MIAMI —  Incongruous and riveting, the golden-hued sculpture of a life-sized aviator pelted with toy airplanes commands immediate attention. Here, intimations of a child’s unusual game slide into an ominous realm. With its title, “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” (1999), Michael Richards’s sculpture melds a racist slur with  iconic imagery from art history, conjuring Roman arrows stabbing a Christian martyr. Presented within the context of his first museum retrospective, Are You Down? — now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami — the sculpture, as well as the rest of the works installed, conveys a shocking prescience. 

Michael Richards, “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” (1999), resin and steel, 90 x 36 x 24 inches; installed at Stanford Art Gallery (image courtesy the Michael Richards Estate; photo by by Henrik Kam)

At age 38, Richards perished in the 9/11 attack on Tower One of the World Trade Center, where he had been working in a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council studio. Prescience has invariably become a word used in discussions about the artist’s posthumous career.  For this particular work, Richards cast his own body, clothed as a Tuskegee Airman, to layer allusions to severe injustice and fatal sacrifice. Throughout the retrospective, the artist’s focus on issues of exclusion remains remarkably resonant in the context of long-standing inequities exposed by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Unspooling the trajectory of Richards’s career from 1990 to 2001, Are You Down? explores themes of flight, failure, spirituality, and systemic racism. In “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head)” (1994), stacked boxes supporting pairs of cast feet wed Minimalist forms to the body, evoking  aspirations often deferred for people of color.  Highlights include four recently conserved works never seen in public since Richards’s passing.

A sense of poetic justice prevails throughout the retrospective. Raised in Jamaica, Richards spent significant periods of his professional life in Miami during the 1990s, as well as New York. Exhibition curators Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin believe Richards’s largest solo show in his lifetime took place in 2000 at Ambrosino Gallery, then located across the street from MOCA, and it’s clear the artist would have surely become a major voice of his generation. Richards developed a close relationship with Miami’s art community and is fondly remembered by many who met him during his artist residency at ArtCenter/South Florida, now Oolite Arts.  From 1997 through 2000, he would spend three months each winter producing work in his studio there, including “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” and the titular “Are You Down?” (1999); the latter remains on permanent display at Minnesota’s Franconia Sculpture Park and in 2012, it was recast in bronze, fulfilling the artist’s vision. Here, MOCA displays the original sculpture, cast in resin, metal, and tar. 

Michael Richards in his Studio, Miami Beach, 1998 (image courtesy Carolyn Swiszcz)

“Are You Down?”comprises three identical figures cast from the artist’s own body, each dressed as Tuskegee Airmen. The downed, awkwardly posed pilots lack parachutes, appearing to sink into pools of tar.  “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,” Richards is quoted in a wall text. In fact, his visionary voice resonates throughout; wall texts provide 23 direct quotations. In each, Richards’s sentiments echo the nuances his titles gesture towards. “Are You Down?” conveys various meanings: a question about whether someone is oppressed or is “down” for making lasting change. The latter, as the curators insist, is “a question for all of us.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this review misspelled the surname of one of the exhibition curators. It is Melissa Levin, not Levine. We regret the error.

Michael Richards: Are You Down? continues through October 10 at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (770 NE 125th St, North Miami, FL 33161). The exhibition was curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin.

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Elisa Turner

Elisa Turner is an award-winning art critic and art journalist based in Miami. Her writing has appeared in ARTnews, Artburstmiami, Arte Al Dia, Biscayne Times, Delicious Line, Hamptons Art Hub,...