The Michael Richards exhibition on Governors Island, curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, proves what an astonishing loss it was when the artist was killed on 9/11. Richards had spent the night in his World Views studio as part of his Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) residency; when a hijacked plane crashed into the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, it killed him. Rumors quickly swirled that he had foreshadowed his own death with the sculpture “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” (1999), for which he had used his own body as a model. Photos of the work showed a fleet of mini airplanes piercing a Tuskegee Airman’s body, the jets uncannily similar to the one that destroyed Richards’s own body in the disaster.
That sculpture is the moral ballast of the current retrospective — LMCC’s 2016 summer exhibition on Governors Island — but the rest of Richards’s oeuvre displays the makings of a major artist whose life was tragically cut short. It shows his almost psychic ability to pick up on the imminently arriving apocalypse, while delving into issues of race, exclusion, and identity. As he wrote in a poignant artist’s statement on view in the exhibition:
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.
After receiving his MA from New York University in 1991, Richards took part in the Whitney Independent Study Program and then landed a prestigious artist’s residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. His output was fervid, tackling representations of black men throughout different stages of American culture. “History: Meditating on the Middle Passage” (1990), an installation featuring three life-size boats that resemble either coffins or slave ships, demonstrated his ability to engage with weighty issues of the African diaspora early on. “Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation” (1991), a mixed-media film and audio installation, deals with the first full-length sound film of Al Jolson singing “Mammy.” It uses four silk-screened mirrors as a metaphor to delve into how the self is perceived by others.
Much of his oeuvre also centers on the experience of black subjectivity. In “Let Me Entertain You” (1993), Richards emulates the experience of living as a black person by using light boxes with “black” skin pinned to them. His work “A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo” (1994) consists of five plaster heads on pedestals with newspaper images of the police photo-transferred onto the surface of each bust. Though the work refers specifically to the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police in 1991, the images and issue are unfortunately still fresh and relevant.
Images of airplanes began appearing in Richards’s work as early as 1996 with “Escape Plane 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch),” which consists of five airplane sculptures wrapped in barbed wire, along with narratives from the Uncle Remus folklore that serve as metaphors for negotiating contemporary racial politics. In one of the stories, Brer Fox thinks he has gotten rid of rival Brer Rabbit by throwing him into a briar patch, but Brer Rabbit escapes, because he was born inside a briar patch and knows how to negotiate its difficulties. Richards uses this as an analogy for African American life, interweaving it with his own statement about planes: “Planes and other vehicles of escape are always caught in traps or crashed, abandoned signs of hope and promise.”
That same year he began exploring the conundrum of the simultaneous elevation and debasement of black men in “The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee).” The installation commemorates the brave Tuskegee Airmen — an all African American unit during World War II — with a plinth of their feet, but tempers the honor with a second sculpture of a nude torso. The latter refers to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments of 1932–72, in which the US Public Health Service used black men as human test subjects to see the route that syphilis would take as it progressed, purposefully untreated, through their bodies.
The work “[Untitled] Free F’All” (1997), created during a fellowship at Socrates Sculpture Park, shows the origin of Richards’s use of nails. It consists of the life-size body of a Tuskegee Airman perched atop a 16-foot-high pole, with only a bucket to capture his downward plummet. (The entire installation is not recreated on Governors Island; just the main sculptural figure is displayed.) The metal pieces hammered into the airman refer to the Kongo people’s nkisi nkondi, medicinal power figures whose spirits were activated by the nails and blades stuck into their bodies. Each nail, placed by the nganga, or keeper of community harmony, represented an invocation pertaining to a specific person; their power was defensive and used to protect members of a community. Perhaps Richards imagined himself symbolically safeguarding his larger African American community through his art.
One of the most disconcerting and portending images in the show is “A view of Heaven…after” (1990s), a colored pencil drawing of a flaming building whose smoke plumes hauntingly evoke those of the 9/11 attack. It’s paired with a drawing of floating parachutes resembling bull’s-eyes. Left to their own devices, these pieces might seem like daydreams, but in light of Richards’s death during the conflagration of the World Trade Center, they become downright prophetic.
The motifs of parachutes, bull’s-eyes, and airplanes return in “Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me)” (1998). The sculpture contains 50 miniature airplanes wrapped in hair. The planes twirl in a death spiral, falling from a cloud of hair on the ceiling towards a mirrored bull’s-eye on the floor. The title refers to a religious hymn celebrating the all-knowing gaze of the creator, even on something as inconsequential as a sparrow. Though the sculpture fits in with a certain style of work in the ’90s that championed using more organic materials like eggshells and bones, the somber implications of airplanes hitting a bull’s-eye are too chilling to overlook. Richards uses hair in this piece to question double standards of race; he stated in his writings that he felt people judged him for his nappy hair.
Before his untimely death, Richards was included in a roster of rising African American artists. His work was shown in the Aldrich Museum’s 1996 No Doubt: African-American Art of the 90’s and in the De Beyerd Center of Contemporary Art’s 1998 Postcards from Black America, which also featured Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Martin Puryear, Adrian Piper, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Kerry James Marshall. The Governors Island show exhibits pieces not seen for at least 15 years, and some of it never before in New York, as most of his art was stored in cardboard boxes at a cousin’s home after his death. It’s important that his brief life not be lost to history. Had he lived, Richards would have been a major force in the narrative of African American artists who came into their own during the 1990s.
Michael Richards: Winged continues at the Arts Center at Governors Island (Building 110) through September 25.
Corrections: An earlier version of this article included a number of biographical and material errors about Michael Richards and his works. We regret the mistakes. They have been fixed.