Artist (1963–2001)
9/11 Memorial (Former site of the World Trade Center)

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

A heartbreaking result of September 11 that hit particularly close to home for Lower Manhattan Cultural Council was the loss of the life of artist Michael Richards (1963–2001). On the morning of September 11, 2001, Richards was working in his LMCC World Views studio on the 92nd floor of World Trade Center Tower One when the plane struck, taking his life along with the thousands of others who passed in the tragic events of the day. Richards was raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and in his honor LMCC established the Michael Richards Fund to support emerging visual artists of Caribbean descent. The fund honored Nicolás Dumit Estévez, Dave McKenzie, and David Medina with one-time awards of $9,000 and provided a lasting legacy of the influence of Michael Richards’ life and work for the creative communities he called home. Today, LMCC gives an annual award to a promising emerging visual artist in Michael’s honor – The Michael Richards Award for Visual Arts.

Prior to his Lower Manhattan Cultural Council residency in 2001, Richards had participated in many of New York’s most esteemed artist-supporting programs: the Whitney Independent Study Program (1993–94); the Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program (1994–95); and the Studio Museum in Harlem Artist-in-Residence program (1995–96). At the time of his passing, Richards was an emerging artist whose incisive aesthetic —always provocative, at times playful, yet never without a critical bent— held immense promise to make him a leading figure in the field of contemporary art. Examples of Richards’ work are held in the collections of prominent institutions such as the Studio Museum in Harlem (Brer Plane in the Briar Patch, 1996) and the Brooklyn Museum (Tuskegee Airmen Series, 1997).

Michael Richards’ sculptures explored the tactile resonance of charged materials such as tar, feathers, mirrors, and hair. In addition to these culturally loaded signifiers, Richards often utilized bronze and fiberglass casts of his own body to reflect a personal meditation on cultural iconography and the human form. Richards riddled and pierced his self-cast sculptures with items ranging from nails to toy planes; a process that in part alluded to ritual objects such as nkisi nkondi sculptures of the African tradition. Richards spent over a decade working on his poignant Tuskegee Airmen series, inspired by World War II pilots based in Tuskegee, Alabama who were the first African-American pilots in United States military history.

In light of the devastating circumstances that took Richards’ life, the Tuskegee Airmen series and Richards’ practice as a whole takes on an uncanny and prophetic resonance. Richards’ Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, 1999, a gilded sculptural figure perforated by multiple planes whose title evokes the historic martyr Saint Sebastian, cannot be read without immediate associations of Richards’ passing on September 11. Richards poetically described the metaphors of aviation in his practice: “The idea of flight relates to my use of pilots and planes, but it also references… the idea of being lifted up, enraptured, or taken up to a safe place—to a better world.”*

Visitors can find Michael’s name on the panels edging the North Pool at the 9/11 Memorial. 

– Alex Fialho

 

*“A Conversation with Cathleen Lewis and Michael Richards,” Bronx, NY: Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1997.

 

Photo Credit:

Michael Richards with Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999
Resin and Steel
81 x 30 x 19 inches