free, 12 noon – 5:00
It’s one of the most haunting and memorable works of contemporary art you’re ever likely to see. Michael Richards’s 1999 “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian,” on view weekends through September 25 in the powerful “Winged” retrospective at the LMCC Arts Center on Governors Island, is a life-size rendition of the artist, cast in resin and fiberglass, wearing a gold-painted Tuskegee Airman uniform. The sculpture is suspended a bit off the ground, on a steel shaft, showing Richards with his eyes closed, his hands just below his hips, palms open in a sign of both peace and acceptance of his fate, as a barrage of airplanes crash into him. Two years later Richards died on the morning of September 11, 2001, in his LMCC “World Views” studio on the ninety-second floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center. The title references the Christian saint and martyr who was tied up and lanced with arrows and the controversial character from the Uncle Remus stories that was involved in trapping and escaping, an ever-present battle for survival. It was originally feared that “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” was destroyed in the terrorist attacks, but it was later discovered in a cousin’s garage. Curators Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin have placed the breathtaking sculpture with its back to the east window, where One World Trade Center, built at Ground Zero to replace the Twin Towers, can be seen in the distance, across the river. It’s utterly unforgettable, especially with the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 taking place this weekend.
But “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” is only one of several stunning works by Richards in the one-room exhibition, the largest ever survey of the artist, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and was only thirty-eight when he was killed. “A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo,” cast in 1994, consists of five plaster busts, four on solid bases and featuring a newspaper image of white police officers in the midst of brutality, the sentence “When I was young I wanted to be a policeman” on the plinth, while in the center another bust spins around, a small image of Rodney King on his forehead. In 1998’s “Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me),” fifty black airplanes are heading down from a black cloud of hair, spiraling toward a mirrored bull’s-eye on the ground. Hair, which Richards associated with black identity and racist stereotypes, also plays a role in “The Great Black Airmen,” five pilot helmets in which kinky hair peeks out from straightened hair, and “Travel Kit,” in which seven fingers emerge from bronze hairbrushes. “Fly Away O’ Glory” comprises seven pairs of cast-bronze arms on the floor, each hand gripping a spinning feather in a desperate, unsuccessful attempt to fly.
Ephemera including photographs, letters, journal pages, exhibition catalogs and invitations, and testimonials from friends and colleagues paint Richards as both an extraordinary man and artist. “Michael was a poetic soul,” El Museo del Barrio executive director Jorge Daniel Veneciano says. “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.” Lowery Stokes Sims, former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, adds, “Like the legendary Icarus, artists dare to defy the limitations set by time and gravity. But even if they fall, they allow us to glimpse the possible so that we can soar there with them.” Given the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 and the current debate over the Black Lives Matter movement and systemic racism in general, this is just the right time to take another look at Richards’s awe-inspiring work. “In a lot of my work the metaphor of escape is a recurring one. It’s about societal escape. Trying to transcend the societal boundaries that we set up as an invisible trap around us,” he said in a 1997 interview. “The idea of flight relates to my use of pilots and planes, but it also references the black church, the idea of being lifted up, enraptured, or taken up to a safe place — to a better world.” It’s fascinating to wonder just what he’d be creating today were he still alive, commenting on the state of society in the second decade of the twenty-first century.